Know Thy Enemies

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi
Weekly Standard Online
May 11, 2007

Who are we fighting, and who is supporting them?

SOMETIMES WHAT WE DON’T KNOW can indeed hurt us. This was the case in 2006, when reporters noticed significant fighting between Iraqi insurgent factions. This confused journalists and government analysts, but the prevailing attitude was that if the insurgents were fighting each other, at least they weren’t fighting us.

It turned out that the group that bore the brunt of this violence would later develop into the Anbar Salvation Front, which has proved to be one of our most important local allies in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was trying to wipe out this fledgling movement. If analysts better understood that situation, timely U.S. intervention could have thwarted Zarqawi and allowed the Anbar Salvation Front to make a difference on the ground sooner.

Similarly, today a critically important debate is raging about whether the United States should set a timeframe for troop withdrawal. While most people seemingly have an opinion on the matter, it’s difficult to figure out whether the situation is truly futile without understanding the various factions that we’re fighting.

Understanding the Iraqi insurgency is less difficult than most people imagine. A report that the International Crisis Group published last year concludes that the insurgency is “no longer a scattered, erratic, chaotic phenomenon,” but that insurgent groups “are well organized, produce regular publications, react rapidly to political developments and appear surprisingly centralized.” This article’s goal is to paint an accurate picture of the insurgency as it exists today. The insurgency may look different six months or a year from now, but this is a critical time for understanding our foes, as the withdrawal debate reaches a fever pitch.

IN 2004 AND 2005, BAATHIST AND SUNNI nationalist insurgent groups comprised the bulk of the resistance movement in Iraq. These groups weren’t necessarily waging a sectarian war, nor did they espouse a particularly radical religious creed. By late 2005, a number of secular and nationalist groups had decided to join the political process–which is traditionally how insurgencies are ended. Some Sunni insurgent groups even provided voters with protection against AQI during the December 2005 constitutional referendum. Alarmed, Zarqawi ordered the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra. Askariya’s importance to the Shia community was underscored by Iraqi vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, who likened the mosque attack to 9/11.

This single bombing dramatically reshaped the entire insurgency. Shia reprisals were swift, devastating, and largely indiscriminate. These mass sectarian killings shattered the Baathist and nationalist insurgent factions. For rank-and-file Sunni insurgents, witnessing bloody attacks orchestrated by Shias made al Qaeda’s sectarian arguments seem sensible for the first time. Today, the violence caused by the remaining nationalist groups is negligible compared to that caused by AQI: intelligence sources confirm that AQI and its ideological compatriot Ansar al-Sunnah are responsible for the vast majority of violence on the Sunni side. The most significant nationalist faction is the Islamic Army of Iraq–although even that ex-Baathist group now purports to have embraced a radical Islamic ideology.

As the nationalist movement began to splinter after the Askariya bombing, Zarqawi’s group consolidated power. The first step was bolstering the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an umbrella organizations of Sunni insurgent groups that was formed shortly before the mosque bombing.

The MSC serves multiple purposes. Initially, its creation was Zarqawi’s response to the orders of two senior al Qaeda leaders. Zarqawi was brutal and divisive, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, warned him in a summer 2005 letter that “if the mujahideen are scattered, this leads to the scattering of the people around them.” Another 2005 letter, which counterterrorism officials believe was written by senior al Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, instructed Zarqawi: “You should consult with your mujahidin brothers who are with you in Iraq itself, such as our brothers Ansar al-Sunnah and others.” In this manner, the MSC has helped to heal schisms between various Sunni insurgent factions. Moreover, by unifying these factions, the MSC has helped to consolidate their efforts against coalition forces.

After Zarqawi’s death, the Egyptian-born Abu Ayyub al-Masri assumed the leadership of AQI. Under his guidance, AQI’s roster has become dominated by Iraqis, as it has incorporated former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime who served in the intelligence services and the Republican Guard. Al-Masri has claimed that AQI has 12,000 men in arms and another 10,000 in training; military intelligence sources believe these figures are credible.

While AQI has become a more potent force under al-Masri, it is also experiencing increased resistance from fellow Sunnis. The above-mentioned Anbar Salvation Front, which formed in the traditional al Qaeda stronghold of Anbar province, has proven to be a real thorn in AQI’s side. Recently it has provided some stability on the ground in Anbar through the creation of emergency response units that serve a policing function; developed an intelligence network that gives U.S. forces unprecedented access to information about insurgent activities; and has begun to mount a theological challenge to the clerics supporting AQI’s jihad.

As Sunni challenges to AQI’s dominance gained steam in late 2006, the MSC announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq. After the Islamic State of Iraq was established, al-Masri pledged his loyalty to its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. AQI had previously been seen as a group led by foreign-born jihadists, so an Iraqi’s appointment to head the Islamic State of Iraq suggests that AQI is trying to adopt an Iraqi face.

The Islamic State of Iraq is now the new umbrella organization for the Sunni insurgency. Some factions that have joined the Islamic State of Iraq have done so because of al-Masri’s policy of reaching out to Sunni tribes. Zarqawi believed tribes themselves to be un-Islamic, but al-Masri is a more pragmatic leader. The Islamic State of Iraq now publishes its own declarations, and has assumed responsibility for a great deal of the violence in Iraq, including the spike in helicopter attacks that kicked off 2007.

Because of AQI’s increased effectiveness through such mechanisms as the MSC and the Islamic State of Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus recently identified the group as the most important adversary we face on the Sunni side of the insurgency.

ONE SIGNIFICANT GROUP INCORPORATED by the Islamic State of Iraq is Ansar al-Sunnah. Ansar al-Sunnah grew out of Ansar al-Islam, which was Iraq’s original al Qaeda outfit, operating in the Kurdish areas even prior to the U.S. invasion. Michael Rubin notes that Ansar al-Sunnah incorporated not only Ansar al-Islam, but also “foreign al-Qaeda terrorists, and newly mobilized Iraqi Sunnis.” As the group transformed from Ansar al-Islam into Ansar al-Sunnah, it morphed from being predominantly Kurdish to predominantly Sunni Arab.

Among Ansar al-Sunnah’s notable attacks are a car bombing outside the Turkish embassy in October 2003, a car bombing outside a U.S. military installation in Ramadi in December 2003, parallel suicide bombings in Erbil on February 1, 2004, and the murders of countless Iraqi citizens and coalition forces.

Ansar al-Sunnah originally declined to join with AQI due to disputes with Zarqawi, and tensions between the two groups continue to this day. For example, a January 2007 letter from Ansar al-Sunnah to al-Masri demanded retribution for the killing of Ansar members by AQI fighters–a request to which al-Masri declined to respond. Nonetheless, Ansar al-Sunnah’s merger with the Islamic State of Iraq benefits both. Ansar now has a vehicle for extending its influence beyond northern Iraq, while the Islamic State of Iraq has enlisted a formidable ally.

Because Ansar al-Sunnah shares with AQI an adherence to global jihadist ideology, informed intelligence sources believe it will be difficult to draw the group into Iraq’s political process.

THE SUNNI INSURGENCY IS ONLY PART of what U.S. forces have to contend with. The Mahdi Army is the militia of Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and by extension the militia of the Sadrist Movement–a faction that predates Moqtada al-Sadr, and that will be a force in Iraqi life for some time to come. The Mahdi Army’s rank and file are largely young, desperate men who have seen no benefits from liberation. A recent Pentagon report declared the Mahdi Army “the most dangerous accelerant” of sectarian violence in Iraq.

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