The different faces of resistance among Iraqi Sunnis

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Shawwal 18, 1425 2004-12-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 10, Shawwal, 1425)

The second battle of Falluja, during which US and Iraqi forces battered a city of 300,000, has focused attention on the escalating resistance to the occupation of Iraq. The determined resistance that met the invading forces in Falluja, combined with the resistance’s effort to open up other fronts, has revealed a degree of coordination, planning and implementation that is more sophisticated than ever before. This suggests a campaign that is quite different from the early stages of the resistance, which consisted mainly of low-level, hit-and-run attacks with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

But as the resistance spread and became more daring, certain weaknesses have become apparent. These relate mainly to the resistance’s geographic bounds, the unbridled use of violence by some parties, and its narrow sectarian and social base. These weaknesses do not necessarily imply an inability of the resistance to develop into a full-fledged guerrilla war, but they certainly help to isolate the resistance from large parts of the Iraqi population who subscribe to its main goal: liberating Iraq from foreign occupation.

Falluja was the birthplace of the Iraqi resistance. On April 29, 2003, some three weeks after the fall of Baghdad, a protest rally against troops from the US’s 82nd Airborne Division (which had taken up position inside a school) turned into a bloodbath: trigger-happy American soldiers opened fire, killing 17 protesters. Neither independent journalists nor eyewitnesses would confirm the Americans’ claim that armed men were among the protesters. Three more unarmed protesters were killed by American fire in a follow-up rally two days later. The inhabitants of Falluja retaliated with a series of attacks against the Americans, which in turn brought about a series of American measures whose effect was to fuel the resistance. Whereas Arab tribes in several parts of Iraq have long been urbanized or semi-urbanized, those living in the vicinity of Falluja continue to live in the rural areas surrounding the city, maintaining a strong attachment to tribal traditions, mores and customs. Falluja is also a clearly religious city: it is known as Madinat al-Masajid, “the city of mosques”, because of the mosques (more than 80 of them) that grace it.

A persisting low-level string of armed activities followed these events, targeting coalition troops and disrupting their lines of communication. The attacks put the Americans on the defensive: they became increasingly isolated as they retreated into their garrisons or other fortified positions. Their over-reactions, which in many cases amounted in effect to collective punishment, served only to intensify anti-American feelings.

The resistance attacks have so far been concentrated in central Iraq, which is inhabited mainly by Sunni Arabs. There are a number of reasons why this area, which has come to be known as the “Sunni Triangle,” has become a hotbed of resistance. Whereas the fall of Saddam gave a sense of relief to the northern and southern parts of the country (though southern Iraq by no means welcomed the occupation troops), it left mixed feelings, combining elements of satisfaction and apprehension, in the central region, where loyalty to the former regime was strongest. More high-ranking officers and rank-and-file members of Saddam’s intelligence services and elite units came from the central region than from any other part of Iraq. The only four provinces that did not fall to the ‘rebels’ during the post-Gulf War uprising in 1991, namely al-Anbar, Salah al-Din, Diyala and Baghdad, are in this region. The other fourteen Iraqi provinces were all taken.

The dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces and the “de-Ba’athification” measures adopted by the Iraqi Governing Council, which bar senior members and office-holders of the Ba’athist Party from public office, have created an army of unemployed and discontented career soldiers, senior bureaucrats, civil servants and professionals, concentrated mainly in the Sunni Arab community. Having long dominated the old regime, mounting apprehensions among Sunni Arabs were exacerbated by the growing assertiveness of the Shi’a and Kurdish communities. Those Sunni Arabs who had long enjoyed Saddam’s patronage felt that they stood only to lose by joining the political processes of post-Saddam Iraq.

The Iraqi resistance is a complicated matrix of small groups. Certain elements of the deposed Ba’ath Party regime, former intelligence-services agents, and the Special Republican Guards have organized at local and regional levels in various parts of the central region of Iraq. One group, believed to be composed of Ba’athists and loyalists of the old regime, is known as al-’Awdah, “the Return”. There are indications that Saddam himself planned for guerrilla warfare well before the invasion in March 2003. He spoke on a number of occasions about a protracted war of resistance against foreign troops. Tens of thousands of Ba’ath Party militiamen, Fida’iyee Saddam paramilitaries and Special Security Organization officers were trained for urban warfare and deployed throughout the country several weeks before the guns began to shoot.

Realizing that once the war started US air superiority would preclude the movement of supplies, Saddam seems to have distributed and pre-positioned huge amounts of weapons and ammunition throughout the country. Enormous amounts of these munitions fell into the hands of potential resistance-fighters immediately after the invasion, when coalition troops showed a keen interest in searching for alleged WMD and in securing the oilfields and refineries, rather than in protecting any other installations. It is conceivable that the sudden disappearance of Saddam’s praetorian and elite forces from the battlefield towards the end of the war was premeditated, intended to reduce the number of casualties in their ranks and prepare the stage for guerrilla warfare. These well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened military units were mainly concentrated in the Upper Tigris areas, which did not see major combat. Thus these units were left largely intact and melted away, with their weaponry, into their home towns and cities, located largely in the Sunni Triangle.

It should be noted, however, that the presence of loyalists of the pre-invasion government does not necessarily mean that the agenda of the resistance is to restore the Saddam regime or the status quo ante the invasion. It is rather mostly national and liberationist: it wants to liberate Iraq from foreign occupation. Nor does it mean that Saddam was running the resistance when he was at large, nor that any of his senior aides is now running it.

The Iraqi resistance has been developing the ability to coordinate loyalists of the old order and nascent Islamic resistance groups; this process began shortly after the fall of Baghdad. A host of Islamic groups emerged after the fall of Saddam’s regime: e.g. Jaysh Ansar al-Sunnah (“the army of the advocates of the Sunnah”), Jaysh Muhammad (“the army of Muhammad”), Kata’ib Thawrat al-’Ishrin (“the battalions of the 1920 revolution”), Kata’ib al-Rayat al-Sud (“the black flags battalions”), al-Jaysh al-Islami fi al-’Iraq (“the Islamic army in Iraq”), and Harakat al-Muqawwamah al-Wataniyyah al-Islamiyyah (“the national Islamic resistance movement”). Most of these groups are Islamically motivated, as most of these names imply. A number are staunchly salafi; few groups are non-Islamic (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iraq is one). Organisationally, most adopt the standard cellular structure that is particularly suited to clandestine activities. Members of a cell usually know only others in their own cell: this limits the number who can be betrayed if one member were captured and tortured for information. Each cell reports to a higher level of authority.

The experience of war, occupation and resistance has set into motion a process of radicalisation among the indigenous salafi groups. Iraqi salafis, who appeared on the Iraqi Islamic scene in the mid-1980s, have traditionally been averse to organisational structures, and tended to be pacifist reformists (islahis) rather than militant jihadis. Although they have the same takfiri tendency as runs through salafism in general, they did not agree with the use of violence against Muslims whom they deem to be outside the pale of Islam. The steady influx of Arab volunteers, who began to arrive in Iraq before the war and continued to do so after the fall of the old regime, brought indigenous Iraqi salafis into contact with jihadi salafis from other parts of the Arab world. These Arab volunteers are generally active in the al-Qa’ida-linked group Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (“the base of jihad in Mesopotamia”), which is led by Ahmad al-Khalayleh, a Jordanian who is better known as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Although the role of Arab volunteers has been exaggerated, their impact cannot be denied. The Iraqi salafis’ espousal of resistance, and the jihadi influence of Arab volunteers, led to the complete radicalisation of Iraqi salafism, reinforcing their rigidity and intolerance.

The loyalists of the old government use their funds to recruit young Iraqis and equip them to launch attacks. They also provide logistical support for foreigners who have come to Iraq to fight against the occupation. As the resistance grew, attacks began to become unruly, targeting not only coalition troops but also Iraqi security and government officials, infrastructural installations, foreign private companies, humanitarian organisations, religious gatherings and places of worship, and Iraqi civilians.

There has been much debate between various resistance groups about the use of violence. Some groups emphasise the need to confine themselves to operations against foreign troops, whereas others are willing to attack Iraqi political and security officials and institutions that they consider to be by-products of the occupation. Some groups seem to have no limits, extending their violence even to humanitarian organisations and Iraqi civilians.

Elements from some takfiri salafi groups and diehard loyalists have employed tactics to intimidate not only foreigners but also Iraq’s Sunni Kurds, Shi’a Arabs and Christian Chaldo-Assyrians. Their favourite method (beheading) has been used not only against foreigners but also against Iraqi civilians and members of the Iraqi armed forces.

Hundreds of Kurdish families have fled from the ‘Sunni Triangle’. Many of these Kurdish families were forced to leave their homeland and settle in the central region in the mid-1970s, after the failure of a protracted Kurdish rebellion. Others were resettled in central Iraq after Saddam’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s. Kurdish families displaced from the central region, most of whom have now taken refuge in the Kurdish region in the north, have reported death threats and even attacks on their homes. There have also been instances of Kurdish civilians being abducted and beheaded by unknown assailants while traveling on roads in the ‘Sunni Triangle’. A series of bombs has targeted Christian churches in Baghdad.

In the past few months a triangle of territory to the immediate south of Baghdad has been the scene of a series of brutal attacks that have distinctly sectarian overtones. Most of these activities seem to have been carried out by a group known as al-Furqan. The area, which is now known as the “triangle of death”, is between the towns of al-Latifiyyah (40 kilometres, about 25 miles, south of Baghdad), al-Yusufiyyah (20 kilometres northwest of al-Latifiyyah) and al-Mahmudiyyah (6 kilometres north of al-Latifiyyah). In early September, two Shi’a ulama, Shaykh Karim al-Bahadili and Shaykh Bashir al-Jaza’iri, were killed in separate incidents while travelling on the highway leading out of Baghdad and passing through al-Latifiyyah. Jaza’iri was a member of the movement led by Shi’a alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, who openly supports the resistance and declares his solidarity with Falluja. Shi’a residents in the “triangle of death” have been fleeing the area in droves. They have been subjected to several types of intimidation, including murders and death threats. The Sayyid Faraj Shrine, a local Shi’a shrine in al-Latifiyyah, has been destroyed. Shi’a funeral processions and visitors to Najaf and Karbala also seem to be targets for salafi groups in the area.

Such unrestrained violence undermines the hope of success, and threatens to plunge Iraq into civil strife. In order for any resistance to succeed in taking on a militarily superior power, it needs a broad and strong base of support. By targeting Shi’a Arabs and Sunni Kurds, the takfiri salafis risk losing support for the resistance from these communities. Since the fall of the old regime, a great deal of effort has gone into bringing the Shi’a and Sunni communities together. These efforts were led by groups such as the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, headed by Shaykh Harith al-Dari, Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement and the National Constituent Conference, led by Shi’a alim Shaykh Jawad al-Khalisi. Ill-advised violence against fellow Iraqis is counterproductive: it is destroying support for the armed resistance by alienating large parts of Iraq’s people. This will probably eventually mean that support for the armed resistance will be confined to the Sunni Arab minority that dominated the old regime. Worse still, such ill-advised and reckless violence opens the doors to internecine bloodletting.

In many ways the lack of a centralised command structure for the resistance, together with its cellular operational structure, is a source of both weakness and strength. The decentralised structure of the resistance makes it more difficult for occupation troops to crush it, but it also deprives the resistance of a unified vision, direction and coherence. This has undermined coordination and created tension. Even inside besieged Falluja, differences between resistance groups have occasionally turned bloody. The assassination attempt on Shaykh Hisham al-Alusi, former imam of the al-Hadrah al-Muhammadiyyah mosque in Falluja, occurred against a backdrop of internal differences. However, as time has passed, the resistance groups have shown signs of becoming networked. In the recent confrontations with US and Iraqi forces that have swept through central Iraq, the resistance has fielded highly mobile groups, which have proved able to strike in many places before melting away.

Such networking is certainly a positive development for the guerrilla campaign currently under way in Iraq. But any hope for the success of the armed resistance depends on its ability to win the support of the people. This demands a significant change, from the resistance movement’s current exclusivist frame of mind, which is burdened by narrow sectarian positions and ethnic schisms, into an inclusive movement that is inspired and informed by the deen (in particular by the Sunnah and the Qur’an), and as such is capable of cementing (not fragmenting) the bonds between the diverse elements of Iraqi Muslim society, and thus of becoming (in the words of the Qur’an) a bunyan that is marsus: a framework that is strong enough (and competent enough) for its purpose.

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