Understanding Iraq's resistance

With increased bombing of soft targets and daily killings of US troops, the Bush administration characterizes the Iraqi armed resistance as a terrorist phenomenon. Although this has emerged as a major obstacle to reconstruction in Iraq, the reality is too much more complex and dangerous to simply broad-brush it all as "terrorism."

Armed resistance in Iraq represents a broad spectrum of political and ideological forces that need to be understood individually before they swell, coalesce, and become a major threat. The perception in Washington that attacks against US forces and other targets are conducted mainly by hardened elements of the old Saddam Hussein regime - along with Ansar al-Islam, a small fundamentalist Kurdish group with no proven ties to Hussein - is dangerously myopic.

Though elements of the Hussein regime predominate, other important groups - whose interests converge with those of the old regime - play vital roles. Secular Baathists, indigenous Iraqi fundamentalists, Arab Islamists, and dissatisfied Iraqis all resist the US occupation.

Sunni Salafits, indigenous Iraqi Islamic fundamentalists who have received little public attention, appear to be heading the fight, along with secular Sunni Baathists. Even though they haven't articulated any ideological blueprint to accompany their jihadislogans, they're religiously motivated and determined to establish an Islamic state.

Various Arab press reports estimate the Salafit resistance numbers to be in the hundreds, but their ranks are likely to swell with new recruits if their tactics become even more organized and effective. The escalation of violence in the past two weeks alone suggests that the resistance has become bolder and deadlier. It is only a matter of time before Sunni Salafits (who represent a small segment of the Iraqi population) link with their more-sophisticated Arab counterparts, who are more militant and global in orientation. Hundreds of these jihadi fighters from various Arab countries entered Iraq immediately before and during the US-led war, and others are still slipping into the country through Iraq's porous borders. Although some, if not most, of these fighters sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot all be lumped together as President Bush has done, calling them "Al Qaeda-type fighters."

Islamist websites and Internet chat rooms suggest that Iraq has emerged as a powerful recruiting tool for Islamist militancy. Before the war, I and others who study the region warned that Iraq could become a symbol of Islamist resistance similar to that of Afghanistan during the Soviet incursion in the 1980s. Our predictions, unfortunately, seem to be on target.

Islamists - those fighters who have been waging global jihad since the 1980s to establish Islamic-ruled states - tend to be highly disciplined and socialized into a culture of martyrdom. Some of the armed tactics used in Iraq - suicide and car bombings - are vintage jihadi tactics tested in southern Lebanon, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Iraq appears to be replacing Afghanistan and Bosnia as a magnet for jihadirecruits from various Arab countries to confront the forces of "unbelief." These Islamists share a specific goal: the expulsion of US forces from Iraq, even at the cost of creating chaos.

Furthermore, individuals and groups dissatisfied with the US occupation, though not supportive of the old regime nor affiliated with Islamists, are also launching revenge attacks.

Many Iraqis I've spoken to also suggest that dismantling the 350,000-man Iraqi Army has embittered large blocs of well-trained soldiers - now unemployed - and provided them with an incentive for undermining the American project. Increasing numbers of Iraqis dissatisfied with the current order could ultimately tip the balance of the various powers against the US presence.

The good news is that attacks in Iraq don't seem to be centrally coordinated. The bad news is that the attackers are becoming bolder, improving their deadly methods. Bombings of the Jordanian Embassy, the UN headquarters, and Shiite targets are cases in point.

So far the armed resistance is limited to the "Sunni triangle" - Hussein's former stronghold around Baghdad - although recent attacks on Shiite clerics in the south could unleash upheaval in this community. Shiites, who represent more than 60 percent of the population and were those most abused by Hussein, largely give the US the benefit of the doubt and haven't joined the resistance.

Leading Shiite clerics - both secular and religious - have rejected calls for confrontation by Hussein and younger Shiite clerics. But worrisome signs within this majority community indicate rising restiveness and anger among the Shiites. Particularly alarming is the car bombing in Najaf last month that killed one of the country's most senior Shiite leaders, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim. It could sow seeds of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. The US can't afford to alienate this community further.

Defining everything broadly as a "terrorist" threat won't resolve the underlying problem in Iraq - which is the lack of legitimacy of the US military presence in the eyes of Iraqis. Nor will it prepare the American public for a prolonged and costly struggle in Iraq.

Three steps are needed to legitimize political reconstruction and retrieve the Iraqi project. First, Iraq must be fully internationalized and the world community must be brought in as a real partner to shoulder the burden of reconstruction. Internationalizing the Iraqi project will convince Iraqis that the US is not there to stay and will weaken and delegitimize the armed resistance in the eyes of Iraqis.

Second, the challenge facing the US is how to reduce US military presence in Iraqi towns and cities while providing security for citizens. This balancing act requires the resources and training necessary to put more Iraqi policemen on the streets, along with multinational forces.

Finally, US authorities must expedite the process of transferring power to Iraqis. The sooner Iraqis choose their representatives, the quicker armed resistance will disappear because it can no longer claim legitimacy for its attacks, and politically enfranchised Iraqis would turn against the militants.

Fawaz A. Gerges is professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y. and author of the forthcoming 'The Islamists and the West.' This article is based on research he did in the Middle East this summer.

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