The insurgents' achilles heel
July 20, 2007 8:30 PM
Yesterday's Guardian report on armed resistance organisations in Iraq and their plans to form a political front was a fresh and illuminating snapshot of the most dangerous and far-reaching conflict of our times. By eschewing the usual cliches and bundles of distortions about any Muslims bearing arms, the report enriches our understanding of the best organised of the resistance groups active in parts of Baghdad and the areas up to and including Mosul, north of the capital. What they say indicates a major shift in tactics and strategy, but also reveals these groups' achilles heels.
Politically, one of the most telling statements was from the spokesperson of a faction of the Ansar al-Sunna resistance group:
"Resistance isn't just about killing Americans without any aims or goals ... Our people have come to hate al-Qaida, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. Suicide bombing is not the best way to fight because it kills innocent civilians. We are against indiscriminate killing - fighting should be concentrated only on the enemy. They [al-Qaida] believe that all Shia are kuffar [unbelievers]- and most of the Sunnis as well ... The Americans magnify their role, even though they are responsible for a minority of resistance operations - remember that the Americans brought al-Qaida to Iraq."
The statement is significant in two respects. One is the fact that al-Qaida is being denounced openly, and the second is that the man making the statement is from Ansar al-Sunna, one the organisations that gained notoriety in its indiscriminate methods of fighting and sectarian ideology. Equally significant is the fact that the other faction of Ansar al-Sunna is being accused of working with al-Qaida.
One of the least sectarian of the seven groups forming the new alliance is the 1920 Revolution Brigades, whose leader, Harith al-Dhari, was assassinated recently by al-Qaida, according to Muthanna al-Thari, spokesperson of the very influential Association of Muslim Scholars. The leader of the AMS, Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, is the assassinated leader's uncle and the most influential of the anti-occupation Sunni cleric. Reversing earlier statements, Sheikh Dhari, has also become very critical of al-Qaida. His and other recent anti al-Qaida statements are fuelled by the enormous loathing that Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities have for al-Qaida and all sectarian attacks. Indeed, popular opinion in the streets of Iraq habitually accuse the occupation of backing al-Qaida to spread sectarian divisions and split the struggle against the occupation.
The seven groups are not only anti al-Qaida but also keen to distance themselves from the Saddamist wing of the Ba'ath party, led by Izz'at al-Douri, Saddam Hussein's deputy until the 2003 invasion.
Such political credentials should in theory make the task of unity with Muqtada Sadr's movement less difficult. However, the resistance leaders who talked to the Guardian accuse Sadr's Mahdi army of sectarian killings while ignoring the fact that most of the sectarian attacks have been aimed at Sadr City, Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. For his part, Sadr has conceded that his movement has been infiltrated by its enemies, including the occupation authorities. Referring to the climate of chaos and occupation presence, Sadrist spokesmen have often referred to "the ease with which sectarian crimes could be committed by anyone wearing black and claiming to be from the Mahdi army."
Following the second attack on the Samarra Shia shrine, Sadr accused the occupation of being behind the attack - a position echoed by Sunni clergy and secular forces - and stressed unity with Sunnis. He later accused the US of sabotaging his attempts to unite with Sunnis. While it obviously suits the US to divide the opposition to its occupation of the country, Sadr's own tactics are attacked for being one of the biggest obstacles to greater anti-occupation unity. These tactics include on-off participation in the government and the Sadrists' presence in parliament (in the sect-based Coalition List that won most of the seats in the January 2006 occupation-controlled elections).
Though some of the criticisms of Iranian policies by the resistance leaders interviewed by the Guardian are based in fact, the seven groups' hostility to Iran is still trapped within the old Saddamist-style anti-Iranian chauvinism that fuelled his eight-year war against Iran following the 1979 overthrow of the US-backed Shah regime. Racist propaganda against the Iranian people lasted for a quarter of a century and permeated Iraqi society and its educational system. The US-led propaganda campaign against Iran has thus fallen on receptive ears. The US is happy to see Iraqis directing their wrath against the fictitious "presence of hundreds of thousands of Iranians fighting alongside the US forces to evict Sunnis from Baghdad and replace them with Shia" - in the words of one Iraqi victim of the occupation who, with her daughter, was forced to leave Iraq after the murder of her brother.
The seven resistance groups don't appear to be facing up to the fact that effectively by far the biggest organised armed resistance group in Iraq is Sadr's Mahdi army, estimated to be well over 100,000 strong - or that, in the absence of strong non-religious anti-occupation organisations, millions of people across Iraq are supporters of Muqtada Sadr's anti-occupation message. US jets and helicopters are daily bombarding Sadr City in Baghdad and towns south of Baghdad. Thousands of Sadrists are in jail and the US is acutely aware that the Sadrists remain one of the biggest obstacles to controlling Iraq.
Last but not least, when talking about the resistance in Iraq it's important to remember that most of the thousands of military operations that the Pentagon reports are carried out monthly against the occupation forces go unclaimed by any organisation. This confirms the impression that I and many Iraqis have that most of the armed resistance to the occupation is conducted by localised groups in the villages and cities of Iraq. Armed resistance to the occupation has much deeper and more popular roots than the politicians in Washington and London dare to admit. For admitting it, at least in public, means abandoning their much trumpeted "exit strategy", otherwise known as having your cake and eating it. Having a pro US government in Baghdad, withdrawing most of the troops but keeping military bases in Iraq is not what Iraqis mean by ending the military and economic occupation of Iraq. Such an exit strategy will not stop the resistance and the sea of popular support that feeds and protects it.
For even those who are engaged in anti-occupation political and trade union activities in Iraq do not hide their support for the "al-muqawama al-sharifa" ("the honourable resistance" as distinct from terrorism). And it is these deep Iraqi roots which are likely, sooner or later, to produce the united front that rises above the differences based on religion or ethnicity. A slogan gaining momentum in the streets of Iraq reflects this popular mood:"La lil ihtilal; la lil ta'iffia; la lil irhab": "No to the occupation; no to sectarianism; no to terrorism."