Assessing the Iraqi Elections’ Impact on Terrorism and Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 24

As Iraq staged its first election for a full-term parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there are increasing hopes in Washington and London that the pace of the steadily growing insurgency may have at long last been stunted. But if previous elections in post-Saddam Iraq are used as a template, it is clear that such elections do not have a decisive impact on the terrorist and insurgent movements in Iraq. Moreover, this latest election, insofar as it incorporates representatives and sympathizers of the insurgents into the political process, may in fact lead to a deterioration of security in the short term.


Broadly speaking, three features of the elections will directly impact the insurgency. First, despite predictions to the contrary, the religious Shi’ite parties (as represented by the United Iraqi Alliance) are expected to do well in the elections, possibly even better than their performance in the January 2005 elections. This is contrary to the wishes of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the American military and intelligence apparatus in Iraq, who were hoping to diminish the influence of the religious Shi’ite parties, partly to appease the Arab Sunni guerilla movement and partly owing to fears of growing Iranian influence. The ongoing political dominance of the religious Shi’ite parties means that Iraq’s security forces (namely the National Guards, the various police outfits and the security units attached to the Interior Ministry) will continue to be dominated by the Shi’a. This will make it more even more difficult for Khalilzad and his Iraqi allies to reach out to elements of the so-called “nationalist” insurgency.

Second, Muqtada al-Sadr’s large and popular movement participated in the elections and will have “official” representation in the new parliament. Sadr’s representatives also served in the previous parliament, but in an unofficial capacity. Moreover, this time around, the Sadrists will have a much larger stake in parliament and the government. Given the Sadrists’ implacable opposition to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, they will likely use their newly acquired electoral clout to lobby for the withdrawal of coalition forces. Again, this is worrisome for Khalilzad, who needs to ensure that the Iraqi government does not even begin to talk about a U.S. withdrawal before the U.S. initiates it.

Third, the new parliament will contain elements which are either directly tied to the insurgency or are–at the very least–sympathetic to it. A new list composed of three Arab Sunni parties (dominated by the Iraqi Islamic Party), called the “Iraqi Accord Front,” is expected to do well in the elections, most likely receiving the majority of votes in the three key provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin and Anbar. These areas constitute the Arab Sunni heartlands of Iraq, where the insurgency is rooted. The rise of the Iraqi Islamic Party is particularly problematic for the Americans not only because the IIP is openly supportive of what it calls the “nationalist resistance,” but also because the party has strong links with Islamic parties outside Iraq and is trusted by several Arab regimes. The IIP is expected to use its electoral clout to promote two inter-related agendas: first to “legitimize” the so-called resistance inside government circles and second to work with regional forces and Arab governments to make Iraqi democracy “safe” for the Arab world. This entails keeping the Shi’ites in check and ensuring that Iraq does not develop liberal democratic institutions and practices. The growing respectability and influence of the IIP, coupled with the rising fortunes of the Sadrists, make it less likely that the U.S. will be able to eventually leave Iraq on its own terms.

Insurgent Strategy and Tactics

As a general rule, elections in Iraq have not had a significant impact on the insurgency, as demonstrated by the previous two elections. In terms of tactics, the recent election is likely to lead to three new developments. First, insurgent representation in the new government, in the form of the Iraqi Accord Front, will likely result in more attacks on coalition armies, particularly American forces in the Baghdad province. This is designed to give teeth to greater political calls for an early U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. There is already evidence that the Arab Sunni political parties coordinated their electoral strategy with several insurgent organizations. Indeed several insurgent groups have called for a ceasefire during the elections, and virtually the entire “nationalist” insurgency (save for a few hardcore Ba’athists) was in favor of Arab Sunni participation in the elections. This policy was endorsed by the hardline Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) whose representative in the south of Iraq, Sheikh Yousif al-Hassan, urged Arab Sunnis to participate in the elections and vote for the “Iraqi Accord Front” (al-Iraq al-Yawm, December 12, 2005). The AMS is considered by many to be the public face of the insurgents.

Attacks on American forces in and around Baghdad are particularly effective not only for symbolic reasons, but also because they highlight the impotence of Khalilzad and the Americans. But increasing attacks on coalition forces in Baghdad will rely heavily on the active connivance of elements in the security forces. It remains to be seen whether the Arab Sunni political parties have enough clout to convince the security forces (and their religious Shi’ite masters) to allow the insurgents to target Americans without fear of detection and harassment. This kind of pressure seems to have started in earnest with the AMS launching a thinly veiled attack on SCIRI and the Badr organization, but adding that aggressive tactics will not deter people from fighting the “occupation” (al-Mashriq, December 8, 2005). Previously Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the powerful Badr organization, had for the first time made a distinction between “terrorism” and “resistance,” which could be interpreted as a cryptic message to the Arab Sunni guerilla movement (al-Adala, November 24, 2005).

Second, the elections will most likely strengthen the “nationalist” insurgency at the expense of the Salafi-jihadis. By nearly all accounts, the former already comprise well over 95% of the insurgency, but their overwhelming numerical strength has been overshadowed by the ideological and propaganda prowess of the jihadis. This is likely to change mainly because post-war Iraq has now turned a corner. Indeed, no matter how imperfect the emerging Iraqi regime is proving to be, it is now clear that the political process is irreversible. The jihadi aspiration of perpetuating Iraq as a failed state under American occupation and engulfed in sectarian conflict was always overly-ambitious. Moreover, the primary conflict in post-war Iraq has been centered on the enmity between the organized religious Shi’ites–who were at the forefront of the long struggle against Saddam–and the former security and military elites who lead the insurgency. But this feature will become more pronounced and complex as the political stakes rise in Iraq.

Third, the increasing alienation of the Salafi-jihadis will likely lead to more outrageous attacks. Indeed, as the jihadis become more desperate they will resort to sensational and highly provocative terrorist attacks to maintain their relevance. Terrorism Monitor’s sources in Iraq claim that the Badr Organization has already foiled an assassination attempt on Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Moreover, these sources claim that the Zarqawi network may strike at the shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein (at Najaf and Karbala respectively) in order to inflame Shi’ite passions both in Iraq and beyond and create wider rifts between the religious Shi’ites and other political forces in the Iraqi government. If the Najaf and Karbala shrines are destroyed in terrorist attacks, the repercussions will be truly awful, particularly for Shi’ite-Sunni relations in Iraq.

A Shi’ite Insurgency?

As predicted by Terrorism Monitor (Volume 1, Issue 5; November 7, 2003), SCIRI and its paramilitary wing, the Badr organization, have maintained their working relationship with the U.S. authorities in Iraq. Even now, as the U.S. is showing increasing sings of wanting to diminish SCIRI’s influence, there are no signs that either the SCIRI or the Badrists would want to directly confront the Americans.

But the same cannot be said of other religious Shi’ites who are as adamant as the Arab Sunni guerilla movement that coalition armies should leave Iraq immediately. The Sadrists and their numerous offshoots have shown a greater willingness to decisively confront British authority in the south of Iraq. The British claim that an offshoot of the Sadrists–with possible help from Iran–is responsible for recent deadly attacks on their forces in and around Basra. The uneasy détente between the British and the religious Shi’ites–whose militias have heavily penetrated the new security structures–seems to have broken down. This was partly confirmed by Amara provincial council chairman, Abdul Jabbar Waheed (a Sadr loyalist) who called for a general strike in mid-November to protest at random raids and arrests by British forces (al-Mada, November 16, 2005). The fear is that the elections, which have strengthened the hand of Muqtada al-Sadr and his allies, will embolden renegade and extremist Sadrists to increase their attacks on the British and possibly start targeting U.S. forces in eastern Baghdad (which has been a Sadrist stronghold since the downfall of Saddam).

A full-scale insurgency by Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces (on a par with the rebellions of April and August 2004) is unlikely, simply because the Sadrists now have a credible political stake in the new Iraq. Like the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is close to the Sadrists, they will seek to promote the insurgent cause within the government and lobby influential Iraqi officials to increase pressure on the Americans.

What is likely to happen in the next decisive 18 months is greater Shi’ite opposition to the coalition presence in Iraq. Contrary to what many American analysts believe, the Iraqi Shi’ites in general have no particular affinity for the United States. They have gone along with American designs in Iraq because, broadly speaking, these have coincided with their own interests. But now that the Arab Sunni Islamists have been officially incorporated into the government and more broadly the new power and influence structures in the new Iraq begin to take definitive shape, the Shi’ites might resort to violence and other spoiling tactics to maintain their position.

The one thing the religious Shi’ites fear most is what they privately call the “Turkification” of Iraq. This is a reference to the type of political system that held sway in Turkey from the early 1920s to the late 1990s, where the military was the ultimate arbiter in political affairs. The religious Shi’ites are suspicious of the fact that the Americans have monopolized the training of the new Iraqi army. The fear is that the Americans want to develop a pro-Western military which will keep the new Iraqi Islamic state (dominated by the religious Shi’ites) in check. This will arguably be the greatest point of contention between the religious Shi’ites and the Americans in 2006, but whether it will spark terrorist attacks against U.S. forces remains to be seen.


While the elections were held successfully and the political process in Iraq now seems irreversible, there is also little doubt that the country is being steadily transformed into an Islamic state. The “Islamization” of Iraq is taking place at all levels, but most noticeably at the very top where the new Iraqi parliament is poised to be dominated by Shi’ite and Sunni Islamists. The former are backed by Iran and the latter are inspired and backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces in the Arab world.

The irreversibility of the political process notwithstanding, the scope and intensity of the insurgency is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. In fact, as the political stakes rise in Iraq, there will be a greater temptation on both sides of the sectarian divide to stage sensational attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, on a par with the October 1983 bombing of the Marines HQ in Beirut.

The best option for the United States is to resist calls for an early withdrawal and continue with the training of the new Iraqi army. It is this army which will contain the jihadi threat in Iraq after the U.S. leaves the country. As for the broader insurgency, this will only diminish when the Shi’ite and Sunni Islamists begin to agree on the details of power and influence sharing in the new Iraq.