It's Their Country

Iraq's Insurgents: Who's Who

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By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Long considered a fragmentary and disorganized collection of groups with varying tactics and aims, Iraq's insurgency is showing signs of increasing coordination, consolidation and confidence, those who study it now say. There is no consensus on the precise number of insurgent fighters, but estimates range from a few thousand to more than 50,000. The vast majority of insurgents, probably more than 90 percent, are believed to be Iraqis from the Sunni minority group that largely ruled the country before the fall of Saddam Hussein. But U.S. commanders say that most of the deadliest attacks, and particularly suicide attacks, are committed by foreigners from a range of neighboring countries, including Jordan, Syrian, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan.

-- Jonathan Finer

Larger Groups

The formation of the Mujahidin Shura Council , announced on Jan. 21, was a sign of the once-diffuse insurgency's consolidation around the leadership of a few large, powerful groups. It brought together the foreign-backed network of al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and several smaller, Iraqi-led groups. The council's head was said to be an Iraqi, a move made to counter the image of al-Qaeda as dominated by Arabs from elsewhere in the region. This appointment may be little more than a public relations move. The group's tactics include attacks carried out with bombs, small arms and mortar against Iraqi and American soldiers, as well as, increasingly, Iraqi civilians, most of them Shiites. Two of its "brigades," or affiliates, (the bin Malik and the Al-Ansar) are devoted solely to suicide attacks. Another, the Omar Brigade, is said to target only members of the Badr organization, a feared Shiite militia.

Ansar al-Sunnah , which means "partisans of the law," is an offshoot of a group called Ansar al-Islam, which was formed in Kurdistan but has not been heard from in many months. The vast majority of its leaders and foot soldiers are Iraqi Sunnis who adhere to a strict, fundamentalist form of Islam called Salafism, which calls for a return to the practices of early Muslims and has gained radical expression throughout the Arab world. Their tactics -- including lethal suicide attacks -- and religious underpinnings are similar to those of al-Qaeda, but the two groups are considered bitter rivals for influence within the insurgent community. Among their best-known attacks was a roadside bomb blast that killed 14 Marines and an interpreter in August, the deadliest such attack of the war.

The stated goal of the Islamic Army in Iraq is to drive the U.S. military out of Iraq. Comprised almost entirely of Iraqi Sunnis, including many still loyal to Saddam Hussein's regime and Baath Party, it is considered more nationalistic than religious in motivation. As many as three-quarters of its attacks, which include improvised bombs and kidnappings but not suicide attacks, are conducted against U.S. forces and non-Iraqi contractors. It often releases video footage of its operations. The group publishes a monthly magazine called al-Fursan and has denied rumors circulating last summer that it was in discussions with Iraqi officials about laying down its weapons. Its members reportedly include a sniper named "Juba," who gained a cult following when he was said to have killed several American soldiers in Baghdad last summer and fall.

There is some discussion as to whether the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance , one of the most highly publicized insurgent organizations, is actually an armed group or something of a public relations organ for other groups. It maintains a frequently updated Web site and publishes a magazine called Jami, an acronym composed of its Arabic initials, which also mean "mosque" or "gathering." It has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in and around the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

Smaller groups

Mujahidin Army : A group that has released dozens of videos of bomb, rocket and sniper attacks, most of them directed against U.S. forces. Along with the Islamic Army in Iraq, it denied reports of rapprochement talks with the Iraqi government last year. It is one of a few smaller insurgent groups that called for attacks against Danish troops in the wake of the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad last fall.

Muhammad Army : A group made up mostly of Iraqi former Baathists and a few foreign fighters, it claimed credit for the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters that killed 23 people, including the organization's chief of mission.

1920 Revolution Brigades : This group, which has claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile kidnappings of Westerners and Iraqis working with U.S. forces, is named for the Iraqi uprising against the British after World War I. The group calls itself the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, another insurgent organization.

Conquering Army : A new group that has emerged in the past two months through a series of videos released on the Internet and to regional television networks showing kidnapping victims confessing to various "crimes" such as working with American forces.

Swords of the Righteous : A previously unknown group that gained prominence by claiming responsibility, in videos, for the kidnapping of four Christian Peacemaker workers, one of whom, Tom Fox of Virginia, was found dead March 10.

Iraqi Vengeance Brigades : A little-known group that has released videos showing American journalist Jill Carroll, who was abducted in Baghdad in early January.

SOURCES: SITE Institute, International Crisis Group, news reports


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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