A month after the formation of Iraq”s first freely elected government, news of suicide attacks, car bombs, and kidnappings continue to dominate the headlines from Baghdad. In April and May the number of people killed in terrorist attacks rose to an average of 15 a day, compared to five for February and March.
Does this mean that the insurgency has fresh wind in its sails? Are the terrorist winning, as some Western commentators suggest?
The answer to both questions is no.
To be sure, the insurgency still holds the tactical initiative in the sense that, within the area where it has an effective presence, it can still decide where and when to strike. Strategically, however, the insurgency is weaker now than it was a year ago.
This is because the struggle for Iraq is ultimately a political one the outcome of which will not be decided by how many people each side kills but by how those killings and other acts of violence are translated into political realities.
To understand this we must understand what the fight is about.
On one side we have all those who want to remould Iraq into a developing democracy in which power is won and lost through elections. Last January”s general election showed that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are on this side. On the other side there are those who, for a variety of reasons, do not wish that project to succeed. Here we find the remnants of the Ba”ath, Islamist militants, Arab Sunni sectarians, and, to an extent often overlooked, professional criminal elements.
But this fight is not about the future of Iraq alone. The success of the democratisation project in Iraq could transform the whole of the Middle East, indeed the entire Muslim world.
The burgeoning democratic movement inspired by the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq is already influencing the political debate in virtually all Arab states. Even Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, who could hardly be suspected of democratic sentiments, now says that democracy is "the only possible way in the Arab World."
Thus the Iraqi insurgency and its terrorist allies, not to mention its Islamist and pan-Arab sympathisers elsewhere, have already lost the political battle because they have failed to present a clear political alternative to the demoratisation project.
Since 2003 the insurgents and their terrorist allies have killed lots of people but are no closer to a political victory than two years ago. They resemble a man who wins a large number of tokens in a casino only to be told at the cashier”s that none could be cashed.
Much to the relief of Iraq”s emerging leadership, the insurgency has excluded itself form the political process. Unlike other terrorist organisations that use a political façade as an interface with the rest of society, the Iraqi insurgency has opted for a quixotic strategy of seeking a straight armed victory over the US-led coalition and the new Iraqi regime. By doing so it has limited its own options and alienated a good part of the constituency that might share some of its goals.
Right from the start, the political initiative has been on the side of the US-led coalition and the new emerging Iraqi political leadership, and remains there.
It was the US-led coalition that took the initiative in removing Saddam Hussein to power while those who now form the insurgency either watched in amazement or ran to hide in holes.
When the insurgency appeared in the summer of 2003 it based its strategy on a number of illusions. First it thought that by killing as many Americans as possible it would undermine public opinion support for the war inside the United States. When that did not happen, the insurgency tried to terrorise as many of the allies as possible into withdrawing from Iraq. But that, too, didn”t produce the desired results.
Next, the insurgency decided that killing members of Iraq”s nascent army and police force could do the trick. But two years of brutal killings have failed to reduce the number of new recruits or slow down the training and deployment of new units.
Once it had become clear that killing Americans and Iraqi army and police recruits would not stop the march of history, the insurgency switched to the tactic of killing Iraqi Shi”ites at random. And once that had failed, random killing was extended to Sunni Kurds and Turcomans. With the insurgency”s hope of provoking sectarian wars dashed, we are now witnessing a new phase in which even Sunni Arabs are being killed indiscriminately. The insurgents know how to kill but no longer know who to kill. Nor do they seem to know why they are killing.
By adopting an extremist posture the insurgency has forced many Iraqis who, for different reasons, resent the occupation or do not like the new government, into the position of passive onlookers. Most people are prepared to march, go on strike, practice civil disobedience, vote, or even take personal physical risks in pursuit of political goals. Some are even ready to sacrifice their lives for deeply felt convictions. We saw a demonstration of all that in Iraq”s first free election last January when millions turned out to express their support for democratisation. But when it comes to killing people at random, whether through car bombs or suicide attacks, only very few on the margins of humanity would be attracted. Having excluded the vast majority of the Iraqis from its field of vision, the insurgency has invested its hopes in the necessarily diminishing number of potential random killers and suicide bombers.
Politics being the art of the possible, the insurgency”s discourse consists of a jumble of impossibilities. It is impossible to imagine a new Iraq ruled once again by Saddam Hussein or Izzat al-Duri, his number-two who is the insurgency”s principal ringleader. Nor could one imagine the Palestinian-Jordanian terrorist Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi entering Baghdad as a victorious "Commander of the Faithful" to build an Arab version of the Taliban”s now defunct rule in Afghanistan. Anyone with any knowledge of Iraq would know that few Iraqis would find either of those options as attractive.
Paradoxically, the insurgency”s supposed goal of driving the US-led coalition out of Iraq could, if realised, prove suicidal for the insurgents.
In the first few months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the insurgency might have benefited from an American retreat. At that time the insurgents, especially the remnants of the Ba”ath paramilitary and security organisations, still had a virtual monopoly on weapons in Iraq and thus would have been in a position to regain power by killing large numbers of unarmed Shiites and Kurds as they had done on other occasions since 1968.
Now, however, the "other side", that is to say the Shiites and the Kurds who together represent 85 per cent of the population, are also armed and can fight back both through their own paramilitary organisations and the newly created army and police force.
Of greater moment to the insurgency is the fact that the US-led coalition, constrained by American and international laws and conventions, cannot fight with the same degree of brutality that al-Duri and Zarqawi regard as routine. But what if the fighting is left to Shiites, Kurds, and even some Arab Sunnis, who have a personal score to settle with al-Duri and Zarqawi? They would certainly not be concerned about the Marques of Queensbury”s rule.
The Iraqi insurgency”s future is dim because al-Duri and Zarqawi are seeking total power at a time that Iraqi politics, and beyond it the politics of the greater Middle East, are being recast on the basis of power-sharing and compromise. Because they want all of power they will end up having none of it.
The insurgency may continue for many more months, if not years, in the area known as Jazirah (island), which accounts for about 10 per cent of the Iraqi territory, plus parts of Baghdad. It may continue killing people but will not be able to stop the political process. Its history is one of a string of political failures.
Over the past two years it has failed to prevent he formation of a Governing Council, the writing of an interim constitution, the transfer of sovereignty, the holding of local and general elections, and the creation of a new government. This year it will fail to prevent the writing of a new constitution, already being drafted, the referendum to get it approved, the holding of fresh parliamentary elections, and the formation of a new elected government in Baghdad. To paraphrase an Arabic saying the caravan will continue its journey while the wolves howl. END