Contradictions of the Iraqi Resistance: Guerilla War vs. Terrorism

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

Michael Schwartz

ONE OF THE most complicated aspects of the war in Iraq is that the Iraqi resistance is divided into a multitude of different groups with a multitude of different goals.

Most of us are aware that the bulk of the fighting has been between Sunni insurgents and the American military, but that there have also been numerous car bombings and other suicide attacks (by Sunni insurgents) aimed at Shia clerics and their followers.  We also know that there have been battles (in Najaf and Sadr City, mainly) between the U.S. military and Shia insurgents led by the “firebrand” cleric, Muqtada al Sadr; that there have been battles between the British and local forces in the Shia city of Basra; that there have been huge battles near the Syrian border with groups that may be local Sunnis or may be jihadists from Syria; that there has been at least occasional violence between Kurds and other ethnicities in the disputed city of Kirkuk.

While such a mélange cannot be reduced to any simple equation, there is one distinction that promises to be crucially important as the war matures: the distinction between those groups that largely limit themselves to attacks against the military forces of the American-led occupation, and those who take as their legitimate targets civilians who they feel provide support to the American presence.  While we don’t hear much about this distinction in the American press, it represents a crucial division on-the-ground in Iraq, one which divides various groupings organizationally, ideologically, and politically.

The former tendency, which attacks mainly the American military, often calls itself the “nationalist resistance” because most of its adherents focus on the narrow goal of expelling the Americans from their communities and from Iraq; it engages in what has been historically described as guerrilla war. The latter group, which often calls itself “Islamist,” has a broader vision of uniting the Middle East against American and European domination and has therefore attracted a considerable number of non-Iraqis to join in its campaigns; in pursuing this goal it embraces a terrorist military strategy that includes civilians as targets.  (In Iraq, both tendencies tend toward fundamentalist religious views, and tend to recruit religious leadership, though their attitudes toward other ethno-religious groups in Iraq differ quite dramatically, as noted below.)

The difference between guerrilla war and terrorism is fairly straightforward in theory, but more difficult to discern in practice.  Guerrilla war is like other war—it involves military personnel fighting against other military personnel.  The only difference is that one side (the guerrillas) does not have uniforms and the members of a fighting unit gather together briefly to fight a quick battle—usually an ambush of some sort.  They then disband, before their militarily superior adversary can overwhelm them, and hide among the resident population until the next battle.  Guerrilla war is clearly a tactic of weakness—to be practiced by groups that cannot fight sustained battles against their adversary.

Terrorism, on the other hand, does not restrict itself to targeting the opposition military.  In addition to military targets, it also attacks civilians, using the logic that demoralizing the civilian support of its opponent will deprive the enemy of needed resources and therefore defeat it. Terrorism can be practiced by states—as the United States did when it bombed Hiroshima (a non-military target) in a (successful?) attempt to get the Japanese public to withdraw its support for continued prosecution of World War II; or it can be practiced by oppositional groups—as the Islamists did when they bombed the Madrid commuter trains in a (successful?) attempt to get the Spanish public to withdraw its support for continued participation in the Iraqi war. While state terrorism is an integral part of the war in Iraq, we are concerned in this essay with oppositional terrorism.

To illustrate the contrast between guerrilla war and oppositional terrorism, consider these two examples.  The first, reported by the Washington Post in early 2005, illustrates the patterns of guerrilla attack in Iraq:

In an incident Sunday, witnesses said a roadside bomb planted in a carton exploded near a group of Marines and U.S. soldiers on foot patrol in the village of Abu Ghraib….

Farhan Ali, 52, a shepherd from the village, said insurgents told him to clear out of an area on a busy dirt road from Abu Ghraib to Smailat because they had planted a bomb in a cardboard carton that was set to blow up next to the foot patrol.  “All the people in the area knew about it,” he said.  “The insurgents asked us to stay out of the road.”

“All of us were just watching,” Ali said.  “There were a bunch of kids standing away from the road expecting and watching to see an explosion.  (January 10, 2005)

This action captures the essence of guerrilla war. It was a strictly military action in which the targets were the American soldiers; in fact the guerrillas warned local residents (at the risk that someone might warn the Americans) in order to prevent civilian casualties.  It was hit-and-run; the guerrillas made no effort to “win the battle,” they were content to melt back into the community.  It had modest military goals; in this case to stall the U.S. patrol (most likely in an attempt to prevent it from conducting searches and arrests in houses of suspected insurgents).  Notice also that the identity of the guerrillas was well known to community residents; the resistance fighters made no attempt to hide their identities as they placed the bomb or warned the residents.

This reflects the larger reality that the community clearly sided with the guerrillas and not the Americans—the spectator-sport aspect of the incident captures this nicely.  This support was undoubtedly connected to the purpose of the action: in preventing home invasions and arrests, the local guerrillas were fighting a defensive battle that protected community residents from the depredations of the American occupation.

We can also see in this example the inherent weakness in guerrilla war: there is no military way to win the war. The guerrillas could, in principle, make things so difficult that the Americans would not venture into their community.  But they could not drive the Americans out of Iraq with such a defensive posture and with the limited ability to conduct small hit-and-run attacks.

Consider now this description of a terrorist incident that also took place in early 2005:

Gunmen assassinated a representative of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and five other people in an attack south of Baghdad on Wednesday….sheik Mahmoud al-Madaini was killed along with his son and four guards after leaving sunset prayers at a mosque in Maidan, a Sunni-dominated city about 12 miles south of the capital, said an official in the ayatoollah’s office.  (January 14, 2005)

In a statement posted on several web sites used by insurgents, the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility for killing the clerics.  According to Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid, the group called Madaini “one of the main supporters of the election and reiterated their threats to target voters and candidates and to attack polling stations.”  (January 15, 2005)

The attack, then, was part of a larger campaign mounted by the jihadist wing of the Iraqi resistance aimed at intimidating Shia citizens from participating in the election.  This would—if it succeeded—prevent the Shia from supporting the formation of a government that would tolerate and even validate the presence of the American occupation.  That is, this and other incidents constituted violence directed at civilians (in this case a cleric), the purpose of which was to scare other civilians (Iraqi citizens) into withdrawing their support for the U.S. sponsored government.  It was, in short, a classic terrorist campaign.

This campaign was almost the contrapositive of the guerrilla attack.  The target was not military.  The local civilians were not warned; instead they were endangered, wounded and killed in the process of conducting the attack.  In fact, the local community (being Shia) was considered the enemy; it was part of the Shia community that needed to be intimidated.  And—most of all—the goal was much more ambitious than the goal of the local guerrillas; this act was part of a larger campaign that sought to develop the leverage to drive the U.S. out of Iraq by depriving it of the support it needed in the Shia community.

The logic of terrorism and the logic of guerrilla war are not explicitly contradictory.  They appear to be complementary in very important respects: Guerrilla movements aspire to protecting the community, but cannot effectively expel the occupation; the terrorists apply a strategy designed to accomplish this expulsion.  Moreover, they operate in different venues, with the guerrillas located within communities that are organized to resist the occupation, while terrorists conduct their most representative actions in communities that are not part of the resistance, seeking to influence those who are considered complicitous with the enemy.

From this vantage point, the two could be complementary forces in a single campaign.  The two examples we have just discussed certainly could be parts of the same campaign: the local guerrillas keeping Americans out of Sunni communities, while the jihadists undermine support for the American presence in Shia areas.

Nevertheless, the real dynamics of the Iraqi resistance reveal a fundamental contradiction between guerrilla strategy and terrorist tactics.  One symptom of this contradiction is found in the reports of the assassination of Sheik Madaini.  On the same day that the assassination was reported, the New York Times contained a less prominently displayed, but perhaps even more important, bit of news:

The powerful Association of Muslim Scholars denounced Madaini’s killing as the work of “criminal agents.”  The association has called for a boycott of the elections and includes members who advocate violent resistance to the American occupation.  Its statement Friday, however, buttressed the theory that domestic militants and those with foreign links have diverging goals.  (January 15, 2005)

The most significant element in this news brief was the organization that denounced the assassination: the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) a group made up of Sunni clerics with very close ties to the guerrilla movement.  Beginning in the spring of 2004, the AMS had acted as both the political wing of the Sunni resistance and as a source of many of its important military leaders.  This statement, then, was as close to a general policy as the Sunni guerrilla movement could make, considering its decentralized and balkanized nature.

The importance of the AMS meant that the guerrilla wing of the resistance was denying the apparent complementarity with the jihadists, and the designation “criminal agents” suggested that the clerics (and their allies in the guerrilla movement) would support the arrest and prosecution of the jihadists by the government.  To understand the structural strains that led to this split, it is useful to look at two key axes in the struggle against the occupation: the development of the Falluja resistance movement, and the varied relationships between the resistance and the various incarnations of the Iraqi police.

The sense of the complementarity between jihadism and guerrilla war was nowhere more evident than in Falluja, the center of the Sunni resistance where, between April and November of 2004, the resistance controlled local governance.  It became the destination for jihadists from neighboring countries, who were attracted to Iraq and to Falluja as a location where they could effectively fight the American influence and presence in the Middle East.

At first the local fighters welcomed the outsiders as allies and absorbed them into local guerrilla battles.  But the foreign fighters, though never more than a small fraction of the fighters in Falluja, were imbued with the goal of definitively defeating the Americans, and they were attracted to the terrorist logic that strong blows to the civilian support for the occupation could drive the United States out of the country.

By the summer of 2004, the number of terrorist actions—kidnappings and beheadings of foreign civilians, attacks on civilians associated with the occupation, and assaults on applicants for police jobs—began to multiply.  By the fall of 2004, car bombings and other suicide attacks began to dominate the news from Iraq.  While the jihadists were spread around the country and probably concentrated in Baghdad, Falluja also became a central place for their planning and other “backstage” activities.  When the wave of jihadist kidnappings occurred, for example, many of the hostages were housed in Falluja during their detention.

While foreign and Iraqi followers of the jihadist logic were never more than a tiny minority of the fighters in Falluja, their activities dominated the headlines.  This was partly because of the large number of casualties they created by attacking what became known as “soft targets,” and partly because of the unspectacular nature of day-to-day (primarily defensive) guerrilla war, which often succeeded in deterring U.S. or Iraqi patrols by exploding improvised explosive devices that injured no one. An exception to this pattern was the ambush of four American private security personnel by local Falluja guerrillas, though the publicity around it emanated from the post-mortem mutilation of the bodies by a crowd of local residents.

Eventually, the terrorist attacks performed by the jihadists became the focus of Western press coverage, and the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as the most prominent name associated (in the English language press) with the Iraqi resistance.  Zarqawi was reputed to have made his headquarters in Falluja.  (Ultimately, the November U.S. offensive which reconquered and deconstructed Falluja was described by U.S. military personnel as largely an effort to decapitate the resistance by capturing or killing Zarqawi.)

After the first battle of Falluja in April, which ended with the American Marines withdrawing rather than risking a national uprising in protest over the destructiveness of the assault, friction began to develop within Falluja between the local guerrilla fighters and the jihadists associated with Zarqawi.  The nature of this friction reveals a sharp contradiction between the methods of the jihadists and the goals of the guerrillas that would later mature into overt conflict.  Just before the second battle, Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandresekaran talked to various Falluja guerrilla leaders and reported their unhappiness with the presence of the jihadists:

Many Fallujah residents appear to be growing weary of Zarqawi’s followers, according to residents interviewed by telephone.  Zarqawi’s agenda appears to extend well beyond the goal of residents, who want to keep U.S. forces out of the city.  He and his supporters have turned the city into a base for wider attacks, particularly against Iraqi officials and security forces.  His loyalists, many of whom adhere to the strict Salafi school of Islam, also have attempted to instill hard-line social restrictions, demanding that women cover their hair and hectoring men for not growing beards.  Although Fallujah is a deeply religious city, many residents follow mystical Sufi beliefs, such as praying by the graves of relatives, which Salafis regard as blasphemous.

In what may be the strongest sign of tension between residents and foreigners, the head of the Shura Council, Abdullah Janabi, who had invited foreigners to the city in April, issued a statement on Friday calling Zarqawi a “criminal.”

“We don’t need Zarqawi to defend our city,” said Janabi, who sought to draw a distinction between what he called “Iraqi resistance fighters” and foreign fighters engaged in a campaign against Iraq’s infrastructure, foreign civilians and Iraqi security forces.  “The Iraqi resistance is something and the terrorism is something else.  We don’t kidnap journalists and we don’t sabotage the oil pipelines and the electric power stations.  We don’t kill innocent Iraqis.  We resist the occupation.”  (September 21, 2004)

While Janabi’s comments describe the distinctions between guerrilla strategy (“keep U.S. forces out of the city”) and the terrorist actions (kidnapping, sabotage and targeting Iraqi civilians), his objections are only implicit.  Made explicit, they appear to be that:

  • Zarqawi’s actions do not help keep the Americans out of Falluja;
  • Zarqawi’s actions are destroying the Iraqi oil and industrial infrastructure, which Janabi hopes to take possession of and utilize;
  • Zarqawi and the other jihadists have tried to impose their morality on the local community;
  • Killing “innocent Iraqis” and journalists is immoral, and hence criminal.

These denunciations share a common theme, suggesting that the apparently complementary goals of the two groups are—in some ultimate sense—contradictory.  In order to alienate allegedly complicit Iraqis (and foreign civilians) from the Americans and the American sponsored government, the jihadists undertook actions that, at least in the long run, would undermine the goals of the guerrillas.  These include oppressing local citizens who could be recruited to the defense of the city, attacking civilians who might become partisans of the resistance, destroying infrastructure that could be useful in the community, and siphoning off fighters who could be defending the city.

What is left unanswered here is why Janabi focused on these contradictions and not on the fact that the jihadists, like the guerrillas, were trying to weaken the occupation, and that many of their acts (no matter how brutal or even immoral) appear to have advanced this cause.  The answer can be found by tracing the complex relationship between the two movements and the Iraqi police, who by mid-2005 had become the prime target for the jihadists.

Guerrillas, Jihadists and Police

Starting with the beginning of the resistance, the guerrilla movement in Iraq—both Sunni and Shia (the latter being primarily Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army)—attempted to co-opt, rather than defeat, the Iraqi police and National Guard.  The patterns were simple: when police and the National Guard were stationed in cities, the resistance would cooperate with them in enforcing criminal law, even delivering criminals to them for incarceration and imprisonment.  They avoided armed conflict just as long as the police stuck to law enforcement and other duties that the guerrillas considered legitimate.  (An extensive analysis of the Mahdi’s strategy and tactics appears in Michael Schwartz, “Guerilla War in Sadr City,” Against the Current, January-February 2005.)

When the U.S. military called upon local Iraqi forces to fight the resistance, the guerrillas would issue an appeal for the Iraqi armed forces to defect or abandon their posts and melt into the population.  In virtually every important confrontation, police stations were abandoned to the resistance; Iraqi units deserted and went home rather than fight other Iraqis, and some even joined the resistance and fought the Americans.  The most highly visible cases of this occurred in the two battles in Falluja and the confrontations in Sadr City, where the U.S. could not mobilize any Iraqi units except those from the Kurdish areas.

This strategy was more successful than attempting to prevent the recruitment of police and National Guard, since it created a “Trojan Horse,” which—although U.S.-supplied and trained—was frequently an ally and almost never an enemy.  In Mosul, for example, U.S. reliance on the local police allowed the resistance to take over the city (during the second battle of Falluja, when the U.S. forces were otherwise occupied) with almost no fighting.  A force of 3000 policemen simply melted into the population (except those who joined the rebels) and left their weapons and supplies behind.

The success of these strategies led to a tolerant attitude among guerrilla groups for the Iraqi police, an attitude expressed by Abu Mojahed, a member of the guerrilla group in the Haifa section of Baghdad.  Saying he spoke for all guerrilla groups, Mojahed told Guardian reporter Rory McCarthy in December 2004 that the guerrillas’ “targets were the U.S. military and “those supporting them”…including helicopters, tanks and individual soldiers….  “We fight for our land, against those who are fighting Islam, for our country and for our women….Our goal is to fight whoever fights us and not just the Americans.”  His friend and comrade, Abu Rahmad, added that “some Iraqi police and soldiers should not be touched, because they were “serving for the good of their country.”

This differentiated viewpoint reflected the logic of the larger guerrilla strategy that police and soldiers were the enemy only if they fought with the Americans (“whoever fights us”), otherwise they would be left alone.  This is consistent with the defensive strategy of guerrilla war, but contradictory to the logic of terrorism, which seeks to deter such complicitous behavior.  For the jihadists, therefore, attacks on the police were a reasonable strategy, even if the police might be willing to dissolve or defect in the face of resistance.  Since the goal of these attacks is to choke off police recruitment, the actual stance of the police was irrelevant.

This explains the very different attitudes expressed in one of the more spectacular suicide attacks undertaken in the early part of the anti-police campaign, reported by the New York Times.  The event, which might be labeled a “suicide house bomb,” involved an immense explosion that destroyed the better part of a block in Baghdad, killing the jihadists who set the bomb, while killing or wounding the policemen who were lured into the ambush and the members of several families living nearby.

Khalid Ahmad, a pickup truck driver, said one of his neighbors approached the house about noon Tuesday to greet the new occupants.  The occupants responded by firing two bullets into the air, turning the man away, said Ahmad, who lives nearby.  Ahmad said the man then went to the police and informed on the occupants.

About 10 that night, three police cars approached the house from the front and back, and officers used loudspeakers to order the occupants to come out, witnesses said.  The occupants shot at the police officers, and as they stormed the house, it blew up. Officers who had climbed the walls of neighboring buildings and those who stormed the house died instantly.  The force of the blast threw some of their bodies 100 feet, said Fareed Ghaeyeb, 28, who works as a trader in the nearby Shula market.  “I saw and then helped in removing three torn bodies of policemen who had approached the front of the house,” he said.

Kareem Ashour, 41, a minibus driver whose house is about five doors from the site of the explosion, said he heard the officers calling out through the loudspeakers, and “then there was firing and a loud explosion that shook the whole house.”  Ashour said a family of 13 that lived next to the exploded house was buried under debris.  Rescue workers retrieved the bodies of five adults and four children, the youngest of whom was 5.

In this example, the suicide bombers had no concern with deciding whether the police were the sort of Trojan horse that played a key role in guerrilla strategy; their trap was set to kill whoever showed up. But the suicide house bomb also reflected a second attitude, an indiscriminate attitude toward what the American military calls “collateral damage,” the lives of the family of 13 that lived next door.  This is the very attitude that led Amnesty International in July, 2005 to label attacks such as this “war crimes” in a meticulous accounting of the variety and quantity of such acts performed by oppositional terrorists.

From the point of view of the perpetrators, however, the civilian casualties were not a liability and might even have been a virtue.  The local citizens were not the primary target for the attack, because it was designed to intimidate the broader community that supplied policemen to the government.  But the losses still stood as an object lesson, that the residents should mobilize against the occupation and the government or else expect further carnage.

Though the campaign to immobilize the Iraqi government began in the summer of 2004, the attacks on the police were a small part of the campaign until after the election in January 2005.  From that point forward, the jihadists began using car bombs—usually with suicide drivers—to systematically attack Iraqi police and police recruits.  These attacks became a larger and larger part of the jihadists’ repertoire through the spring of 2005, after which they subsided.

It is important to note that car bombs and other suicide attacks never consisted of more than a tiny fraction of all resistance actions; during the first 11 months of 2005, for example, there were between 400 and 700 weekly attacks by the resistance, with some 20 or so being attacks against soft civilian targets.  But because these terrorist attacks could create large numbers of casualties and—at once or twice a week—produced spectacular carnage, they virtually always dominated the news coverage of the resistance.

The dramatic increase in car bombings during the spring of 2005 was at least in part a response to a change in U.S. policy for deploying the Iraqi forces under its command.  Until the fall of 2004, the occupation recruited local residents for the local police forces and assigned Iraqi army units with matching ethno-religious backgrounds to local patrols.  Thus Fallujans were recruited to police and patrol in Falluja, Ramadans in Ramadi and Sadr City residents in Sadr City.  When there were insufficient local recruits to man local posts, they assigned units with similar ethno-religious backgrounds—Sunnis assigned to Sunni areas while Shiites were assigned to Shia areas.

While it is standard practice in cities across the world to recruit local citizens to police forces, this policy has great liabilities in the context of a popular rebellion, as the guerrillas had demonstrated time and again in the various battles around the country.  It became a key element in the Trojan Horse strategy, since the ties into the local communities gave families and tribal leaders personal, moral, and clerical leverage over the local armed forces.

After a year in which the locally based police and army units had deserted or refused to fight in every important confrontation with the resistance, the U.S. military began assigning outsiders to police the most troubled areas.  Particularly after the second battle of Falluja, when Sunni units once again deserted, but the Kurdish units performed well, the American command began systematically assigning troops and police whose ethno-religious affiliation contrasted that of the local community.

The thinking was that such outsiders would be immune to the family, tribal and religious pressure that had made the earlier forces unreliable.  The Americans were so determined to implement this strategy that it became a major issue in the aborted negotiations to avoid the second battle in Falluja.  In the pre-attack meetings, representatives of the Falluja resistance demanded that the police force in Falluja be recruited from Falluja.  The occupiers would not agree to this demand, and it became the official sticking point around which the negotiations were discontinued.

By the winter of 2004-2005, the contrasting ethnicity strategy had been implemented in many areas where the guerrilla war had been most active, including Ramadi, Samarra and other centers of Sunni resistance north and west of Baghdad.  In January, when the Americans started allowing Falluja residents to return to the reconquered city, they installed an all-Shia police force recruited from communities south of Baghdad.  The returning residents immediately began complaining of frequent and systematic police brutality, an awkward sign that the U.S. strategy was succeeding in eliminating police sympathy with Sunni resistance.

This strategy created a strong base of recruitment for the jihadists’ anti-police campaign in the spring of 2005.  In Sunni areas, instead of local police who not only shared community values but also helped to resist the demands of the occupation, the local armed forces had been transformed into representatives of the pro-American central government, with an overlay of ethnic revenge visited by long oppressed Shia on their former Sunni overlords.  These experiences made many residents anxious to find a method that would drive the hostile police from their community.  Thus the terrorist logic of intimidating Shia from joining the police took on a special appeal.

Once the election took place in late January, the jihadists within the resistance refocused their attention on the police, and found a ready base among angry Sunnis for this campaign, including for the first time a large number of Iraqis who were willing to undertake suicide car bombings.  The campaign grew to huge proportions during the early part of summer.  According to one U.S. military official, there were 25 car bombings during the entire year of 2004 in Baghdad; but in March, April, and May of 2005 there were 126.  Though these represented less than 3% of the 5000 or so resistance attacks during that period (with about 70% directed at U.S. armed forces), they dominated the headlines and accounted for the bulk of the casualties caused by the resistance. The media coverage made the car bombings appear to be almost random, but this was hardly the case.  The overwhelming majority were aimed at police and police recruits, with a small number targeted to Shia mosques, clerical leaders and government officials.  (While most of the new recruits entering the police were Shia, and most of the attacks were in Shia areas, some of the attacks targeted the dwindling number of Sunni recruits.) Reports in early May indicated that 250 of the 400 people that had been killed to that point by car bombs had been recruits or active duty police and National Guard.

Under the Geneva Convention definitions, most of the car bombings could be interpreted as military actions; since terrorist actions must technically target civilians, one could argue that the police recruits were not civilians and that the civilians who were killed were “collateral damage.”  But this would misrepresent their significance, since the attacks were not designed to debilitate the police directly.  Their goal was to convince Iraqi citizens that they should not volunteer either for the police or the military, or—for that matter—any job that helped the Iraqi government.  Instead, they should “proactively demand” an end to the U.S. occupation.

Since the vast majority of police recruits were Shia, this message was largely aimed at the Shia community, which the jihadists saw as the main support for the new government.  More and more they came to view the entire Shia community as complicitous, and therefore appropriate targets for attack.

This religious logic was made even more explicit by a public pronouncement by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in late May, asserting that occupation leaders were “being aided by their allies from Shia,” and then adding “The Shia sect has always spearheaded any war against Islam and Muslims throughout history.”  For Zarqawi, then, all Shia were complicitous and needed to be targeted to induce a change in their behavior.

Contradictions Turn to Conflict

Almost from the beginning, the jihadist campaign to alienate support from the Iraqi government revealed the contradictions of interest between the guerrilla fighters and the jihadists, eventually making it clear to both sides the ways in which their strategies worked against each other.  For Shia citizens, the campaign was interpreted as a direct attack on their communities, as illustrated by this incident on May 23:

At lunchtime, a car bomb exploded outside a cafe frequented by workers in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of north Baghdad, killing at least five people, hospital officials said.The bomb was detonated by remote control, police said.  While the intended targets appeared to have been police who also gather at the cafe, witnesses said the victims were civilians.  (Washington Post, May 24, 2005)

One witness, interviewed by Washington Post reporters Knickmeyer and Nouri, though acknowledging that police were the target, saw the attacks as ruining his life: “I swear to God, I will not enter any restaurant if I see any policemen sitting there….There is no safe place in Baghdad, not even your bedroom.”  Another declared bluntly that the insurgents were cowards: “They cannot face these men [the police] man-to-man, so they show us how brave they are by killing these poor men who run all day to feed their families.”

It is no surprise that the communities in which these attacks took place viewed them as atrocities, not only because they killed civilians.  The comment that the restaurant bombers “show us how brave they are by killing these poor men who run all day to feed their families” probably represented the predominant attitude among Shia toward both the car bombers and the police they targeted.  The car bombers were not only killing local residents—friends and relatives—but potentially eliminating access to one of the few job possibilities available in communities with unemployment as high as 60%. 

Beyond the murder and alienation of civilians, the car bombings undermined the Trojan Horse strategy practiced by the guerrilla movement, in both the Shia and Sunni areas.  Before the campaign started, both Sadrists (the Shia Mahdi army) and Sunni resistance organizations had encouraged their members to join the police: it was a paying job for their part-time fighters; it provided them with weapons and training that they could utilize in the fight against the Americans; they could act as spies for the resistance, and their timely desertion allowed for great flexibility in planning and executing guerrilla attacks.

As the attacks on the police began to choke off recruitment, they became more and more of a problem for the guerrillas.  It is not surprising therefore that the Sadrists, who dominated the Shia guerrilla movement, opposed the jihadist attacks on Iraqi civilians from their inception.  In June 2004, when the anti-police campaign was just beginning and the car bombings were still a few months away, the Sadrists began issuing proclamations opposing it. Their general attitude was expressed by Aws Khafaji, a Sadrist cleric, after a day of coordinated terrorist attacks:

We condemn and denounce yesterday’s bombings and attacks on police centers and innocent Iraqis, which claimed about 100 lives.  These are attacks launched by suspects and lunatics who are bent on destabilizing the country and ruining the peace so that the Iraqi people will remain in need of American protection.

It is noteworthy that the statement not only opposed the attacks on moral principle, but also argued that they undermined the effort to expel the Americans, a reflection of the strategic thinking that underlay their distaste for the strategy.  A few weeks later, the Sadrists circulated a leaflet throughout Sadr City declaring their willingness to work with the police in protecting Iraq’s infrastructure from terrorist bombings:

“The Mahdi Army is ready to cooperate actively and positively with honest elements from among the Iraqi police and other patriotic forces, to partake in safeguarding government buildings and facilities, such as hospitals, electricity plants, water, fuel and oil refineries, and any other site that might be a target for terrorist attacks.”  (Quoted in Washington Post, June 25, 2004)

They even aligned themselves with the Interim Administration for this endeavor.  Sayeed Rahim al-Alaq, deputy head of the committee that drafted the leaflet, told New York Times reporter Fisher: “We are with the government.  We are antiterrorists.”  (July 16, 2004)

This tactical alliance underscored the nuanced attitude taken by the Shia guerrillas toward the police.  They continued to work with the police on “law and order” issues within the community, and even delivered captured criminals to them to be arrested and prosecuted.  By excluding the jihadists from the resistance, they reduced them to criminals.  From the summer of 2004 forward, the Sadrists did not waver in opposition to the jihadist attacks on police and civilians, consistently condemning the rising tide of car bombings.  Their stance appeared to have some effect in deflecting the jihadists, since Sadr City, the Sadrist stronghold in Baghdad, was rarely struck by major attacks.

The equation for the Sunni wing of the guerrilla movement was substantially different.  Though Sunni police were occasional targets of terrorist violence, they were the exception, and the visible targeting of the Shia community gave the campaign a very different flavor in the Sunni centers.

On the face of it, the jihadists’ strategy was supportive of the Sunni guerrillas.  Since the Sunni areas were facing the full force of the American pacification effort, the terrorist attacks offered the promise of diverting American troops into protective postures in Shia areas, and of undermining the viability of the Iraqi armed forces upon which the Americans were becoming increasingly dependent.  Moreover, the integration of the jihadists into Sunni communities, particularly Falluja, made them hard to dislodge, even though they had never become integrated into the guerrilla organizations.

On the other hand, the attacks that did target Sunni police were a threat to the Sunni guerrillas’ Trojan Horse strategy, since these attacks had the potential of deterring Sunnis—including guerrilla sympathizers—from joining.  But the larger issue—beyond the indubitable moral concerns—that animated the alienation of the Sunni guerrillas was its effect on the relationship between the Sunni and Shia resistance.  This problem was immediately grasped by some leaders, but its impact became much more apparent during the second battle of Falluja in November.

The first battle of Falluja in April (triggered by the ambush and mutilation of the four American security personnel) had produced a major victory for the guerrilla fighters in Falluja and around the country, including Shia fighters in Mahdi’s Army.  American Marines sought to re-establish their eroded control of the city, beginning with an assault on guerrilla strongholds in the north.  They immediately encountered stronger-than-expected resistance, and halted their advance while top military strategists pondered their options.

There was never any question that the Marines could have captured the rest of the city, but many factors—political and military—made such a plan problematic.  One of these factors was the rapid diffusion of the rebellion to other cities.  In the first few days of the Falluja battle, uprisings took place in other Sunni cities, and then—under the leadership of the Sadrists—the battle spread to Shia cities throughout the south of Iraq, centering on the first battle of Najaf.  The threat of a national uprising loomed, amplified by the flood of material support for Falluja fighters from all areas of the country.  The threatened uprising led to a U.S. decision to retreat; the Marines withdrew to their bases outside the city after negotiating a settlement that ultimately left the city in the hands of the guerrillas until the second battle in November.

When the jihadist campaign against Iraqi complicity with the occupation began soon after the end of the first battle of Falluja, it immediately threatened to undermine Shia support for Falluja and other Sunni centers of resistance.  The threat was sharpened by the jihadists’ use of Falluja as a base area, creating an indelible association between the jihadist anti-Shia campaign and the broader Falluja resistance.  At the same time, the Bush Administration began pointing to the terrorist attacks as the precursor to a general assault against the Shia by Sunni insurgents, invoking the (not altogether unreasonable) image that without the moderating influence of American troops, Iraq might devolve into a Shia vs. Sunni civil war.

Many Sunni resistance leaders, and particularly many leaders of the Association of Muslim Scholars, quickly grasped the more immediate dangers in the terrorist campaign: that it would dissipate Shia support for the Sunni insurgents, and thus become the enabling factor for the Marines to apply the full force of the American military to the task of routing the Falluja resistance—without the threat of the insurrection spreading to the Shia areas.

Thus, soon after the Sadrists enunciated their anti-jihadist campaign, the Association of Muslim Scholars issued its first statement against the terrorist campaign in the Shia areas.  Independent reporter Rahul Mahajan described the significance of this event:

Last week…there was a single day of violence on which over 100 people were killed.  Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s jihad claimed responsibility for it….  Across the country, anti-occupation figures—militant Sunni clerics, Muqtada al Sadr’s organization, even a representative of mujahadin in Fallujah—all made open, public statements denouncing his acts and distinguishing between terrorism committed by foreigners—much of which is directed at Iraqis—and what they call legitimate resistance.  (, June 28, 2004)

Mahajan then offered his opinion that these denunciations marked “the emergence of the resistance as a political force,” a comment that underscored the effort of the AMS and other Sunni resistance leaders to preserve the alliance that had contributed to making first American offensive against Falluja untenable.  This rhetorical dissociation was not, however, sufficient to prevent the erosion of Shia support for the Sunni resistance.

When the second American offensive in Falluja began in November, the reaction was far different from the April offensive.  Sunni cities offered the full range of support that had been forthcoming in April.  The vast numbers of refugees were welcomed, food and supplies were collected (though it was much harder to get them to the fighters within the city), and uprisings took place in cities spread across the Sunni regions north and west of Baghdad.

In Mosul, the largest nearby city, the insurrection demobilized 3000 (still mostly Sunni) police officers, routed the Iraqi army units, and took control of the city, forcing the U.S. to divert over 2000 troops from Falluja.  Uprisings of comparable magnitude took place in smaller cities as well, some of which went unanswered until after the Falluja battle was settled.

But the Shia areas were quiescent at best.  While the Sadrists denounced the U.S. offensive, their exhortations found little resonance within the Shia communities, and—after being weakened by the second battle of Najaf—the Sadrists themselves were either unwilling or unable to spread the battle to the Shia south.  Instead of rallying to the Fallujan cause, the Shia communities remained silent.  Few collections of food or supplies took place.  The protest demonstrations were small.  Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the most important leader in the Shia community and a vociferous critic of the first offensive, remained silent.

The quiescence in the Shia areas of the country, representing 60% of the population, was the critical difference between the first and second U.S. attempts to retake Falluja.  Without this threat, the Marines proceeded to clear the city, first by calling on all residents to leave, and then by a house-to-house clearing operation that reduced the medium-sized city into a deserted wasteland.

The destruction of between a third and a half of the homes in Falluja by the American offensive, the creation of some 250,000 temporary and as many as 100,000 permanent refugees, and the deaths of between 1500 to 4500 residents created outrage against the American led occupation throughout Iraq, even in the Shia areas.  But this outrage did not translate into supportive action; and the absence of such action was certainly noticed by the guerrillas in Falluja, the displaced residents of Falluja and the remainder of the Sunni community.

The anger that flowed from this undoubtedly fueled the recruitment of Sunnis to the jihadist cause; and this, in turn, provided the foot soldiers for the dramatic increase in car bombings and other attacks that crested with the campaign against the election and then reached a crescendo with the car bombing offensive during the early summer of 2005.  In the meantime, the Americans exploited the anger that these attacks generated among the Shia to fully activate their new strategy for policing Sunni cities with outsiders.  By mid-summer 2005, even the grand ayatollah Ali al Sistani—the most respected leader in the Shia community, who had steadfastly opposed violence on all sides throughout the chaos of the first 30 months of the occupation—issued a statement calling for the government to “defend the country against mass annihilation” by the jihadists.

During spring and summer 2005, the media emphasized the growing hostility between Sunni and Shia, seeing it as a possible precursor to an ethno-religious civil war. We can now see that the danger of civil war was fueled by two policies.  On the one hand, the terrorist campaign by jihadists, aimed at inducing “complicitous civilians [mainly Shia] to stop supporting” the new government, created mounting Shia anger against the Sunnis.  On the other hand, the systematic staffing of Sunni city police forces with Shia police contributed Sunnis’ ongoing anger against the Shia.

During the summer of 2005, a third factor entered the equation: charges that the U.S. military and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense were organizing their attacks on Sunni resistance leaders in an effort to decapitate the movement, reported by Newsweek under the chilling heading “the Salvador option,” recalling the Central American slaughter of the 1980s.  All these actions mixed together to produce the spiraling tension that threatened to engulf Iraq in the summer of 2005.

None of these spectacular developments altered the basic profile of the ongoing guerrilla war, which continued to operate below the radar of the mass media.  As the Washington Post reported in the midst of the car bombing offensive, the overwhelming majority (at least two-thirds) of all violent attacks by non-government forces were directed at the military forces of the Occupation, with most of the remainder directed at the Iraqi military.  Fewer than three percent were part of the terrorist campaign, though these accounted for a preponderance of the casualties.  And by late fall 2005, the number of guerrilla actions were increasing all around the country—including the Shia areas.  In early November, the number of total resistance attacks had reached about 700 per week, a 50% increase over the number earlier in the year, with all but a tiny number being traditional guerrilla attacks against the U.S. armed forces or its Iraqi or foreign military allies.

Nevertheless, the object lesson of the failure of the second Falluja battle to generate tangible national protest, amplified by the draining off of Sunni fighters into the jihadist movement, and the growing threat of Shia retaliation against Sunni communities, moved the Sunni guerrilla leadership to action, both to dissociate themselves from the jihadists and to suppress the terrorist campaign itself.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, the key clerical leadership of the Sunni resistance, repeatedly denounced the jihadists, called for their arrest, and sought to expel them (at least sometimes successfully) from local communities.  They also sought to counter the jihadist impact on police recruitment by publicly exhorting their followers to join the police.

The breach between the Sunni resistance and the jihadists was nicely summarized by Laith Kubba, an adviser to Iraqi Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who told New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise that “There was a moment when they said, ‘O.K., we’re going to use you in our fight against the government and Americans.’ But now they’re saying, ‘you’re a burden.'” (May 26, 2005)

Finally, the Sunni and Shia guerrilla movements sought to create a formal organization that could simultaneously oppose the occupation, and prevent the jihadists from further weakening the unity between the two communities.

On February 4, 2005, a summit meeting of the “Anti-Occupation Patriotic Forces,” led by the AMS and the Sadrists, and attended by about two dozen smaller resistance groups, met to forge a broad alliance that would “lead to the withdrawal of the Americans from our country,” and to demarcate a clear “separation between resistance and terrorism, because some are trying to relate the Iraqi resistance to the Zarqawi group and loyalists of the former regime.”  The demands that subsequently emanated from this meeting embodied both these principles and were signed by 21 groups, including secular and religious Shia and Sunni organizations.  (See www.juancole.  com, March 5, 2005)

This initiative did not and could not, by itself, achieve either the unity that the various resistance groups desired, nor eliminate the actions and impact of the jihadis.  In the next few months, some signs appeared that the intention was being translated into conflict between guerrillas and jihadis.  The most dramatic of these symptoms was described by Western reporters during an American sweep through the western areas of Anbar County, the area of Iraq with the highest concentration of guerrilla fighters.  The American troops simply watched as local guerrillas fought to expel jihadists from the town of Husaybah, in a battle that began when the guerrillas invoked the help of the Americans to rid themselves of the jihadists.

For four days this month, U.S. Marines were onlookers at just the kind of fight they had hoped to see: a battle between suspected followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a foreign-born insurgent, and Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters at the western frontier town of Husaybah.  In clashes sparked by the assassination of a tribal sheik, which was commissioned by Zarqawi, the foreign insurgents and the Iraqi tribal fighters pounded one another with small weapons and mortars in the town’s streets as the U.S. military watched from a distance, tribal members and the U.S. military said.

When a stray mortar round accidentally hit near the Marines, Lt. Col. Tim Mundy recalled, “they’d adjust their fire, and not shoot at us” for fear of drawing Americans into the fight.  “They shot at each other,” he said.  (Washington Post, May 28, 2005)

This battle, and the escalating rhetoric that preceded it, concretizes the eventually irredeemable conflict between guerrilla war and terrorism in Iraq.  It has since been replicated in several other cities, including the crucial city of Ramadi.  But the battle has not been decided, by any means.  Like many such battles, this overt hostility emerged from an implicit contradiction that was abstract at first, and only took on concrete meaning as the underlying dynamics of the war began to mature.

This emergent property of the conflict does not, however, make it any less antagonistic.  We can see from the way in which it developed that it rests on the fundamental differences that distinguish the two movements.  For the guerrillas, their fundamental goal is to keep Americans out of their communities, but their military inferiority requires that they develop a collective deterrent to avoid the massing of American troops to overwhelm them.  Such a deterrent must eventually depend on the threat of rebellion in the bulk of the communities across the country, making it too difficult for the occupation and its local allies to concentrate on one or a few centers of resistance.

The terrorist strategy is to defeat the Americans by intimidating the civilian support for the occupation, in the world and—in this instance—within Iraq.  But such intimidation does not create the willingness to fight the Americans; at best it creates an unwillingness to actively support them.  And, as we now can clearly see, the jihadist strategy severs the fragile unity between the various constituencies of the resistance—in this case, the Shia and Sunni communities.  Hence, the result of terrorism is to demobilize large segments of the population and therefore shrink the base for the guerrilla movement.

The contradictions are irreconcilable.  In the end, either the jihadists will prevail, thus reducing the guerrilla movement to irrelevance, or the guerrillas will prevail by eliminating the jihadists as a force within the Iraqi resistance.

Michael Schwartz is a professor in the Sociology Department, State University of New York at Stony Brook.  This article is a revised excerpt from a longer paper delivered to the American Sociological Association Meetings in Philadelphia, August 17, 2005.  The full text, which includes footnotes and a detailed examination of specific examples, is available from the author (Send email to: ).

ATC 120, January-February 2006