Misreading The Enemy

By Juan Cole

01/14/07 "
Mercury News" -- -President Bush's escalation of the Iraq War is premised on a profound misunderstanding of who the enemies are, how to deal with them and what the limits are of U.S. power.

The president cannot seem to let go of his fixation on Al-Qaida, a minor actor in Iraq, and his determination to confront Iran and Syria. He still assumes that the insurgents are outsiders to their neighborhoods and that U.S. troops can chase away the miscreants and keep them out, acting as a sort of neighborhood watch in khaki. In fact, Iraq's Sunni Arab elite is playing the spoiler, and until a deal is negotiated with its members, no one will be allowed to enjoy the new Iraq.

Scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, who from the beginning spearheaded the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, express confidence that the United States, which has a $12 trillion economy, an army over a million strong, and a population of 300 million, can overwhelm Iraq. They point out that Iraq only has an economy of $100 billion, a population of 27 million, and a guerrilla movement of just tens of thousands. This comparison is deeply misleading, and it will get thousands of Americans killed.

Guerrilla movements can succeed against much wealthier, more populous and better-armed enemies, as happened in Algeria in the late 1950s through 1962 when the National Liberation Front expelled the French. The real question is not America's supposed superiority (which so far has not brought it victory) but what exactly the resources and tactics of the enemy are and whether they can be defeated. The answer to the second question is ``No.''

Who is the enemy in Iraq, exactly? In the first instance, it is some 50 major Sunni Arab guerrilla groups. These have names such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Army of Muhammad, and the Holy Warrior Council. Some are rooted in the Baath party, an Arab nationalist and socialist party that had ruled Iraq since 1968. Others have a base in city quarters or in rural clans. Some are made up of fundamentalist Muslims. One calls itself ``Al-Qaida'' but has no real links to Osama bin Laden and his organization, and has simply adopted the name. The Baathists and neo-Baathists, led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri (once a right-hand man of Saddam Hussein), are probably the most important and deadliest of these guerrilla groups.

These guerrilla cells are rooted in the Sunni Arab sector, some 20 percent of Iraq's population, which had enjoyed centuries of dominance in Iraq. From it came the high bureaucrats, the managers of companies, the officer corps, the people who know how to get things done. They know where some 200,000 remaining tons of hidden explosives are, secreted around the country by the former regime. They are for the most part unable to accept being ruled by what they see as a new government of Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords, or being occupied by the U.S. Army and Marines. These Iraqi Sunnis enjoy the support of millions of committed and sometimes wealthy co-religionists in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the oil kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

The Sunni Arab guerrilla cells have successfully pursued a spoiler strategy in Iraq. By engaging in assassinations, firefights and bombings, they have made it clear that if they are not happy in the new Iraq, no one is going to be. Did U.S. engineers repair electricity stations? The Sunni guerrillas sabotaged them. Did the new regime attempt to export petroleum from the northern city of Kirkuk through Turkey? The guerrillas hit the pipelines. Did the U.S. military attempt to plant 50 bases around the country? The cells targeted them for mortar attacks and roadside bombs, inflicting a steady and horrible attrition, leaving more than 25,000 GIs killed or wounded.

Focus on towns and cities

The Sunni guerrillas took over territory where they could, mainly concentrating on villages, towns and city quarters in the center, north and west of the country. At some points, cities like Al-Fallujah and much of Ar-Ramadi, Al-Hadithah, Samarra and Tikrit have been at least in part under their control. They have entire districts of Mosul and Baghdad. They have attempted to cut the capital off from fuel, and they steal and smuggle petroleum to support their war. In areas they only partly control, or in enemy areas, they set off bombs or send in death squads to make object lessons of opponents.

The guerrillas know they cannot fight the U.S. military head-on. But they do not need to. They know something that the Americans could not entirely understand. Iraq is a country of clans and tribes, of Hatfields and McCoys, of grudges and feuds. The clans are more important than religious identities such as Sunni or Shiite. They are more important than ethnicities such as Kurdish or Arab or Turkmen. All members of the clan are honor-bound to defend or avenge all the other members. They are bands not of brothers but of cousins.

The guerrillas mobilized these clans against the U.S. troops and against one another. Is a U.S. platoon traveling through a neighborhood of the Dulaim clan, where people are out shopping? They hit the convoy, and the panicked troops lay down fire around them. They kill members of the Dulaim clan. They are now defined as the American tribe, and they now have a feud with the Dulaim. Members of the Dulaim cannot hold their heads up high until they avenge the deaths of their cousins by killing Americans.

Unbelievable cruelty

The guerrillas also provoke clan feuds between adherents of the two major sects of Islam, the Sunni and the Shiite. They pursue this goal with unbelievable cruelty. They will blow up a big marriage party held by a Shiite clan, killing bride, groom and revelers. They know that Muslims try to bury the dead the same day, so there will be a funeral. They blow up the funeral, too. The Shiite clan knows who the Sunni clans are that support the insurgency.

The Shiites who have been attacked then join the radical Mahdi Army out of anger and fear, and send death squads at night to take revenge on the Sunni clan. If American troops step in to stop the Shiites from taking revenge, that produces a feud between the U.S. and the Shiite clans. The ordinary Sunnis under attack from the vengeful Shiite death squads turn for protection to the Sunni guerrillas. The deliberately provoked feuds have the effect of mobilizing the Sunni Arabs and garnering their support for the guerrillas.

The guerrillas have opened fronts against the Americans, against the police and army of the new government and against the Shiites. There is a third front, in Mosul and Kirkuk, against the Kurds. The guerrillas hit Kirkuk's oil pipelines, police, political party headquarters and ordinary Kurds in hopes of keeping the Kurdistan Regional Government from annexing oil-rich Kirkuk to itself.

U.S. soldiers cannot stop the Sunni Arab guerrilla cells from setting bombs or assassinating people. That is clear after nearly four years. And since they cannot stop them, they also are powerless to halt the growing number of intense clan and religious feuds. The United States cannot stop the sabotage that hurts petroleum exports in the north and stops electricity from being delivered for more than a few hours a day.

President Bush in his speech Wednesday imagined that guerrillas were coming into neighborhoods in Baghdad and in the cities of Al-Anbar province from the outside. He suggested that, as the solution to this problem, U.S. and Iraqi troops should clear them out and then hold the city quarters for some time, to stop them from coming back. But the guerrillas are not outsiders. They are the people of those city quarters, who keep guns in their closets and come out masked at night to engage in killing and sabotage.

Security comes first

Bush believes that $1 billion invested in a jobs program will generate employment that would make young men less likely to succumb to the blandishments of the guerrilla recruiters. But without security you cannot have a thriving economy of the sort that produces jobs, and any money you put into such a situation will just be frittered away. The guerrillas often make $300 a month, a very good salary in today's Iraq. There is little likelihood that Bush's jobs program will generate many jobs that will draw Iraqis away from their guerrilla groups and militias. For a lot of them, serving is a matter of neighborhood protection or ideological commitment. Not everything is about money.

Another reason that Bush's $1 billion for jobs is not that impressive is that Iran is offering Iraq $1 billion in aid as well. And guerrillas in the southern port of Basra are estimated to be stealing and smuggling $2 billion a year from the city's oil facilities. Add all that sort of thing up, and the United States is being outspent by a wide margin.

Since the Sunni Arab guerrillas cannot be defeated or stopped from provoking massive clan feuds that destabilize the country, there is only one way out of the quagmire. The United States and the Shiite government of Iraq must negotiate a mutually satisfactory settlement with the Sunni Arab guerrilla leaders. Those talks would be easier if the guerrillas would form a civil political party to act as their spokesman. They should be encouraged to do so. Their first and most urgent demand is that the United States set a timetable for withdrawal of its troops. The United States should take them up on their offer to talk once a timetable is announced.

Bush's commitment of more than 20,000 troops is intended to address only one of the guerrillas' tactics, taking and holding neighborhoods. At that, he is concentrating on only a small part of the Sunni Arab territories. The guerrillas do not need to hold such neighborhoods to continue to engage in sabotage and the provocation of artificial feuds.

As long as the Sunni Arabs of Iraq are so deeply unhappy, they will simply generate more guerrillas over time. Bush is depending on military tactics to win a war that can only be won by negotiation.

2007 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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