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In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency
In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Report 50 / Middle East & North Africa

In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency

In Iraq, the U.S. fights an enemy it hardly knows. Its descriptions have relied on gross approximations and crude categories (Saddamists, Islamo-fascists and the like) that bear only passing resemblance to reality.

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Executive Summary

In Iraq, the U.S. fights an enemy it hardly knows. Its descriptions have relied on gross approximations and crude categories (Saddamists, Islamo-fascists and the like) that bear only passing resemblance to reality. This report, based on close analysis of the insurgents’ own discourse, reveals relatively few groups, less divided between nationalists and foreign jihadis than assumed, whose strategy and tactics have evolved (in response to U.S. actions and to maximise acceptance by Sunni Arabs), and whose confidence in defeating the occupation is rising. An anti-insurgency approach primarily focused on reducing the insurgents’ perceived legitimacy – rather than achieving their military destruction, decapitation and dislocation – is far more likely to succeed.

Failure to sufficiently take into account what the insurgents are saying is puzzling and, from Washington’s perspective, counter-productive. Abundant material – both undervalued and underutilised – is available from insurgent websites, internet chat, videos, tapes and leaflets. Over the past two years such communication has assumed more importance, both among insurgent groups and between groups and their networks of supporters or sympathisers. This report, the first exhaustive analysis of the organised armed opposition’s discourse, seeks to fill the gap, and the lessons are sobering.

Textual analysis has its limitations. The information by definition sheds light only on those who choose to speak, and only about that which they discuss in public. Wartime communication is part information, part propaganda; insurgents highlight their nobleness, tactical exploits and ingenuity while downplaying brutality and setbacks. Without knowing more of the groups’ inner workings, it is hazardous to speculate on the reasons behind specific communications.

Still, the discourse offers a window into the insurgency. It tells us about themes insurgents consider best to mobilise activists or legitimise actions, and gives us information on internal debates and levels of coordination, and about shifts in tactics and strategy. This war, U.S. officials concede, will be won as much in the court of public opinion as on any battlefield. The U.S administration faces an increasingly sceptical domestic audience; Iraq’s authorities suffer from a serious credibility deficit at home; and insurgents must contend with accusations of sectarianism and barbaric violence. For the U.S. to ignore, or fail to fully take into account, the insurgents’ discourse – at a time when they are paying close attention to what Washington is saying – is to wage the struggle with one hand tied behind its back.

Several important conclusions emerge:

  • 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. A year ago groups appeared divided over practices and ideology but 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 and patriotism, diluting distinctions between foreign jihadis and Iraqi combatants – though that unity is unlikely to outlast the occupation.
     
  • Despite recurring contrary reports, there is little sign of willingness by any significant insurgent element to join the political process or negotiate with the U.S. While covert talks cannot be excluded, the publicly accessible discourse remains uniformly and relentlessly hostile to the occupation and its “collaborators”.
     
  • The groups appear acutely aware of public opinion and increasingly mindful of their image. Fearful of a backlash, they systematically and promptly respond to accusations of moral corruption or blind violence, reject accusations of a sectarian campaign and publicise efforts to protect civilians or compensate their losses. Some gruesome and locally controversial practices – beheading hostages, attacking people going to the polls – have been abandoned. The groups underscore the enemy’s brutality and paint the U.S. and its Iraqi allies in the worst possible light: waging dirty war in coordination with sectarian militias, engaging in torture, fostering the country’s division and being impervious to civilian losses.
     
  • The insurgents have yet to put forward a clear political program or long-term vision for Iraq. Focused on operations, they acknowledge this would be premature and potentially divisive. That said, developments have compelled the largest groups to articulate a more coherent position on elections, and the prospect of an earlier U.S. withdrawal than anticipated is gradually leading them to address other political issues.
     
  • The insurgency is increasingly optimistic about victory. Such self-confidence was not there when the war was conceived as an open-ended jihad against an occupier they believed was determined to stay. Optimism stems from a conviction the legitimacy of jihad is now beyond doubt, institutions established under the occupation are fragile and irreparably illegitimate, and the war of attrition against U.S. forces is succeeding.

The emergence of a more confident, better organised, coordinated, information-savvy insurgency, increasingly susceptible to Sunni Arab opinion, carries profound implications for policy-makers. That it has survived, even thrived, despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, suggests the limitations of the current counter-insurgency campaign. Its discourse may be dismissed as rhetoric, but, notwithstanding credible reports of internal tensions, it appears to have been effective at maintaining agreement on core operational matters, generating new recruits, and mobilising a measure of popular sympathy among its target audience.

Countering the insurgency requires taking its discourse seriously, reducing its legitimacy and increasing that of the Iraqi government. The harm from excessive use of force, torture, tactics that inflict widespread civilian injury and reliance on sectarian militias outweighs any military gain. It is essential for the U.S. to hold the new government accountable and make clear that long-term relations, economic aid and military cooperation depend on disbanding militias, halting political killings and respecting human rights. U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad has recently struck a candid tone, which should be followed with proactive measures. The U.S. and its allies are unable to establish a monopoly over the use of force but they can and should do so over the legitimate use of force, which means establishing the legitimacy both of the means being deployed and of the state on whose behalf force is being exercised.

Amman/Brussels, 15 February 2006

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.

Contributors

Interim President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq
LahibHigel