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Iraqi Insurgency Enters a New Phase

Escalation of attacks suggests the enemy and strategy are changing.

August 21, 2003|Graham E. Fuller | Graham E. Fuller is former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA and author of the book "The Future of Political Islam" (Palgrave, 2003).

The shocking attack against U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that took the life of the head of the U.N. mission there, among many others, represents not only an escalation of the violence in Baghdad but a sharp change in the character of the anti-U.S. insurgency.

Despite past administration rhetoric that suggested the bulk of the insurgency and attacks had come from former elites around Saddam Hussein, it is increasingly clear that a variety of groups is involved in this campaign.

Furthermore, the shift of the insurgency in recent weeks to take on non-American targets suggests perhaps new players and even a new strategy that might end up alienating the Iraqi public itself.

The one thing that unites all insurgents in Iraq is their desire to rid themselves of the U.S. occupation as soon as possible. They have a mixture of motives: revenge on the part of the Baath Party elite for the war that destroyed them; and Iraqi frustration and anger at the slow progress of postwar reconstruction, aggravated by the fact the U.S. is largely alone in the process.

The guerrilla attacks also attract other Iraqis who have no love for Hussein but who feel humiliated by defeat and occupation and want the Americans out yesterday. And finally, the occupation attracts all those radicals across the region simply looking for a chance to kill Americans to make up for past grievances, both real and imagined.

But the violence has now moved beyond strictly American targets to take on all those supporting the U.S. in any capacity -- witness the killing of other allied soldiers, the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy and now the U.N. headquarters.

Is this tactic smart, even for the most radical guerrilla faction? Although many Iraqis are quite capable of being both anti-Hussein and anti-American at the same time, most Iraqis do not want to see progress toward restoration of the infrastructure sabotaged. Attacks against the Iraqi oil pipeline to Turkey and water pipes to civilian areas are not helping the Iraqi public by any measure.

If most Iraqis don't like Americans, the United Nations surely could deliver services that are less "tainted" than those provided by American occupation personnel. The chances are that the radical guerrillas and terrorists responsible for the recent attacks may provoke a public backlash against all the insurgents.

Indeed, what should the insurgents' rationale now be? Is it better to attack only Americans -- emphasizing that Washington is the occupier and primary enemy? Or all foreigners? After all, attacks against even non-American forces may now simply encourage much of the rest of the world to fight the insurgents in Iraq.

The ultra-radicals may calculate that they can drive everyone out and leave Iraq free of foreigners, in chaos and without much aid, poisoning the well for all. Few Iraqis want that. But that was really the war Hussein always wanted to fight -- not a high-tech war from 50,000 feet but one fought down in the trenches and in the cities, where attacker and attacked are on more equal terms.

The sad part is that even if the "silent majority" of the Iraqis want the U.S. to restore much of the infrastructure and establish some nascent national institutions before it leaves, they may not have a say in it.

Guerrilla forces always seek to polarize civilian populations -- you are either with us or with the enemy -- and they surely wish to warn off other U.S. allies. Moderate elements, such as the Iraqi Shiites, have so far refrained from the use of violence against the United States, even while waiting for the U.S. to depart so they can assert their majoritarian power over the state.

But if fighting and violence are going to be the order of the day, can the Shiites, especially the more radical elements, afford to sit out the struggle against occupation? Are Arab Sunnis now seeking to adopt a mantle of legitimacy, heroism and nationalism in making up the chief force of resistance in the country? Such a tactic raises the stakes all around.

The chances are that we are now witnessing multiple and competing insurgent agendas. With luck, the nihilists -- those striking at all forces linked with the U.S. or the West in any way -- will now be discredited by violence that ultimately hurts Iraq.

The clock is ticking in Iraq for Washington to demonstrate that the occupation is both productive and soon to end -- or else it will play into the hands of the increasingly ruthless insurgency forces that don't want to give Iraqis any choice.

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