Sunni insurgency


BEIRUT, Lebanon - Since the capture of Saddam Hussein in December, a drumbeat of attacks across central and northern Iraq have claimed hundreds of Iraqi and American lives and have given little hope that the war is winding down.

There are daily reports of insurgent attacks against Americans, Iraqi police and soft targets. In one day last week, four American contractors were killed in a rebel ambush in Fallujah and jubilant residents dragged charred corpses through the streets and hanged two of them from a bridge. Five U.S. soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing nearby. And the U.S. military death toll since the onset of war a year ago is about 600.

Yet U.S. commanders and officials paint an optimistic picture of the security situation and blame foreign led-Islamist fighters - "terrorists" - or small remaining pockets of Hussein followers for most of the attacks. This reasoning was reinforced by the discovery of a paper by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born lieutenant affiliated with al-Qaida, in which he urged the terrorist network's senior leadership to support his goal of starting a "civil war" in Iraq.

This official version does not consider the existence of an indigenous, Islamist-nationalist resistance within the Sunni Arab community that appears to be the driving force behind the insurgency. Establishing the extent of al-Qaida's involvement is important so long as it does not distort understanding of who are the real players in Iraq. By fixating on al-Qaida and the Islamic extremists, the Bush administration underestimates the fundamental role played by Iraqi Sunni Islamists and nationalists in the insurgency. The minority Sunni Arabs had a dominant position under Mr. Hussein.

According to Iraqi observers, activists and academics who live in the Sunni Triangle and closely follow the insurgency, Iraqi Islamists and nationalists predominate.

A consensus emerged at a recent conference on Iraq organized by the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut and attended by more than 60 Iraqi civilian leaders that Iraqi Islamists - not foreign fighters or Hussein loyalists - are behind most of the attacks in Iraq.

In the first field study conducted in the Sunni Triangle and based on a large random sample of insurgents killed, Suleiman Jumeili, who teaches at the Center for International Relations at Baghdad University and lives in Fallujah, discovered that 80 percent of all those killed were Iraqi Islamist activists. His interviews with their friends and relatives showed that these young men were inspired by the example of "sacrifice and martyrdom" that is the hallmark of the Palestinian Hamas organization and Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

According to Mr. Jumeili, only 13 percent of the dead insurgents were motivated by nationalist sentiments and only 2 percent were die-hard Baathists; foreign Islamists represented 5 percent. Of those 8,500 insurgents imprisoned by U.S. troops, 70 percent are also indigenous Islamists. (When pressed, U.S. commanders conceded that only 150 - less than 2 percent - are foreigners.)

These unscientific findings, which challenge the official U.S. version, were corroborated by other Iraqi specialists at the conference. All presentations asserted that Iraqi Islamists and nationalists have taken over the insurgency and that foreign fighters and pro-Hussein insurgents play a marginal role. The latter are now fighting under the Islamist-nationalist banner.

Although conference participants blamed foreign fighters for the terrorist attacks against Shiites, Kurds and other soft targets, they also said militant factions among Iraqi Islamists consider anyone who works with the occupation a collaborator and thus a legitimate target.

This highly alarming development increases the chances of civil strife because of the Sunni Arab identity of the insurgency. A danger also exists that Sunni Iraqis could provide the next generation of foot soldiers for fringe groups such as al-Qaida.

So long as Sunni Arabs feel excluded, they are likely to remain embittered and drift further toward extremism. They could wreak havoc with any newly installed government and export instability to neighboring countries, even to the United States.

U.S. officials must not mislead themselves and the nation by portraying the violent struggle in Iraq as the work of al-Qaida's affiliates and desperate pro-Hussein insurgents.

There is clearly more to the insurgency than the official U.S. version, which reduces everything to al-Qaida and the Baathists. The indigenous Islamist-nationalist character of the insurgency tells us that U.S. troops will likely face a prolonged, costly war in Iraq unless the political conditions fueling the insurgency are addressed.

The most effective way to tackle the insurgency is to reach out to the Sunni Arab community - which feels punished for the crimes committed by one of its members, Mr. Hussein - and reassure it that it has a central role to play in the new political order being built in Iraq. Integrating Sunni Arabs into the new Iraq will not merely serve civic harmony and stability, but also vital American interests.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

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