Posted by: sean | March 2, 2007

On the Iraqi insurgency

Salon has an interview with Evan Kohlmann of Global Terror Alert, who has compiled “a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué — video, audio, Internet, printed — issued by insurgent groups in Iraq.”

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say “insurgency.” You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it’s directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone — the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it’s about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they’re 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn’t. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida’s Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There’s a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, “We’re not working with the government, we’re with you guys, so don’t issue these kinds of accusations.” So there’s a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn’t in Iraq?

There wouldn’t be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn’t there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: “Invade Iraq, invade Iraq.” This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they’ve done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren’t a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that’s the main reason we’re going after them. It’s also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, “How come there’s no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago.” They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., “If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we’re going to take matters into our own hands.” And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They’re saying, “You can’t protect us from al-Qaida’s suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can’t trust anyone but your own people.” It’s an arms race. It just builds up and up.

While Kohlmann provides some good information about the makeup of the insurgency and the relationship between al-Qaida and the nationalist insurgents, he falls short on advice for future action.

While on the one hand, he cautions that the withdrawal of US forces could cause the violence to escalate, his only advice for a “solution” is this: “I know it’s easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all.”

But that, I’m afraid, is no solution at all.

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