The Iraq insurgency for beginners

A leading expert on the insurgency clarifies who is shooting whom in Iraq, the growing power of al-Qaida, the influence of Iran, and the only thing left for the U.S. to do.

Published March 2, 2007 12:15PM (EST)

For somebody in America, Evan Kohlmann has a remarkably intimate view of the Iraq insurgency. In 2004, he founded, a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq. For three years, Kohlmann has pored through every one of them, with the help of Arabic translators, and emerged with a clear-eyed view of who is fighting whom in Iraq and why. Given his insights, Kohlmann has been put to work as a consultant by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the CIA.

Spending time in Kohlmann's archives is an extraordinary experience. It strips away the cloudy myths of the insurgency steamed up by U.S. politicians and pundits and leaves you with a bracing portrait of roving insurgent groups, more like neighborhood gangs, with their own identities and insignias, progressively growing more violent. I wanted to talk to Kohlmann for the simple reason that as much as I follow the news about the Iraq war, I have always felt slightly frustrated at not knowing who the enemy really is. Kohlmann says I'm far from alone. And he's talking about people way over my head. "I find it tragic that people in Washington, D.C., who are the heads of major congressional committees, and deciding things about Iraq, don't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites," he says. Kohlmann insists he is nonpartisan. He spoke from his office in New York.

Every day you look at Iraq through the lens of insurgent videos and Internet postings. What do you see?

A picture of fundamentalism. Shiite fundamentalism clashing with Sunni fundamentalism clashing with American fundamentalism. We have tried imposing things upon Iraq that are totally foreign to it. Now each side is unwilling to acknowledge the right of the other to have a voice in what's going on. It's a disaster.

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

What drives people to join the insurgency?

I've called up families of fighters and when I ask that question, the response is always the same: Wouldn't you? They are extremely upset about what's going on in Iraq. Some of them have a burning hatred for the U.S. They see the U.S. as imposing its will on their countries. Some of them have a burning desire to be a missionary and martyr for Islam. You have people who have broken out of prison and gone to fight in Iraq. It's now a vacuum sucking in every disaffected voice in the region.

How has the insurgency evolved?

When the U.S. invasion began in 2003, it was mainly Baathists, ex-Iraqi military, and Saddam loyalists. They were Iraqi nationalists, opposed to foreign occupation, who saw Iraq as a competitor with Egypt for the control of the Arab world. It was an issue of national pride. Video recordings and communiqués were coming out from everybody who had an AK-47. But as the war dragged on, some of these groups started coalescing; others were destroyed. Only the strongest, the most hardcore, the best financed, the people with the most training, survived, despite airstrikes and the arrest of their senior leaders by the U.S. military.

Do you call the insurgents "terrorists"?

No. The nationalist insurgents have done a lot of really brutal things. But in general they are people opposed to foreign occupation. If foreign occupation were removed, they wouldn't necessarily sit down and shake hands with Shiites. But at the end of the day, they would like to see a peaceful Iraq where Sunnis and Shiites can at least coexist with each other. Terrorists are people who set off bombs in marketplaces and deliberately kill innocent civilians for no good reason. Any suicide bombing is a terrorist act. It's not an insurgent act. There is no military objective in it. The vast majority of suicide bombings that take place in Iraq are either the work of al-Qaida or al-Qaida-linked groups. Al-Qaida are the terrorists.

Who constitutes al-Qaida in Iraq now?

It includes everyone from past conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya to people from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Syria and Jordan. A growing number of Iraqis continue to join its ranks every day. The people in the nationalist groups feel intensely hurt to see Iraq being torn apart. This is their homeland. And now their groups are taking on an Islamic tinge or else becoming straight-up jihadist groups controlled by al-Qaida. A lot of people joining the jihadist groups are now convinced there is no future left for Iraq, that the only future left is with al-Qaida, the only people who can protect them is al-Qaida.

David Kilcullen, an astute counterinsurgency expert, told George Packer in the New Yorker that what drives a lot of young men to become jihadists is a "sense of adventure, wanting to be in the big movement of history that's happening right now." Do you agree?

Oh, yeah. For some of these guys, it's like a safari. They see themselves as knights of the round table. In fact, that's how al-Qaida now sells the insurgency to them: Are you a chivalrous knight or a coward?

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Does that message go out to people on the streets too?

Yeah, sure. That's the sad thing. If you work with the U.S. or the Iraqi government, you are targeted by al-Qaida. If you work with anyone else, you are targeted by the Shiites. It's a lose-lose situation. And what's amazing is this slide has all happened over the past 12 months. It's pegged to one singular event, the spark, which is the 2006 bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra. Al-Qaida never claimed direct responsibility for it but they did call the mosque the heretical idol and mocked the fact that the Shiites were upset about it. Afterward, it was saying, "We've been fighting Shiite militias all along." To broaden its appeal, it said, "We're declaring the formation of an Islamic state in Iraq. This is no longer just an insurgent movement. We now have a state that we're fighting for, so come and join our cause. You're either with us or against us." Sure enough, we started seeing more groups edging toward al-Qaida's jihadists umbrella network.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

What happened to the U.S. message of democracy?

It totally failed. The idea of Western-style democracy in Iraq doesn't appeal to anyone. It was our own myth. We thought that if we get rid of Saddam Hussein, people would come together and celebrate and democracy would reign throughout the Middle East. The people who thought that up are people who think Iraq is like Texas. Iraq is not Texas. To Iraqis, tribal affiliations, religion and family mean a lot more than saying, "I'm from Iraq." You know we're doing a bad job of communicating our own message when we're losing the propaganda war to people who cut other people's heads off on camera. Think about it: People in one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East would rather trust al-Qaida than the United States. That's a terrible sign of things to come.

How many total insurgents are there?

Somewhere in the tens of thousands. I would say al-Qaida, including the various groups in its alliance, has about 15,000 people, probably more. To give you an idea of its strength, consider that it has sacrificed 800 of its own members in suicide bombings. We know that through direct evidence because al-Qaida has videotaped and recorded many of the bombings. And remember, those 15,000 are just on the Sunni side, and constitute just one group out 10 or more.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., "If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.

How do the militias stack up against the insurgents in number of fighters?

There are probably fairly equal numbers of militiamen to Sunni insurgents, if not more. Given that they're waging open war with each other, and neither one seems to be winning outright, the answer is that one doesn't outnumber the other to create an imbalance.

Is a surge of 21,000 new U.S. troops going to help?

I don't think any number of new troops is going to help unless we're going to station troops on every single corner of every single street in every single city in Iraq. The problem is the insurgents are not just a foreign force. You're talking about such a diverse organization and network, where even major groups, when their leaders are killed or captured, still persist. They're self-sustaining operations.

Look at Fallujah. In late 2004, we pumped that place full of overwhelming military force. We went block by block, street by street, and liquidated the place. We got rid of all the insurgents. We chased al-Qaida out of there. That was undoubtedly a military victory. But was that the end of al-Qaida? No, it moved to other cities, established bases in Ramadi, Samarra and Mosul. And Fallujah itself? It was relatively stable but in the past year has started to fall apart. And once again, insurgents are attacking Fallujah.

What do you make of the recent furor over the Iran government supposedly arming the militias and killing 170 American soldiers?

It's tragic-funny. There have been over 3,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, which means more than 2,830 people were killed by Sunnis, the real insurgents. The way this has been advertised in the press is incredibly disingenuous. Money and weapons and personnel have been coming across the Saudi and Syrian borders for four years and have been directly aiding Sunni insurgents, who are responsible for the lion's share of U.S. casualties. It's the height of hypocrisy to attack Iran and not criticize Saudi Arabia.

Have you seen any evidence that the Iran government has aided the militias?

Yes. Some Sunni insurgent groups have uncovered what they claim are documents with the government of Iran insignia, and ID cards of people they say are Iranians, who they say have been aiding the Shiites. Some of the items are more credible than others, of course, and none of it is utterly conclusive. But has any of this activity been the major cause of U.S. casualties in Iraq? No. Not even close. The whole thing is incredibly overblown. If a foreign country invaded Mexico, American weapons would start turning up in Mexico. There may even be senior American officials who are providing weapons to prevent that country from invading us. The Iranians may be doing the same thing. At a maximum, what the Iranian government is doing is arming people they see as their allies to prevent Sunni insurgents from launching attacks on them. Or from a radical Sunni state emerging inside Iraq. They see it as an act of self-defense.

But if you want to know who is responsible for the fact that al-Qaida is succeeding in Iraq, it's Saudi Arabia. The most common nationality of foreign insurgents in Iraq has been Saudis. Where do you think all the money comes from to pay for these operations? It's from Saudi donors. I'm not blaming this necessarily on the Saudi government. But they have made some very provocative statements about the idea that if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, they're going to actively aid Sunnis in their war against Shiites. If we're going to put pressure on Iraq's neighbors, let's put pressure on all of Iraq neighbors to stop contributing to the violence.

What do you think of Seymour Hersh's recent report in the New Yorker that the U.S. is taking part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and Syria and that a "by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups"?

The idea that the U.S. is bolstering Sunni extremist groups in Iraq deliberately is pretty ridiculous and sounds awfully conspiratorial to me. Most of the Sunni groups consider themselves to be antithetical to the very idea of the United States. Even if we were to offer to help them for some strange reason, they would never knowingly work with us. But I can't say the same for Saudi Arabia and other supposed U.S. allies in the Gulf region, who don't have any soldiers in Iraq at risk from Sunni insurgents, and who would do just about anything to curb the expansion of Iran.

Contrary to what U.S. leaders are always saying, do you think the insurgency, and militias, have, ultimately, won the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

Unfortunately, I do. But I tell you this: Between August and December of 2005, there was a dramatic loss of influence of al-Qaida in Iraq. People associated with groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq, mainstream Sunni insurgent groups, were not so sure about killing people at a polling station. Al-Qaida was threatening to kill anyone, Sunni or Shiite, who tried voting. But the Sunni insurgents were saying, "No, we're not going to let the Shiites take power willingly. We're going to try and beat them anyway we can." At the time, I could see the various Iraq tribes saying, "Forget this, al-Qaida, maybe we can achieve reconciliation with the Shiites." The U.S. could have capitalized on that friction. But it didn't. A month went by, there was bickering about the makeup of the government and the results of the election, and we weren't hands-on enough in trying to broker out some kind of truce. Then came the bombing of the mosque in Samarra and it was too late.

What should the U.S. have done to capitalize on the friction at the time after the elections?

We needed to make sure that the Shiite militias were kept in check. And that's exactly what we didn't do. Following the bombing of the mosque, there should have been a serious clampdown. It was a matter of trying to stop the cycle of reprisals. But we did nothing while the Shiites went on a rampage.

Do you think the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq?

I'm afraid not. If we withdraw from Iraq right now, there's no doubt what will happen. First there's going to be a war for control of Baghdad and then once Baghdad is ripped to the ground, the battle is going to spread across Iraq. It could potentially be like Rwanda. Right now, hundreds of people are being killed each month, which is awful and horrifying in itself. Imagine if that figure was 100 times bigger. Also, if we withdraw, a widespread war is going to be entirely our responsibility. It's easy to say it's Iraqis killing Iraqis. But nobody else is going to see it that way. Everyone is going to affix blame to us. We will ultimately cause a situation that forces us to reinvade Iraq and create even more casualties. It's an awful Catch 22.

I take it you have little faith in the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi government is a joke. A very sad joke. It's beset on all sides. It's been thoroughly infiltrated by militia groups and has no sway whatsover among Sunnis, even moderate Sunnis. It is completely incapable of defending itself, despite whatever bizarre claims Prime Minister Maliki may make. If we were to withdraw, it would collapse. An Iraqi government would only work if it included both Shiites and Sunnis, and there are precious few Sunnis who are working in Iraqi government, and even the ones who do are under constant threat.

So what's the solution?

We have to give people a reason to stop supporting al-Qaida. And the only way to do that is to punish the people who are harming them. We have to show that democratic forces can also hold up justice. Right now, democracy for Iraqis amounts to Shiites in control of the police force and running everything. The things that might convince Sunnis to move back in the other direction would be a real step at trying to reform the Iraqi police force, the Interior Ministry, and try and bring some of the individuals in those places, which have committed gross crimes, including crimes on the scale of Saddam Hussein, to justice.

Does the Bush administration have the smarts to figure that out?

I'm not sure they do. I thought perhaps, in invading Iraq, they had some long-term view that nobody else could see. But that hope faded very quickly. The Bush administration didn't reach out to anyone credible when they were asking about, for instance, the connections between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Anybody with any real knowledge of the region would have told them there are no connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The only people who believed that nonsense were lunatics.

If I was going to invade Iraq, the first thing I would do is commission the top history experts, top geographical experts, top cultural experts, and sit them down at a table and say, "This is what I'm thinking about doing. Is this feasible?" That was never done. Nobody in their right mind would have taken a look at Bush's plan and said, "Oh, yeah, that's going to work." It's not possible that it could work. Every historic precedent works directly against Bush's plan. I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all.

By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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