No wonder public support for the war is plummeting and finger-to-the-wind politicians are heading for the exits: All the headlines out of Iraq lately have been about the rebels' reign of terror. But, lest we build up the enemy into 10-foot-tall supermen, it's important to realize how weak they are. Most of the conditions that existed in previous wars won by guerrillas, from Algeria in the 1950s to Afghanistan in the 1980s, are absent from Iraq.
The rebels lack a unifying organization, ideology, and leader. There is no Iraqi Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, or Mao Zedong. The top militant is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has alienated most of the Iraqi population, even many Sunnis, with his indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Support for the insurgency is confined to a minority within a minority - a small portion of Sunni Arabs, who make up less than 20 percent of the population. The only prominent non-Sunni rebel, Moqtada al-Sadr, has quietly joined the political process. The 80 percent of the population that is Shiite and Kurdish is implacably opposed to the rebellion, which is why most of the terrorism has been confined to four of 18 provinces.
Unlike in successful guerrilla wars, the rebels in Iraq have not been able to control large chunks of "liberated" territory. The best they could do was to hold Fallujah for six months last year. Nor have they been able to stage successful large-scale attacks as the Viet Cong did. A major offensive against Abu Ghraib prison on April 2 ended without a single US soldier killed or a single Iraqi prisoner freed, while an estimated 60 insurgents were slain.
The biggest weakness of the insurgency is that it is morphing from a war of national liberation into a revolutionary struggle against an elected government. That's a crucial difference. Since 1776, wars of national liberation have usually succeeded because nationalism is such a strong force. Revolutions against despots, from the Shah of Iran to the autocrats of Eastern Europe, often succeed, too, because there is no way to redress grievances within the political process. Successful uprisings against elected governments are much rarer, however, because leaders with political legitimacy can more easily rally the population and accommodate aggrieved elements.
Look at Sri Lanka, the Philippines, El Salvador, or Colombia - all fragile democracies that have endured uprisings which recruited a larger percentage of the population and controlled more territory than the Iraqi rebels - without winning. Other democracies, such as Israel, Turkey, and Britain, also have survived brutal insurgencies.
This does not mean that the Iraqi uprising will be quickly or easily defeated. Although most guerrilla movements fail in a democracy, a few thousand or even a few hundred dedicated killers can set off bombs indefinitely. And even if the Iraqi insurgents can't take over the entire country, they might be able to carve out a jihadist ministate or spark all-out civil war.
The coalition military forces cannot hope to achieve a military victory in the near future. All they can do is provide breathing space for local institutions to take root so Iraqis can take over the fight for their own freedom.
So far, progress has been rapid on the political front and not so rapid in the deployment of security forces, which the coalition didn't emphasize until last year. We're finally seeing the emergence of some impressive Iraqi units, such as the Wolf Brigade commandos, who pursue insurgents all over the country, and the 302nd National Guard Battalion, which has pacified Haifa Street, a onetime insurgent stronghold in Baghdad.
The biggest advantage the insurgents still have is that they can get reinforcements from abroad to make up for their heavy losses. The coalition needs to do a better job of policing the Syrian border and pressuring Damascus to crack down on the influx of jihadis.
But even if the border gets sealed, pacifying Iraq will be a long, hard slog that will ultimately be up to the Iraqis. The US needs to show a little patience. If we don't cut and run prematurely, Iraqi democracy can survive its birth pangs.
• Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ©2005 The Los Angeles Times.