The time when the Iraqi insurgency was classified as a small group of Baathist "dead-enders" is long past. In the 21/2 years since conventional fighting ended and the insurgency began, we have learned quite a lot about the nature of this complex and multifaceted grouping of Iraqis and foreigners who are opposing the U.S.-led intervention. The diverse nature of the insurgency has been its strength, but it may also be its ultimate weakness. The recent election has highlighted the fissures among the various components of the insurgent movement. Most informed observers now believe that exploiting those gaps is the key to bringing the insurgency under control.
Americans and their allies in the current U.S. government will portray the election as a victory for the nascent democratic movement. Most Iraqis, on the other hand, probably see it as giving democracy one last chance. This raises the question of how the various elements of the insurgency view the election and how they may revise their strategies to adjust to the post-election period. There is no doubt that the various components of the opposition will see it quite differently.
The Sunni nationalists and their religious allies who have made up the rank and file of the insurgency appear to be taking a "wait and see" attitude. The last-minute concessions by the Shiites and Kurds may have given some hope for inclusion to the midlevel members of the Baath Party who made up much of the professional class in Iraq and have been excluded from governance. If they see a real chance to get back into the mainstream, many will probably take it. This would deprive the insurgent movement of much of its lifeblood. But if Shiite and Kurd pre-election promises prove to be hollow, this group will likely return to resistance activities with a vengeance. This is the real swing group of the insurgency.
The foreign fighters who have made up the shock troops of the insurgency can only view the election with alarm. They are already under fire from both the insurgent mainstream and the senior al Qaeda leadership for their excesses. Although to Americans they are indistinguishable from native Iraqis, the Sunni population that is hiding them knows who they are. Without the Sunni "sea" in which to swim, they are at risk. Their lack of a positive agenda and their promise of perpetual war is a virtual guarantee that they are wearing out their welcome. Their best hope is for the Shiites to renege on pre-election promises and leave the Sunnis with no hope other than violence.
This brings us to the small, tightly knit group of hard-core Baathist holdouts who have provided much of the brains and funding for the insurgency. If they lose the foot soldiers who make up the majority of the scouts, informants and bomb planters, as well as the foreign fighters who provide the bulk of the suicide bombers, they will have to do their own dirty work. Most are older, and many are overweight. The prospect of actually fighting and putting their lives on the line never motivated them much when they were in power. There is no reason to think things have changed. To be sure, there is always the criminal element to do dirty work, but it is only good as long as the money lasts. The Baathists will undoubtedly play up future Shiite-led failures of governance and exacerbate this with renewed sabotage of the infrastructure and economy in an effort to discredit the democratic process.
Finally, we have the Shiite element of the anti-coalition opposition, led by Moqtada Sadr. Despite a temporary alliance with the Shiite parties that currently control the Iraqi government, Sadr can be expected to continue to create a niche for himself. We can expect to see him use his Mahdi Army to protect Shiites in neighborhoods where the government and coalition forces don't appear to be doing so. He was smart enough not to overtly oppose the elections, and he is likely to take his revenge by exploiting governmental inadequacy.
Only one thing is certain: The government needs to get its act together. This election was a reprieve, not a victory. It must be more inclusive of the Sunnis, improve the security situation and provide improved public services. The alternative to success is civil war.
The writer is a retired Marine Corps officer who has advised the Defense Department on the Iraqi insurgency.