For the U.S. military, 2007 was the year of the surge in Iraq. The controversial troop increase—along with the rise of the Sunni Awakening councils and Moqtada al-Sadr’s truce—has combined to help tame both sectarian and insurgent violence. As for the insurgents, 2007 was a year of mergers and acquisitions, with groups consolidating into new fronts and alliances. This process of consolidation has gone remarkably unnoticed, possibly because its first order of business has been to take on al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its Islamic State. But does this evolution bode well for the future stability of Iraq?
The consolidation began when AQI decided to unify the insurgent groups under its leadership. A pair of umbrella organizations were formed: first the Mujahideen Shura Council, then the Islamic State of Iraq. For the better part of two years (2005-2006), AQI touted the virtues of unity and called on other insurgent groups to join forces under its leadership (al-Fajr Media Center, October 13, 2006; al-Furqan, December 22, 2006). The call was to no avail. Some groups cooperated with AQI fighters on a tactical level, but no major insurgent group decided to ally itself with AQI. Major insurgent groups stayed away from the umbrella organizations grossly dominated by AQI. When coaxing and cajoling failed, the group began attacking fellow insurgents to force their acquiescence. That tactic led to a public backlash spearheaded by the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) (iaisite.org, April 5, 2007) and seemingly initiated a process of consolidation around four poles:
• The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) is a group of eight Salafist organizations dominated by AQI. The ISI’s project is to restore the Caliphate under a puritanical brand of Islam and use it as a launch-pad to liberate Jerusalem. It is characterized by adhesion to Salafism, belief in jihad and by an internationalist agenda. The army of Ansar al-Islam has cooperated with the ISI, but not joined it. It adheres to the same brand of ideology; however, it has not, as of yet, unveiled international ambitions.
• The Reformation and Jihad Front (RJF) was formed in May 2007 by the IAI, the Mujahideen Army and the Shura Council of the Ansar al-Sunnah (iaisite-eng.org, September 15, 2007). The front is primarily concerned with the situation in Iraq where it wants to end the U.S. occupation, end Iranian influence over Iraqi officials, and make tabula rasa of the post-invasion political framework. Rhetorically, it mixes Salafist and nationalist references. However, the front—and particularly the Islamic Army in Iraq—has increasingly discussed international issues such as the fate of Palestinians and the Muhammad cartoons, calling for jihad to avenge the sullied honor of Muslims. The RJF has formed the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance (PCIR) with two of the more nationalist groups, Hamas-Iraq and the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance (JAMI) (al-Jazeera, October 13, 2007). The PCIR is also expressing concern with international issues such as the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
• The Jihad and Change Front (JCF) was formed in September 2007. It is composed of eight groups led by the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Rashideen Army. Ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, the front embraces a moderate Islamist agenda and seeks to end the occupation and nullify the acts taken by the post-invasion Iraqi government.
• The Supreme Command of Jihad and Liberation (SCJL) is a consortium of 22 factions formed by the Baath Party under the leadership of Izzat al-Douri in October 2007 (al-Basrah.net, October 7, 2007). The command wants to end the occupation of Iraq and nullify all laws and decisions adopted since 2003.
There is good news in this process. The forging of fronts and alliances is a sign the insurgency is maturing from paramilitary groups to politico-military entities with political programs and more explicit visions of the future. This type of change is a prerequisite for engaging in a process of national reconciliation. In spite of their often-fiery anti-American rhetoric, some of these groups and fronts have cooperated at the local level with U.S. forces to enforce local ceasefires. They have also decided for the time being that fighting AQI is more important than fighting the United States. These local processes might help jump-start a more durable reconciliation.
However, there are also grounds for concern. All these fronts remain adamantly opposed to the current government of Iraq both in words and actions. Each also wants to be considered as the sole legitimate representative of the Iraqi people, not just the Iraqi Sunnis. This demand makes it more difficult to actually engage in a formal reconciliation because under such a framework, Shiites would have to agree to be represented by Sunni insurgent groups. When these fronts hint at a willingness to open negotiations, it is with the United States and not with the Iraqi government. Lastly, another ground for concern is the willingness of the ISI and the RJF to take on international issues and advocate jihad in other struggles, most notably on behalf of the Palestinians.
In 2007, the insurgents began to articulate political visions. In 2008, the challenge will be to draw their visions toward reconcilable positions with Iraq’s other communities.