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IRAQ: Sunni Insurgents Seen as Increasingly Unified

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Feb 15 2006 (IPS) - Despite reports of growing tensions and even occasional clashes between Islamists and nationalists, the predominantly Sunni insurgency in Iraq appears increasingly united and confident of victory, according to a new report released here Wednesday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

The 30-page report, based primarily on an analysis of the public communications of insurgent groups, as well as interviews and past studies about the insurgency, also concludes that rebel groups have adapted quickly and effectively to changing U.S. tactics – in both the military and political spheres.

“Over time, the insurgency appears to have become more coordinated, confident, sensitive to its constituents’ demands and adept at learning from the enemy’s successes and its own failures,” according to the report, “In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency”.

“The U.S. must take these factors into account if it is to understand the insurgency’s resilience and learn how to counter it,” it added, stressing that the most effective responses include reining in and disbanding sectarian militias responsible for human rights abuses and repeatedly making clear that Washington has no designs on Iraq’s oil resources or on its territory for military bases.

The report, which comes amid intense – but so far unavailing – efforts by the U.S. Embassy to negotiate the creation of a new government in Baghdad that will place prominent Sunnis in key cabinet posts, is based mainly on what insurgents have themselves said on their Internet websites and chat rooms, videos, tapes and leaflets since the invasion and how those messages have evolved.

While much of the rhetoric is propagandistic, according to the ICG, it also provides a “window into the insurgency” capable of informing the analyst about its internal debates, levels of coordination, its perceptions of both the enemy and its constituency, and changes in tactics and strategy.

Such a textual analysis, according to the ICG, yields conclusions that are substantially at odds with many of Washington’s current, as well as past, assumptions about the insurgency. Indeed, “(I)n Iraq, the U.S. fights an enemy it hardly knows,” the report asserts.

The notion, for example, that the insurgency is divided between Iraqi nationalists and foreign jihadis, most prominently al Qaeda’s Organisation in Mesopotamia (QOM) allegedly led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, appears increasingly questionable, according to the report, which notes that there has been a “gradual convergence” in the groups’ tactics and rhetoric.

“A year ago, groups appeared divided over practices and ideology, but most debates have been settled through convergence around Sunni Islamic jurisprudence and Sunni Arab grievances,” according to the report.

“Practically speaking, it has become virtually impossible to categorise a particular group’s discourse as jihadi as opposed to nationalist or patriotic, with the exception of the Baath party, whose presence on the ground has been singularly ineffective.”

During the first half of 2005, when reports of armed clashes between the two kinds of groups first surfaced, that was less true, but, since then and despite intense U.S. efforts to drive a wedge between them, the groups have largely harmonised their rhetoric.

In that connection, “recent reports of negotiations between ‘nationalist’ groups and the U.S. over forming an alliance against foreign jihadis appear at the very least exaggeratedà”, according to the report. It noted that any such “duplicity” would almost certainly have been exposed and denounced by others.

Moreover, “no armed group so far has even hinted” that it may be willing to negotiate with the U.S. and Iraqi authorities. “While covert talks cannot be excluded, the publicly accessible discourse remains uniformly and relentlessly hostile to the occupation and its ‘collaborators’.”

That does not mean that differences between the two kinds of groups do not exist and that there could be a day of reckoning – but only after Washington’s withdrawal. “To this day, the armed opposition’s avowed objectives have …been reduced to a primary goal: ridding Iraq of the foreign occupier. Beyond that, all is vague.”

Meanwhile, the groups have become increasingly mindful of their image and the necessity of cultivating public opinion among Sunnis, other Iraqis, and the West, according to the report.

Thus, they promptly and systematically respond to charges that they are corrupt or target innocent civilians and even reject accusations, despite the evidence from suicide attacks, against Shiite mosques, that they are waging a sectarian campaign.

Similarly, they have abandoned some tactics that proved especially revolting to their various audiences, such as the beheading of hostages and attacking voters going to the polls. And “(w)hile (they) deny any intent of depriving the population of water and electricity, restraint does not apply to oil installations, which are seen as part and parcel of American designs to exploit Iraq.”

According to the report, four main groups now dominate the communications channels of the insurgency and publish regularly through a variety of media: QOM; Partisans of the Sunna Army (Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna); the Islamic Army in Iraq (Al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-‘Iraq); and the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Muqawama al-‘Iraqiya, or Jami).

QOM, whose operational importance has, according to the ICG, been exaggerated by U.S. officials, sought during the past year to “Iraqify” its image, in part by reportedly replacing Zarqawi, a Jordanian, with an Iraqi leader. Jami, according to some ICG sources, may be a “public relations organ” shared by different armed groups and tends to be somewhat more sophisticated and nationalistic in its rhetoric and communications strategy than the others.

Another five groups that take credit for military actions generally use far less elaborate and stable channels of communication, while four more groups appear to lack regular means of communication to produce occasional claims of responsibility for armed actions through statements or videos.

All groups appear to have become more confident over the past year, according to the report, which noted that their optimism is not only noticeable in their official communiqués but in more spontaneous expressions by militants and sympathisers on internet chat sites and elsewhere.

Initially, according to the report, they perceived the U.S. presence as extremely difficult to remove, “(b)ut that no longer is the case”.

“Today, the prospect of an outright victory and a swift withdrawal of foreign forces has crystallised, bolstered by the U.S.’ perceived loss of legitimacy and apparent vacillation, its periodic announcement of troops redeployments, the precipitous decline in domestic support for the war and heightened calls by prominent politicians for a rapid withdrawal,” the report states.

Moreover, “(w)hen the U.S. leaves, the insurgents do not doubt that Iraq’s security forces and institutions would quickly collapse”.

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