Unmasking the Iraqi Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 12

Since the start of war in Iraq, coalition forces have been strongly criticized for using “heavy-handed” military tactics against non-professional, civic “insurgents.” However, such criticism over-simplifies the conflict now raging in that country, concealing the true nature of those forces opposing the U.S.-led occupation. While it is generally agreed that coalition forces face a wide variety of opponents, there is evidence to suggest that many so-called “Iraqi insurgents” are in fact professional military personnel, trained in the use of professional army methods and weapons. The most appropriate means of combating such a force would, therefore, seem to include the use of conventional military tactics.

The political vocabulary defines terms broadly enough to describe activities as disparate as passive resistance and civil war under the rubric of “insurgency.” An “insurgent,” then, would be any individual who uses different non-violent and violent means to achieve a political goal in contradiction to the agenda of a ruling regime. Such a description could be aptly used to describe profession politicians or politically oriented civilians who fight to oppose the status quo. However, the most aggressive opposition forces operating in Iraq today are neither politicians nor civilians, but professionally trained soldiers. Not only do their agendas differ from other groups which the coalition faces, but so do their tactics. Far from being simply an organization of fighter-civilians, these individuals constitute a legitimate enemy army, requiring that traditional military means be used to combat them.

The use of what many have branded “heavy-handed” military tactics in fact addresses quite properly the kind of threat coalition forces now face in Iraq. Who are these Iraqi guerrillas? They are mostly Sunni members of different military establishments from the former Baath regime: the Iraqi regular army, the Republican Guard, the security services, and so-called National Army or “Fedayeen.” Shi’a para-military troops supported by the Iranian leadership also make up part of the military opposition to the U.S.-led war.

Former Military Establishments

According to the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), on the eve of the invasion, the Iraqi army consisted of some 387,000 troops. As one of Saddam Hussein’s major tools for supporting his regime, Baath party leadership ensured strict party control on all army structures. The basic combat troops of the Iraqi land forces were the Republican Guard. Initially a single brigade tasked with guarding Saddam, the Guard grew to six divisions totaling 190,000 soldiers and officers (20% of the Iraqi land force) during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). The Guard was staffed with fighters who had experience in previous wars. To ensure loyalty to Saddam, all members of the Guard were also members of the Baath party, earning them the name “Guards of the president.” According to military experts, the Iraqi Republican Guard made up one of the most efficient military formations in the Third world. During the first Iraq War, Iraqi command withdrew the Guard from Kuwait and Southern Iraq. Despite being exposed to bombardment from U.S.-led forces, their losses appeared to be rather insignificant. They were later used to for suppression of Kurdish and Shi’a anti-government oppositions.

In addition to regular armed forces, the Iraqi military organization included the irregular “National Army.” Created in 1970, the National Army represented territorial formations under the direct control of the Baath party. During the Iran-Iraq War, the National Army numbered some 650,000 troops; in the 1990s it increased to 850,000. The National Army trained draftees and was ready – if necessary – to participate in military operations in the second echelon. With the adoption of the “About service of women in armed forces of Iraq” law in 1978, female medical school graduates were able to enter into the armed forces. After 1979, some Iraqi military schools began accepting female high school graduates as well. [1]

According to Russian sources, prior to the 2003 invasion, Iraqi armed forces totaled roughly 1,180,000: 400,000 regular troops; 80,000 Republican Guard soldiers and officers; 50,000 police and paramilitary formations; and 650,000 reserve recruits of the National Army. [2] Following the defeat of Saddam’s regime, then, over one million Iraqi men and women – professionally trained in the use of Kalashnikovs, RPGs, mines and other non-sophisticated weaponry perfectly fitted to the environment of the urban guerrilla warfare – abandoned their military outfits and disappeared into their homes and villages.

According to UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, “to properly assess the nature of the anti-American resistance in Iraq today, one must remember that the majority of pro-regime forces, especially those military units most loyal to Hussein, as well as the entirety of the Iraqi intelligence and security forces, never surrendered. They simply melted away.” [3]

The Russian nationalist newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia, which sympathizes with Iraqi insurgents, wrote: “There are hundreds of thousands of well trained and courageous people in Iraq. They have weapons: seven million units of small arms or one Kalashnikov per every man in Iraq. The Iraqi army converted itself into a national-liberation movement. And there is no other national-liberation movement in history that was so well trained and armed.” [4] Russian military experts who used to train Iraqi military units consider that “the Iraqi army had deliberately left Baghdad and dissolved among the people, and the war is still far away from being finished.” [5]

United Arab Emirates newspaper Al-Ittihad, referring to competent Iraqi sources, wrote that a secret network created on orders from Saddam in March 1991 was carrying out anti-coalition operations. Created during the Shi’a revolts in the southern Iraq, this “secret network” is said to have consisted of relatives devoted to Saddam, employees of the special services and Baath party members. Expanded and reinforced in recent years, the network is now thought to be warehousing weapons, providing shelter for fugitives, and maintaining secret apartments where its members receive various documents and covers. Insurgents are incorporated into groups of no more than 20 people and receive from $500 to $2,000 for each operational undertaken – between $10,000 and $20,000 for downed helicopters or airplanes. [6]

This would seem to indicate that Saddam Hussein and the Baath leadership had long since abandoned ideas of an open battle with coalition forces. Instead, they concentrated on developing detailed plans for “dissolving” their army units among the civilian population and exploring the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare. Organized resistance in Sunni dominated areas, like Fallujah, may well be the outcome of such planning. U.S. military commanders were, in fact, engaged in negotiations with Iraqi Army officers heading Sunni fighters in Fallujah in recent months. Said to have some 1,100 members, the force, “called the Fallujah Protective Army, … is led by a leading general from Saddam’s army and includes Iraqis with ‘military experience’ from the Fallujah region.” [7]

Shi’a Para-military Troops

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, intended to spread his ideas across the Muslim world. More than anywhere else, he wished to implant his ideas into the Motherland of Shi’ism – the holy cities of Southern Iraq. Khomeini spent 14 years of his life there, directing the underground struggle of thousands of supporters against Saddam. Khomeini named those supporters “the fifth column” of Islamic revolution, believing that the Islamic revolution’s victorious march would begin in Iraq.

With the fall of Saddam’s regime, new opportunities for Khomeini’s followers in the Supreme Counsel of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) have emerged. According to reports, SCIRI has developed a secret plan named after the famous Battle of Camel in which Shi’a founder, Imam Ali, scored a brilliant victory for his followers near the Iraqi city of Basra (659). The “Battle of Camel” Plan hopes to repeat this success, allowing Shi’ites to seize power in Iraq. [8]

Jordanian sources report that the development and realization of the Camel Battle Plan was given to the SCIRI General Security Department in Iraq, the so-called “Al-Amn al-‘Am.” The General Security Department operates in close contact with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and receives significant military and technical aid from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, especially from its Special Forces (Quwwat al-Kuds). Preparations for the plan are said to have been made with support from Teheran.

Created in 1982, SCIRI is headed by Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr al-Hakim, an Iranian cleric chosen for the post by Khomeini. [9] His father, Muhsen al-Hakim, was the top religious leader of all Southern Iraq from 1955 to 1970, and the ideologue for the first fundamentalist Shi’a organization – the “Shi’ite Muslim Daawa Islamic Party.”

Members of the Najaf branch of the Shi’ite Muslim Daawa Islamic Party who defected to Iran made up the military-political nucleus of SCIRI. Since its inception, SCIRI developed a carefully hidden intelligence department, which founded underground cells all over Southern Iraq. The Department was also in charge of directing guerilla operations against representatives of Saddam’s regime and internal political opponents. Ironically, the Daawa Party became one of SCIRI’s main opponents, as competition for influence over Iraqi Shi’ites grew. It was the support of the Iranian special services and Saddam Hussein’s reprisals against the Shi’ite Muslim Daawa Islamic Party that allowed SCIRI to take on a leading position within Iraq’s Shi’a opposition movement.

Al-Hakim initially aspired to garner support from other influential groupings opposing Baghdad’s regime, intending to establish cooperation with the Kurdish, Turkmen and Assyrian opposition. The task of establishing these lines of communications fell to SCIRI intelligence department head Bakir Abdel Aziz. In the early 1990s, Aziz succeeded in establishing close relations with Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and later with Maqsud Barazani of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK). With their help, SCIRI set up the military bases in northern Iraq, wherefrom they carried out intelligence gathering and conducted attacks against the Iraq army.

SCIRI’s fighting wing, the “Badr,” holds the most important position within the organization’s military/administrative structure. According to various sources, about 15,000 troops serve in the Badr. It maintains a rigid internal discipline, has sophisticated weaponry and pays great attention to the training of its members. Many Badr members have considerable fighting experience, acquired during operations against the Iraqi army. Some of the officers studied at training facilities in the USSR Ministry of Defense and speak Russian. All Badr troops and officers have taken combat training in military camps in Iran and Lebanon.

SCIRI’s entire military/political structure was designed to replace government structures created by the Iraqi Baath party. And, in the lead-up to the war, cooperation with the U.S. seemed to be part of this plan. In August 2002, a delegation of six Iraqi opposition leaders met with top U.S. administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney. SCIRI representative Hamid al-Bayati was the spokesman for the delegation. Speaking on behalf of group, he said: “We sense more seriousness and [the] commitment from U.S. government to overthrow [the] Saddam regime and to work with the opposition.” [10]

However, following Saddam’s demise, al-Hakim, whom the Iranian clergy made a Grand Ayatollah to enable him to compete with the religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, came out against any form of cooperation with the United States. Al-Hakim’s Supreme Council encouraged Iraqi Shi’a to develop an autonomous government in the southern municipalities of Karbala, Najaf and Kut.

Al-Hakim and SCIRI remains at odds with the more liberal Sistani, who believes that “Religious figures should counsel, guide and advise, but not rule.” Considered by many to be a religious genius, Sistani must compete for authority with al-Hakim. The political ambitions of Muqtada al-Sadr, a young man in his twenties dubbed the “boy scholar” by his critics, complicate the situation further. Sadr seeks to transform the religious center in Najaf into a political center and establish an Iran-style state in Iraq. [11] This overlap between the goals of Hakim and Sadr seem to make for a natural alliance between the two, though as of yet, they have not openly indicated such a union. With SCIRI’s Adil Abdel-Mahdi as Finance Minister in the new Iraqi interim government and the disbanding of Badr Brigade after negotiations with the U.S., SCIRI may want to have an armed tool to pressure the new government if it goes too far in liberalizing Iraq – and Sadr may be just the man for the job.


1. Numbers, Staff, Weaponry, Issue # 24 – December 1999 – Iraq, G. V. Gorjachkin, https://www.fp.ru/bulletin/24irak.htm#l6.

2. War between America and Iraq: military aspect, https://www.analitik.org.ua/ukr/theme/3e9447f088679/.

3. Defining the resistance in Iraq – it’s not foreign and it’s well prepared, UN weapons inspector saw ‘blueprints’ for Monday’s insurgency, by Scott Ritter, The Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 2003, https://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1110/p09s02-coop.html.

4. Opinion: Why the Iraqi Army Dissolved?, “Sovetskaja Rossija” # 46 (12389), 04/26/ 2003, https://www.sovross.ru/2003/046/046_3_1.htm.

5. After Saddam. Second Day, https://temadnya.ru/archive/10apr2003/index.html.

6. Terrorist # 2 Saddam and Iraqi Army return. Day.Az https://www.day.az/view.php?id=1821 12/11/03.

7. Tentative Deal in Fallujah, Jason Keyser (AP), April 30-May 2, 2004.

8. Battle of Camel, https://ismaili.net/histoire/history03/history339.html.

9. Iraq king Wanna-be says U.S. would win, by Richard Sisk, Daily News Washington Bureau 08/08/2002.

10. GOP Ranks Split Over Iraq Invasion, CBS News, Washington, August 9, 2002.

11. No, no to America! Yes to Islam!’ By Zvi Bar’el, Ha’aretz – Israel News, June 9, 2004, https://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=289367&contrassID=2&subContrassID=5#top.