Evaluating the Iraqi Insurgency

Insurgent attacks have killed almost 500 people in Iraq in recent weeks, half of them Iraqi soldiers and recruits. Tom Shankar of The New York Times details the motives and identities of insurgent groups: who they are and how and why they choose their targets.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The threat of violence continues to dominate daily life in Iraq. Sunni Muslim clerics have closed Baghdad's main mosques for three days to protest what they say are killings by Shiite militia. This closure comes after a series of attacks in recent weeks that have killed more than 500 people in Iraq, half of them Iraqi soldiers and recruits and nearly as many civilians. The motives and identities of insurgent groups, who they are and how and why they choose their targets are still unclear and even mystifying. Thom Shanker is Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and joins us on the line.

Thanks for being with us. Mr. Shanker, you with us?

Well, apparently we have some problem and Thom Shanker isn't available.

Mr. THOM SHANKER (The New York Times): Hello?

SIMON: Oh, hi there. Thom Shanker?

Mr. SHANKER: Yes. I'm afraid I can barely hear you.

SIMON: Hi. Scott Simon here. Is this any better?

Mr. SHANKER: Yes. Much better, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: Good morning. Nice to talk to you.

Mr. SHANKER: Thank you.

SIMON: We use that phrase, `the insurgency' and `insurgents,' but are we talking about a movement at all or something much more scattered?

Mr. SHANKER: Well, that's really the important question the military is trying to analyze today. There's certainly an insurgency going on. The people planting the car bombs are not trying to support the government, of course. What makes this so very different from insurgencies across history, as recently as Vietnam, as far back as the Philippines or longer, is that it's not one or two or three groups with absolutely parallel and mutually supporting goals. They're all choosing violence but there are so many groups and subsets with very different goals that it makes combating it difficult, 'cause it's a different set of military options for each.

SIMON: Now is there any sign that this different groups with very different interests, people who perhaps--I don't think I'm reaching too far to say--would be at each other's throats if they didn't have a common enemy at the moment--is there much evidence that they're coordinating their attacks?

Mr. SHANKER: Well, there are always reports that in Syria, which the military likes to label Baghdad West, that there have been some sort of meetings. There's probably funding that travels from the Baathists and former regime elements to some of the other groups, particularly the criminals that they hire to plant the bombs and maybe even some funding and support for the foreign fighters who come in to do the more spectacular efforts. But you're absolutely right, that should they actually reach their goal of toppling this very new Iraqi government, and if their efforts do so tire the military and the American public that the coalition and Americans withdraw, then clearly these groups would be fighting each other.

SIMON: Hmm. In the minute that we have left, can you at all generalize about a goal that all of these or at least a substantial portion of the people who are identified as insurgents might share?

Mr. SHANKER: Well, the first immediate goal is to drive out foreign military forces, the American-led coalition. Their goal is to so show that this new Iraqi government cannot manage the government, that support for that government falls. I mean, the insurgents themselves--you've seen the numbers, anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 to 40,000. The insurgency's all about creating chaos so the other millions of Iraqis do not sign on to support the new government trying to form itself in Baghdad.

SIMON: Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent with The New York Times, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SHANKER: Always a pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

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