"Who Are the Insurgents?" offers insight into the breadth of Sunni Arab groups actively participating in the insurrection in Iraq and specifically examines the three broad categories of insurgents: secular/ideological, tribal, and Islamist. With the exception of the ultraradical Salafi and Wahhabi Islamists, this report finds, many rebels across these three classifications share common interests and do not sit so comfortably in any one grouping or category.

Summary

  • Building a profile of a typical anti-coalition Sunni Arab insurgent in Iraq is a daunting task. Demographic information about the insurgents is fragmented, and the rebels themselves are marked more by their heterogeneity than by their homogeneity. Drawing from a wide array of sources, however, we can try to piece together a view of their primary motivations for taking up arms against the U.S.-led occupation.
  • Sunni insurgents generally claim one of three primary identity-based impetuses for their anti-American and antigovernment violence: Ba'th Party membership or affiliation with Saddam's regime, adherence to Islam, or tribal interests, values, and norms.
  • Secular/ideological, tribal, and moderate Islamist concerns are not necessarily mutually exclusive and often are even mutually reinforcing.
  • Many ex-army officers, security force personnel, and Ba'th Party members lost their privileged status in the new Iraq and remain bitter, angry, and frustrated. This fact, combined with the perceived humiliation of being forced to live under foreign occupation and, worse still, the prospect of longer-term Shi'i supremacy, led many to take up arms.
  • In strictly economic terms, many Sunni Arab tribes suffered following the war. While a number of tribes had once earned money through large-scale transborder smuggling, such activity has become increasingly dangerous and difficult, as U.S. troops have instituted measures to cut off all unregulated cross-border movement. Additionally, some tribes that had previously relied on payments from Saddam for "good" behavior found no such patronage from the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was not inclined to buy them off in this manner.
  • By the end of 2003, U.S. military officials noted that some insurgents were attacking them to avenge the spilled blood of relatives, whether killed by accident or in guerilla attacks. In effect, U.S. success on the battlefield, while deterring some, had on other occasions only served to perpetuate the insurgency.
  • In the last decade of Saddam's rule, many young Iraqi men, having realized that the Ba'th Party had lost its ideological coherence, turned away from the party's original ideas toward a new set of beliefs. They adopted an alternative ideology, namely, fundamentalist Islam based essentially on the thought of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Many young Iraqi Sunni Arabs were inspired specifically by the work of the Iraqi Muslim Brother Muhammad Ahmad al-Rashid. On the one hand, al-Rashid demonstrated a pragmatic approach to political action, while on the other he very clearly stated that eventually jihad with the sword is the way of the true Muslim.
  • The ultraradical Salafis and Wahhabis are distinct from Iraq's moderate and even some otherwise radical Islamists. While an accord may eventually be reached between a future democratic Iraqi government and moderate and certain radical Islamist groups, the beliefs of the Salafis or Wahhabis will never allow for compromise.
  • The Iraqi government may be able to substantially reduce the insurgency by appealing to the secular, tribal, and non-Salafi Islamist groups through policies that address their primary concern: the status of Sunni Arabs in the new Iraq.
  • Such policies should include meaningful participation in the formulation of the permanent constitution, even though Sunni Arab representation in the National Assembly is very low, and political guarantees that oil revenues will be shared equitably, that Iranian influence will not be allowed to penetrate into Iraq, that Iraq will not become an Islamic republic, and that Sunni and Shi'i Islam will be equally respected by the state. Further, steps should be taken to ensure that Sunnis (as well as Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians) are not discriminated against in the job market or in the choice of infrastructure upgrades.

About the Report

"Who Are the Insurgents?" offers insight into the breadth of Sunni Arab groups actively participating in the insurrection in Iraq and specifically examines the three broad categories of insurgents: secular/ideological, tribal, and Islamist. With the exception of the ultraradical Salafi and Wahhabi Islamists, this report finds, many rebels across these three classifications share common interests and do not sit so comfortably in any one grouping or category. This presents specific problems—and opportunities—for U.S. and coalition forces that, if handled correctly, could eventually lead to a rapprochement with some of the insurgents.

The report's author, Amatzia Baram, is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa, Israel. He is a prolific writer and editor of several books and dozens of scholarly articles on Saddam Hussein and Iraqi politics and history. He testified about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction in September 2002 before the House Committee on Government Reform, and before the House Committee on Armed Services in April 2004. He has also consulted about Iraq with senior U.S. administration officials. He is a former Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. This report is based on a chapter in a book he is currently writing about the relationship between Islam and the state in modern Iraq.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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