Rebels display ability to strike with impunity as handover looms

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

25 June 2004


The attacks in the cities and towns of central and northern Iraq show that the insurgents have achieved a level of co-ordination not seen before. They were able to strike at police stations and Iraqi government facilities from Mosul in the north to Fallujah and Ramadi west of Baghdad.

The attacks also show that the US army has an uncertain grip on swaths of Iraq. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) even warns its own employees only to use the airport road at certain times of the day.

The CPA and the US army had predicted an upsurge in violence at this time, suggesting that the rebels would want to spoil the supposed hand-over of power to an interim Iraqi government. But the ease with which the insurgents were able to mount the attacks shows that guerrilla warfare is likely to escalate.

Many of the dead yesterday wereIraqi policemen of whom there are 89,000, mostly ill-equipped. One of the many extraordinary aspects of the US occupation is that after a year of heavy military expenditure Iraqi policemen still lack effective submachine guns, bullet-proof vests and armoured vehicles. Even farmers are often better armed than the police.

The attacks also underline what has been evident from the first days of the insurgency. The US does not have enough soldiers here. It is already stretched trying to keep 138,000 in the field in Iraq. It has in addition 23,000 soldiers from assorted allies, notably Britain, but many of the others either will not fight, like the Ukrainian contingent, or have said they will only engage in humanitarian or reconstruction work, such as the Japanese.

It is not in fact the raids by rebels armed with AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers which cause most of the casualties to the US troops. The most lethal weapon used against them is the roadside bomb, usually made out of several heavy artillery shells, to which the US army has found no answer.

Although the attacks yesterday were much better co-ordinated than anything seen in the past, the resistance is still fragmented. The fighting was all in Sunni Muslim areas. It was also in places that have seen fighting before. Fallujah and the mid-Euphrates area remains the heart of the rebellion though there are also centres of resistance at Balad and Baqubah. Outside Kurdistan, the US occupation is unpopular throughout Iraq. The CPA's own poll in May showed that 92 per cent of Arab Iraqis say they consider the Americans as occupiers and just 2 per cent see them as liberators. Soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, polls showed Iraqis to be almost equally divided on this question.

The base of Saddam's regime was the rural Sunni Arabs from outside Baghdad and the largest cities. The urban Sunni had flourished under the monarchy. It is not surprising they were the first to rebel, especially when Paul Bremer, the US viceroy, dissolved the army and security services where so many of them served. The rebels are nationalist and religious. The US always appears to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism. Militant Islamic groups have flourished in western Iraq. In Fallujah they have been searching for shops that might sell alcohol, warning barbers against Western haircuts and demanding women wear the veil.

It has always appeared that there is a difference between the broader resistance movement and the car-bombing campaign. The latter, carried out regardless of Iraqi civilian casualties, has long appeared to be centrally co-ordinated. It has been able to strike in Arbil in the far north and against Iraqi oil facilities in the Gulf far to the south. The men who kill themselves are often foreign but the safe houses, intelligence, purchase of cars and support is Iraqi.

The US has long pushed the idea that a Jordanian called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, linked to al-Qa'ida and supposed head of the Tawhid and Jihad movement, is the organising genius behind the suicide attacks. This may be so but the evidence for his role is still slight, consisting of a long letter he is believed to have written and statements on Islamic websites. Many members of the present Iraqi government say they believe that Syrian and Iranian intelligence play a much bigger role in the anti-US campaign than is generally appreciated.

But most of the resistance in Iraq is intensely local. The US army has found to its cost that if a town or city is threatened then all the young men are likely to join the battle. They are united by bonds of religion, nationality, tribe, locality and family.

Iraqis in general distinguish between the suicide bombers and the resistance who attack the Americans, condemning the former and approving the latter. The attacks yesterday show how difficult the guerrilla war will be to end while the occupation continues and until there is a general political settlement.