Iraqi Rebels Fill Political Vacuum

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 1

As Iraqi political parties continue to wrangle over the composition of the new government, the insurgents have taken the initiative with a series of bold strikes over the past 10 days. These attacks have killed over 150 Shi’ite worshippers and mourners and at least 23 American soldiers.

As correctly predicted by Terrorism Monitor (Volume 3, Issue 24), terrorists and insurgents tried to attack Shi’ite shrines in Karbala and carried out a massacre at a funeral in Miqdadiyah. Moreover, there has been an upsurge in attacks on U.S. forces in and around Baghdad, even as guerillas continue to inflict heavy casualties on U.S. Marines in the strife-torn Anbar province.

The attack by a suicide bomber near the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala on January 5 left at least 60 dead (some reports suggested over 100 were killed) and constitutes the most serious attack on the shrine cities of Iraq since the start of the insurgency. The attack conforms to information supplied by sources close to the Badr organization that suggest terrorists and insurgents will increase their attacks on Shi’ite religious symbols in the coming months.

The attack on a largely Shi’ite funeral in Miqdadiyah (north of Baqubah) on January 4 killed at least 36 people (other reports suggested that over 50 were killed) and was singularly brazen and provocative, even by the standards of the increasingly bloody Iraqi insurgency. The attack on the funeral and the following day’s assault on Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines elicited an unusually strong response from Shi’ite political leaders. SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim implicitly blamed U.S. forces and Arab Sunni parties for “dirty sectarian crimes” (Al-Hayat, January 6, 2005). This was Hakim’s strongest outburst against Arab Sunni parties to date, an indication of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, in a program aired on January 7 by Iran’s Al-Alam TV (which broadcasts in Arabic and is primarily targeted at an Iraqi audience), the governor of Karbala, Aqil Mahmud al-Khaz’ali, denounced the “hypocrites” who appear on Arabic satellite channels and defend terrorist attacks by insurgents. This was a thinly-veiled attack on the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party, whose representatives regularly appear on al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite broadcasters to defend and justify attacks by what they call the “Iraqi resistance.”

In the same program, Amirah al-Baldawi, a female candidate of the United Iraqi Alliance, claimed that U.S. forces’ involvement in security matters was having a negative impact on the morale and efficiency of Iraqi security forces. This articulates widely-held fears by Shi’ites that the U.S.-led coalition will limit the influence of the Badr organization in security matters to appease the Arab Sunni guerilla movement. In recent weeks, the Shi’ites have been forced to defend the track record of the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces that have been accused of operating death squads, running secret prisons and generally advancing a sectarian security agenda.

Shi’ite fears have been heightened by the imminent entry of Arab Sunnis (with loose ties to the guerilla movement) into government. The worry is that the guerillas and their sympathizers in the government will coordinate their activities on the military and political fronts, thus increasing the pressure on the Americans to begin withdrawing from Iraq. Arab Sunnis of the Iraqi Accord Front (a Sunni Islamist coalition dominated by the Iraqi Islamic Party) are particularly keen to establish a foothold in the key defense and interior ministries. The former controls the National Guards while the latter operates a number of specialized counter-insurgency units, and is at the forefront of the war against the Arab Sunni guerilla movement and the Zarqawi network. There is already some insurgent penetration in the defense and interior ministries, but the fear is that this could increase significantly throughout 2006, with potentially serious consequences for U.S. forces, particularly in Baghdad province.

The impact of the recent elections on the insurgency is already evident in the form of a greater convergence between the emerging political system and the guerilla war. Up to this point the two had been largely separate, with events on the political front having little impact on the insurgency. In the very short-term this will lead to acute stresses and intense, but ephemeral, political conflicts, as both sides try to maneuver into a better position. In this atmosphere the priority for the U.S.-led coalition is to keep out of the political horse-trading and concentrate on improving counter-insurgency tactics. The raid by U.S. troops on the Umm al-Qura mosque complex in Baghdad (which is managed by the Association of Muslim Scholars) early on January 8 indicates that the coalition is determined to keep up the pressure on the insurgents and their sympathizers. It remains to be seen if this continues as Iraq gains greater independence in the coming months.