Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Some thoughts on the terrorist strategy of the Iraqi 'insurgency' (Normblog)

Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog)
March 15, 2005

by Jeff Weintraub

One long-term trend in the operations of the Sunni Arab 'insurgency' in Iraq, which was clear even before the January 30 election but now seems to be accelerating, is that the targets of its attacks are overwhelmingly Iraqi Shiite Arabs - not just political figures, government workers, policemen, members of the Iraqi National Guard, people accused of working with the Americans, doctors, and other educated professionals, but also Shiite religious leaders, pilgrims, funeral processions, and random ordinary civilians. (This recent report conveys the general picture.) In a single attack last week, a suicide bomber killed 47 people and wounded many more attending a funeral at a Shiite mosque in Mosul.

The only plausible logic behind this campaign of increasingly indiscriminate terrorism against Iraqi Shiites is to provoke an all-out Sunni-Shiite civil war (as opposed to the mostly one-sided civil war currently under way). Here and elsewhere, the central political purpose of this kind of mass terrorism is to produce a self-reinforcing dynamic of polarization, both directly and by provoking indiscriminate reprisals from the groups under attack. Nor is this merely an outsider's interpretation; many Iraqis quite explicitly describe this as the goal of the ongoing terrorist offensive. That would render the country ungovernable - and, as a bonus, would also prevent any possible political accommodation between potentially moderate tendencies in the Sunni Arab leadership and the main Shiite and Kurdish parties.

The major reason this has not yet happened is that the mainstream Shiite religious and political leadership are determined to prevent it from happening. They have refused to respond violently to these provocations and have made very strenuous efforts to prevent widespread Shiite retaliation against Sunni Arabs - with surprising success. Maintaining this disciplined self-restraint has been an impressive achievement and a promising sign of their long-term political intentions, but the current situation can't go on indefinitely (as suggested, for example, by this report to which Norman Geras has drawn my attention).

As some analysts have pointed out, the Iraqi Shiite leadership has also tended to pin the blame for these attacks on foreign jihadists ('Wahhabis') rather than on Iraqis. This is probably intended not only to prevent reprisals against Iraqi Sunni Arabs but, in addition, to hold open the possibilities for political accommodation with 'moderate' elements within the Sunni Arab elites. Again, this is potentially encouraging, and so are recent signs that some elements in the Sunni Arab religious leadership are getting worried about where all this might be leading. (Whether or not they are worried enough to do something constructive remains to be seen.)

However, the Sunni Arab "insurgents" appear determined to push the Shiites over the edge. One interesting feature of the latest suicide bombing in Mosul is that the Shiite cleric whose funeral provided the occasion for this atrocity was not associated with the mainstream Shiite religious leadership, but instead was a local representative of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers have staged several insurrections against the Americans and who has been locked in an ongoing power struggle with the mainstream Shiite leadership. This aspect of the attack further underlines the indiscriminate character of the terrorist campaign against Shiite civilians. The insurgents are clearly not worried about the danger of uniting all the different wings of the Iraqi Shiite community against them.

Why not? Presumably, the insurgents believe they could win an all-out civil war, even though their base of popular support amounts to less than 20% of the population. This is not inherently implausible, since Sunni Arabs controlled the bulk of the officer corps, the secret-police services, and the Ba'ath Party apparatus during the previous regime, which gives the insurgents important resources of organization and expertise. They are probably also counting on moral and material support from the larger Arab world, which is overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated and extremely unhappy about the idea of an Iraqi government dominated by Shiites and Kurds, and which - unlike Iraqis - overwhelmingly opposed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime.

If the "insurgents" are able to panic the US into a precipitate military withdrawal, it's not impossible that this strategy could be successful (at least in Arab Iraq - I suspect Iraqi Kurdistan is another matter). As one informed analyst put it to me when I shared some of my thoughts on this matter, the insurgents figure that if they make it impossible for the Americans to stay, 'they can then take care of the Shiites,' beginning by wiping out the Shiite religious and political leadership. On the other hand, one result of this increasingly all-out assault on Shiite Arabs appears to be that they are less and less inclined to want any rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq - but the insurgents may not think this factor will be significant in the long term.

But even from the most unsentimentally 'realist' point of view, this whole strategy strikes me as a very dangerous all-or-nothing gamble from the perspective of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq. It's unlikely that this worries the more hard-core Ba'athist and jihadist elements in the insurgency (especially the foreign jihadists, who appear to be carrying out most of the spectacular suicide bombings). But by now it must have occurred to some of the more pragmatic (non-fascist and non-jihadist) elements among the Sunni Arab elites that this strategy could potentially lead them and their whole community into catastrophe. If it hasn't occurred to them, they had better wake up and do something about it (and hope that they are not murdered by the hard-liners in the process).

A split within the Sunni Arab leadership along these lines, which would be desirable but is by no means inevitable, could probably be encouraged by a willingness and ability on the part of the Shiite Arab and Kurdish leadership to address some of the concerns of the Sunni minority. (I mean some of their reasonable and legitimate concerns, not wildly unrealistic demands for the immediate departure of US troops, a total halt to de-Ba'athification, and the like). So far, they have signalled their willingness to do so, and it remains to be seen how well they can follow through. And the opposite is also true - signs of a realistic willingness for political accommodation on the part of Sunni Arab elites could increase the willingness of political forces representing the other 80-85% of Iraqis to offer them some sort of acceptable 'historic compromise'. In an optimistic scenario, these two tendencies could be mutually reinforcing. But both of these possibilities remain very problematic. And as I noted earlier, it's safe to assume that a major aim of the ongoing insurgent campaign of assassinations and mass terrorism is precisely to render any such accommodation impossible.

Nevertheless, at this point it still seems quite possible that this strategy of using mass terrorism against Shiite civilians to provoke all-out civil war in Iraq will actually fail, unless the US troops are withdrawn prematurely - something else that the mainstream Shiite leadership will probably do everything it can to prevent. But whether it succeeds or fails, it is certainly appalling. Non-Iraqis who support the insurgency and describe it as a legitimate national 'resistance' should ask themselves whether they really favour mass murder of civilians carried out in order to restore fascist dictatorship (or an Islamist replacement) and rule by the traditionally dominant ethnic minority.

(Jeff Weintraub)

Posted by Norm at 02:46 PM Permalink