By colin foster
According to detailed research by the International Crisis Group, the Iraqi “resistance” is becoming much more organised and confident. The USA’s reported repeated attempts to get into negotiations with a “nationalist” wing of the “resistance” and split it off from a “jihadi” wing have little grip.
The ICG report is based on analysis of the websites, DVDs, and videos produced by the “resistance”, now quite numerous and professionally-done, plus a few interviews.
At the start in 2003, the ICG says, the “resistance” was very fragmented. It got a big boost in early 2004 with the USA’s inept attempt to crush Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army by military force, and its first big assault on Fallujah. Early in 2005 there was some dissension within the “resistance”, with some groups arguing that spectacular beheadings and Al Qaeda’s threats to kill anyone who voted in the January 2005 elections were counterproductive.
Now, however, according to the ICG: “The insurgency increasingly is dominated by a few large groups with sophisticated communications. It no longer is a scattered, erratic, chaotic phenomenon. Groups are well organised, produce regular publications, react rapidly to political developments and appear surprisingly centralised...
“There has been gradual convergence around more unified practices and discourse, and predominantly Sunni Arab identity... most debates have been settled through convergence around Sunni Islamic jurisprudence and Sunni Arab grievances. For now virtually all adhere publicly to a blend of Salafism [strict Islamic revivalism] and patriotism...”
Al Qaeda in Iraq is neither the sum-total of the “resistance”, nor an insignificant fringe group. According to the ICG it is one of four dominant groupings.
The other three are:
• Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna (Partisans of the Sunna Army) — “a profoundly Salafi group, despite a simultaneous emphasis on patriotic themes, and is said to be at least as radical as Tandhim al-Qa’ida”.
• Al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-’Iraq (the Islamic Army in Iraq) — “Again, a highly Salafi discourse blends with a vigorously patriotic tone”
• Al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Muqawama al-’Iraqiya (the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance) — “According to a credible source, it could be more akin to a ‘public relations organ’ shared between different armed groups, rather than an armed group in itself... Deeply nationalistic, but with a Salafi taint, its discourse counts among the more sophisticated of the groups”.
ICG also mentions another group, Jaysh al-Rashidin (the First Four Caliphs Army: “first four caliphs” is a specifically Sunni reference) as reportedly having “as many as six brigades under its banner”.
Although former Ba’thist officers play a big role in the “resistance” groups, ICG is emphatic that the “resistance” is Islamist rather than Ba’thist. “Former regime officials... soon became the vanguard of the armed opposition, combining as they did idleness, relevant military and intelligence skills, and knowledge of the whereabouts of vast weapons stockpiles and.... cash reserves... Former Ba’thist or army hierarchies helped structure what initially were amorphous cells. But... from the outset, the armed opposition’s discourse built on patriotic and religious themes at the expense of a largely discredited ideology.”
All the groups have become more concerned with self-presentation. “Depictions and descriptions of beheadings, which had been widespread, virtually disappeared in the course of 2005; indeed, decapitations officially were restricted to members of the Badr Corps” [the militia of the Shi’ite Islamist SCIRI, one of the main parties in the governing United Iraqi Alliance].
They insurgents counter charges that they are Sunni sectarian by claiming that they are in fact champions of Iraqi national unity, and it is the dominant Shi’ite politicians who are the sectarians. Their priority, they declare, is to strike against against “collaboration forces” made up of “traitors” allied with the “Crusaders”.
They “have shied away from articulating genuine political programs. They limit their stated objective to expelling the occupier without any further description of what exactly will replace the current U.S.- sponsored political process”. In fact, some groups have said explicitly that their positive programme is not to be announced until after the US forces have been thrown out.
Although they refrained from death threats to voters in the constitutional referendum and assembly elections of October and December 2005, all the groups express contempt for such elections — “the ‘game is rigged’... Kurds already have gained de facto independence and Shiites hold all positions of power”.
Of the de facto Sunni-sectarian and political-Islamist character of the “resistance”, there can be little doubt. “The armed opposition — though it continued to proclaim a pluralistic, cross-sectarian identity – increasingly became strictly Sunni Arab”.
Given that Sunni Arabs are a minority of Iraq’s population — although a long-dominant one — this “resistance” is not a national liberation movement; and the experience of political Islam elsewhere shows that it is a deadly threat to the emerging Iraqi labour movement.
That the “resistance” is growing in confidence and strength is, however, all too plausible. The new evidence recently issued (16 February) of US forces torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib will further antagonise Iraqis already hostile to the USA. Even Shi’ites are hostile: the provincial government in Basra has officially cut relations with the British troops there (14 February).
The biggest party in the new assembly, the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance, adopted a candidate for prime minister on 12 February — the outgoing incumbent, Ibrahim Jaafari of the Dawa party — but only by 64 votes to 63. Long haggling lies ahead before any new government is formed, and no-one will have confidence in Jaafari to hold it together.
A report in the New York Times (17 February) shows that Sunni-Shi’ite intermarriage in Baghdad has fallen almost to zero.
The only recent sign of hope has been the decision by Iraq’s various union federations, after they issued a joint statement opposing IMF plans on 16 January, to form a permanent coordinating committee. The Iraqi labour movement remains the only force which can provide the core for a struggle for a free, democratic, and secular Iraq.