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Why they will fight on
Question of the Day
The capture of Saddam Hussein was a significant accomplishment, evidence that the United States is winning the low-intensity war in Iraq. His followers, however, will mostly battle on. For all the talk of “nationalreconciliation,” Washington must understand that those who fight can neither be politically tamed nor economically bought off. If the United States understands who they are and why they fight and deals with them on those terms, then the insurgents will lose. They cannot give up. Unlike their leader, who surrendered meekly, many will fight to the end.
While foreign Islamist extremists have traveled to Iraq to take aim at U.S. forces, American commanders believe that most assaults are by Iraqis. Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno of the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit said on Oct. 27 that 95 percent of the insurgents were Saddam loyalists. The insurgents, whetherBa’athistsor Ba’athist sympathizers, were beneficiaries of Saddam’s rule and complicit in his atrocities. They are guided by the myth that the Ba’ath Party will return.
The location of attacks and the biographies of individual fighters demonstrate that the Sunni Arab minority is the backbone of the insurgency. Although just 15 percent of the population, Sunni Arabs have dominated Iraqi politics, pioneering Arab nationalism and Iraqi patriotism. Many are poor, but like economically deprived, non-slave owning white Southerners during the American Civil War, their identity gives them marginal privileges worth fighting for. One writer summed up the prevailing attitude in much of the Middle East when she sympathetically termed Iraq’s Sunni Arabs an “ancient elite.”
Yet the insurgents are probably a minority within a minority. The U.S. military estimates their numbers at around 5,000 men. There are more Sunni Arabs fighting with the coalition in the new Iraqi police force.
More worrisome is that the insurgents can draw inspiration from the history of the Ba’ath Party. The party’s ability to rise from the grave is legendary. The Ba’athists believe that they never suffered true defeats. Rather, they encountered temporary setbacks and forced tactical retreats that supposedly led to strategic victories. Ba’ath Party ideology was suffused with the notion of permanence, its slogan being “One Arab Nation With an Eternal Message.” Indeed, the party has been true to its name. Ba’ath in Arabic means “renaissance.” Although a reference to the revival of the Arab nation, it could equally describe the resurrections of the party itself.
Ba’athist propaganda transformed the military defeat of the 1991 Gulf War into an Iraqi version of Dunkirk, with the survival of the regime painted as a success in the face of overwhelming U.S. power. Saddam and his henchmen returned from the brink a second time in 1991 when faced with an uprising in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Ba’athist loyalists reconquered Iraq from the four loyal provinces that refused to join the rising, which today are the base of the anti-U.S. insurgency.
The Ba’athists survived repeated defeats long before Saddam took power. Forced underground in 1959 after a botched assassination attempt on the then-ruler of Iraq,Gen.AbdelKarimQassem,the Ba’athists returned with a coup in February 1963, during which they killed Qassem. Ba’athist rule lasted just ten months before the party was ejected from office. Yet the party regrouped, grabbing power again in July 1968 in alliance with army officers. Within a week, the Ba’ath had purged its allies and begun its 35-year reign of terror. With such a history, continued combat makes perfect sense.
Indeed, the Ba’ath Party probably planned the current insurgency. In 1991, fleeing Iraqi intelligence officers left incriminating documents behind. But in 2003, their offices were often empty. Kurdish sources report that little remained in secret police posts in the northern city of Kirkuk. In one case, an album of the most gruesome pictures was left in a desk. The files had disappeared.
Two insurgent commanders who spoke to The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 7 were former Iraqi intelligence officers. These men have to fight because for most Iraqis they are criminals. They are responsible for the mass graves of the Shi’ite Arabs. They are the gangsters and rapists of Uday’s Fedayeen, the intelligence officers who organized anti-Kurdish genocide.
The organizing spirit of the insurgency, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s number two, actually attempted to negotiate his surrender through Arab tribes in Mosul in April. The talks failed, because, according to sources in Mosul, he demanded immunity from prosecution.
Talk of increasing Sunni representation in Iraqi institutions and “national reconciliation” is misguided. There is no purely political approach to make the insurgents lay down their arms. They are fighting because of who they are, what they believe and what they have done. For the Sunni Arab Ba’athists, this will be a fight to the finish, but it is a battle that Americans and free Iraqis can win.
Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the FoundationfortheDefenseof Democracies.
By Michael Widlanski
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