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The Insurgents' Power Play

By Gary Anderson
Thursday, June 2, 2005

The adaptive Iraqi insurgency is running out of tricks, and like a cornered rat it is fighting back furiously. The recent spate of suicide bombings against Shiite civilians and the security services has many commentators wringing their hands and wondering what is going wrong. In reality, the question may be: What is going right?

Without a doubt, the insurgency has gotten a breather from the interim Iraqi government's slow start. It is also obvious that the leadership of the most active arm of the insurgency is primarily in the hands of foreign insurgents. The operational goal is to disrupt and demoralize the security services and to incite a sectarian civil war of revenge. This is not working.

The real danger is not that the insurgents will keep doing what they are doing; it is that they will change tactics. The insurgency in Iraq is shifting from being a fairly popular resistance against foreign occupation to a more classic brand that attempts to overthrow a struggling government. To put it another way, the root of the insurgency is drifting away, and the rebels need a new cause.

That cause is likely to be electricity, or more specifically, the lack of it. With the brutal Iraqi summer approaching, the ability to provide power, notably air conditioning, may be the report card on which the people grade their fledgling Shiite-led democracy. Disrupting power will likely be the new objective of the Baathist arm of the insurgency, and the way the government deals with it may be key to its survival.

The U.S. military leadership in Iraq recently conceded that the center of gravity of the insurgency has shifted away from the Baathist holdouts and toward the foreign fighters. Many Sunni Baathists appear to be biding their time to see whether the new government will include them. If things don't go their way in the political arena, electricity may well be the target of a renewed offensive on their part.

The good news is that this could be the point where the insurgency splinters. Where the goal of the Baathist insurgents is discrediting the government in hopes of regaining some measure of power, the goal of the foreign insurgents is chaos and all-out civil war. In the long run that might help the government defeat it in detail, but it will be little comfort in the short run if the government is deemed to be incompetent. That is why it is imp erative that the Iraqis and their coalition allies focus their efforts this summer on protecting the existing electric power grid and expanding it. There are various ways this can be done.

First, as Americans shift the primary responsibility of controlling the streets to the growing Iraqi security forces, they should concentrate on protecting power-generating stations and patrolling the power lines between cities. This will make Americans a less visible irritant to the population and help provide protection against insurgent sabotage. They could also help by tying up several large warships in the southern port of Basra and generating surge power in the summer months.

For its part, the Iraqi government needs to launch a massive public information campaign equivalent to the successful "get out the vote" campaign designed to convince the population that electricity is a people's problem, not just a government responsibility. Iraqis need to understand that providing information regarding sabotage, and perhaps even forming neighborhood electricity watch committees, could go a long way toward reducing the threat. There should be a stick here as well. As reported in The Post ["Power Grid in Iraq Far From Fixed," front page, May 1], many Iraqi power officials have simply failed to step up to the plate in doing their jobs. Rooting them out and publicly disciplining the incompetent and the unwilling should be part of the public policy media blitz.

This should be accompanied by a concerted effort on the part of the Iraqi government to split the insurgency and play off the differences in goals between the secular Baathist holdouts, whose primary complaint is their exclusion, from the foreign insurgents, whose religious motivations are at odds with secular Sunnis as well as Shiites and Kurds of all persuasions. The Arab foreign fighter should be portrayed as a disruptive foreign influence.

To many Americans, particularly those in the Northeast who see air conditioning as a luxury, a war over air conditioning seems strange. No one who has spent any time in Baghdad or Basra in July or August could possibly feel this way. Electricity is a big deal in Iraq, and it may be critical to the survival or fall of democracy there.

The writer is a retired Marine Corps officer who has advised the Defense Department on the Iraqi insurgency.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company