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Iraqi resistance downplayed by US government propaganda

Insurgents are domestic, Sunni and nationalist

By the time this weekend's elections pass, US-led forces will have been fighting against Iraqi insurgents for almost two years.

In that time, the American assessment of exactly whom they are fighting has remained remarkably consistent: a band of about 8,000 guerrillas, primarily Sunni remnants of the old Ba'athist regime who have found common cause with foreign terrorists, several hundred of whom are actively fighting inside Iraq.

But counterinsurgency experts, Pentagon consultants, and even Iraqi intelligence officials question the extent to which US intelligence understands the elements making up the enemy.

“I think the military has a fundamental problem right now in Iraq: I don't think it's got it,” says Brian McAllister Linn, a historian of American pacification efforts. Part of the problem facing the Americans is the difficulty in developing sources in an insurgency that bridges wide cultural and national gulfs. One former special forces officer who recently returned from Iraq, where he worked with senior US commanders on counterinsurgency efforts, said the problem was exacerbated by a lack of trained analysts and linguists to interpret information acquired by US forces.

Some Iraqi officials have gone as far as to dispute even the estimates made by US officials of the number of insurgents. Maj Gen Muhammed Abdallah al-Shahwani, the head of Iraq's new intelligence service, recently told a London-based Arabic newspaper that he believed the insurgents totalled 20,000 to 30,000 and were aided by about 200,000 sympathetic Sunnis in central Iraq. US officials have dismissed the figure, although General George Casey, commander of all forces in Iraq, noted this week that 15,000 insurgents had been killed or captured thus far.

“I can't take the metrics that I'm privileged to and work my way to a number in [al-Shahwani's] range,” said General Thomas Metz, commander of all ground forces in Iraq. “At the 8,000 or 10,000 level, it's certainly a lot more [accurate] to me.” Despite the differences, a survey of recent studies and public statements by military experts, Iraqi officials, and American officers shows agreement on the outline of the insurgent movement. The most important point of agreement is that, although foreign fighters allied with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi continue to gain the most attention, the insurgency remains overwhelmingly domestic, Sunni and nationalist.

A recent study of the insurgency by Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official, found that an “overwhelming majority” of insurgents captured or killed by allied forces had been Iraqi Sunnis. Even during the November assault on Falluja, reputedly the operating base for foreign fighters inside Iraq, only 72 non-Iraqis were captured by US forces, although senior officers insist many more were killed during the attack.

“I would tell you that a large portion of them did not make it out of the town,” says General John Sattler, commander of US marines in Iraq. “It's just hard to tell a foreign fighter; it's hard to tell a terrorist who came from outside because they don't carry any documentation. They've completely stripped themselves of any identification.” Mr Cordesman's study argues that less than 10 per cent and probably only around 5 per cent of the insurgency is made up of foreign volunteers, and numbers Mr Zarqawi's organisation at less than 1,000 full and part-time men. The estimate is supported by Iraqi intelligence, which is largely dismissive of the role played by foreign nationals.

If there is agreement on the relatively small size of the foreign element, there is less agreement on the make-up of the Sunni insurgency. “There are hard-core terrorists that are fighting for an ideology,” said Gen Metz. “There are, on the other end of the spectrum, young impoverished men that need to make some money, and so they periodically join to feed their family. So it would change by province, and it would change by time of the year, it changes by the illumination of the moon, it changes by the weather.”

Among the less understood areas is the role of what US officials call “former regime loyalists” in the fight. Mr Cordesman argues that while secular Sunni nationalists including perhaps some members of the old Ba'ath party are at senior levels in the resistance, their ties to the old regime are questionable.

“These Ba'ath groups are not generally ‘former regime loyalists', but rather Sunni nationalists involved in a struggle for current power,” he argued. “This has allowed them to broaden their base and establish ties to Islamic groups as well.”

Iraqi officials, however, have said they believe the guerrillas are using part of the old Ba'ath party organisation to run the insurgency. Mr al-Shahwani says former Ba'athists who remain at large have split into at least three wings, but that the strongest one is the former regime's people, who have huge financial resources.

Among those, he says, are Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Mr Hussein's former deputy; Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad, a former Hussein loyalist in the Ba'ath party; and Sabawi al-Hasan, Mr Hussein's half brother.

Both Iraqi intelligence and US officials believe these senior insurgency leaders are travelling in and out of Iraq through Syria. “We have fairly good information that there are senior former Ba'athists, members of what they call the New Regional Command, operating out of Syria with impunity and providing direction and financing for the insurgency in Iraq,” says General Casey.


Financial Times, "Insurgents are domestic, Sunni and nationalist", 28 January 2005.

"The Insider" mailing list article, 31 January 2005.

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Tags: Iraq, insurgents, resistance, foreign, terrorists, Iraqi, fighters, , conspiracy theories.

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