What Do the Insurgents Want?

Inspecting Roadside Car Bomb Attack Site
U.S. soldiers inspect the area where their military convoy was attacked by insurgents using a road side bomb on Baghdad road in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Friday Aug. 20, 2004. There are no reports of any casualties. The convoy was hauling generator equipment through Mosul to the south when it was attacked. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ibrahimi) (Mohammed Ibrahimi - AP)
By Hiwa Osman
Sunday, May 8, 2005


The 60-wheel trailer was carrying a giant power generator on the highway to Musayyib, 30-odd miles south of Baghdad, last week. Guarded by six cars carrying police and the Iraqi National Guard, the convoy was passing along the notorious Baghdad road near Lutifiyah, a hotbed of insurgent activity where many kidnappings and attacks on military and civilian cars take place.

A banner hung from the generator, like an amulet to ward off evil. Sprayed across it in big bold letters were the words: "To the Musayyib power plant. God is great. Long live the Mujaheddin."

The sign was an appeal to Iraq's insurgents, urging them not to attack the convoy and deprive the people of Musayyib of electricity. Whether it was thanks to the banner, to luck, or to the absence of insurgents on the road that day, the generator and the 28 security personnel made it safely to their destination.

Like the people in that convoy, Iraqis are wondering why the diverse people known by the shorthand phrase "insurgents" continue to attack and what they hope to achieve. In the week since a new cabinet was formed, about 250 Iraqis have been slaughtered in car bombings and other bloody attacks, a pace as relentless and heartless as any since the fall of Saddam Hussein more than two years ago. And while on the ground the attacks seem indiscriminate, there is a strategy behind them.

In fact, there's more than one. That's because the insurgents are actually several groups of people who might share tactics, but possess different motivations and long-term objectives. Thus the appeal on the side of the generator in transit might have had an effect with one group of the insurgency: those who were fired from their jobs in the military and other government institutions for being members of the Baath party but who don't really believe in Saddam Hussein's doddering old brand of Arab socialism. But two other important factions of the insurgency -- the die-hard Baathists and the pro-al Qaeda Islamist militants -- would not hesitate to attack what they would see as a perfect target: a giant generator, 12 policemen and 16 Iraqi national guardsmen. Promoting instability by disrupting public services and crippling the security apparatus of the new Iraq is the heart of their strategy.

Understanding the different strains of the insurgency is essential to fighting them. Two years after the war and three months after national elections that appeared to be a referendum in favor of peaceful politics, the violent insurgents remain an unyielding stumbling block in the path to a new Iraq. The country can never move ahead until this revolt is dealt with decisively.

The backbone of the insurgency appears to be an alliance between the die-hard Baathists and the network of terrorists mostly under the command of Abu Musab Zarqawi. It is a partnership of convenience; both groups are fighting the same battle, but for different reasons and with different goals.

The foot soldiers who make up the Baathist part of the alliance have a military background. They are former members of Saddam's army, where they served as low-ranking soldiers, or in the security and intelligence fields. They lost their jobs shortly after the war, when the coalition forces dissolved the army, security and intelligence apparatuses. They were also brainwashed by ideas of Arab nationalism and anti-Americanism during the Saddam years. Being sacked from their jobs only reinforced the conspiracy theories they had been led to believe and it strengthened their anti-Americanism.

Many of them would gladly go back to their jobs in order to have a better standard of living and avoid risking their lives to lob a mortar or fire a missile at a military or civilian target in return for $200, the going rate for such deeds. A former Iraqi army officer, who now works as a translator and is hiding from insurgents, told me that when Saddam was in power, the army trained security, intelligence and Baath party members in conventional urban warfare methods. So with the high unemployment rate, there is no shortage of men able to use hand-held missiles and automatic weapons to mount simple raids.

Directing these lower-level combatants are the former high-ranking army, security and intelligence officers of the Baathist regime, who lost all the privileges and power they enjoyed under Saddam. They have managed to reassemble some of their old spy networks, recruiting former employees to gather intelligence and paying those willing to carry out assassinations and attacks on military and civilian targets.

Their ability to instill fear is evident. A Baghdad resident who visited Ghazi Yawar, then interim president, in the Green Zone told me that when Yawar's bodyguards picked him up they told him to put his head down as they were entering the U.S. and Iraqi government compound. "They said that I better not be noticed by the terrorists," he said. The bodyguards said the insurgents "would kill me on my way out if they recognized me."

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