Examining the Makeup of the Iraqi Insurgency

American officials still believe the majority of Iraqi insurgents are Sunni Muslims and former Baathist Party members. But those forces have been joined in recent months by significant numbers of other Sunnis, who've become increasingly opposed to the U.S. presence, and by a smaller but powerful contingent of foreign fighters.

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The senior American military commander in Iraq, General George Casey, said this week that he believes the United States could begin to draw down US forces by the spring of 2006 if progress continues.

General GEORGE CASEY (Commander of US Forces, Iraq): If the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions in the spring and summer of next year.

MONTAGNE: Progress in Iraq is a very big `if' on both the security and political fronts. By all accounts, insurgence violence has remained steady and in some cases escalated over the past year. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this update on what's known about the makeup and political goals of Iraq's insurgents.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

In late May amid a fresh wave of devastating suicide car bombings, Iraq's ministers of Interiors and Defense stood side by side. It was get tough time, they said. They announced that a big new crackdown was coming to Baghdad. Forty thousand Iraqi security forces would set up hundreds of checkpoints and crush the insurgents. Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi.

Mr. SADOUN AL-DULAIMI (Defense Minister): (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: `We will establish, with God's help, an impenetrable blockade surrounding Baghdad like a bracelet surrounds a wrist.'

In fact, insurgents broke through the impenetrable blockade almost immediately. Insurgents quickly targeted the very checkpoint set up to stop them. A few days later a new wave of suicide and car bomb attacks shook Iraq, including a bombing in the predominantly Shiite city of Hillah, south of Baghdad that killed 31 and wounded more than 100. The blood bath persists into the summer. This month a fuel truck packed with explosives in Musayeb, just south of the capital, killed up to 100 Iraqis and injured more than 160. Iraqis once again were left to mourn their dead.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Attacks on US and Iraqi forces continue as well. In all, military officials say, there are between 60 and 70 a day, the majority spread across four predominantly Sunni provinces. US and Iraqi forces have captured or killed tens of thousands of insurgents and suspects in the last two years, yet the many branches of the insurgency seem to remain resilient, adaptable and formidable.

Retired General JOHN KEANE (Army): It's very well organized, one of the best the West has ever encountered and very well financed. That's the reality of it.

WESTERVELT: Jack Keane is a recently retired four-star Army general. He now sits on the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. More than two years into a potent counterinsurgency effort, General Keane says, commanders still have big gaps in their understanding in the insurgency. The military fight in Iraq, he says, remains largely a fight for human intelligence.

Gen. KEANE: It's trying to understand who they are, how they're organize, how the cells are organized, the networks themselves, their relationship to each other, the financial linkage in those cells, the logistical support to those cells, the regional relationships and tribal relationships that these cells have. That is all very complicated, and to be quite frank about it, we do not understand all of that.

WESTERVELT: US officials still believe the majority of the insurgents are Sunnis and former Baathists from Saddam's special security forces, but several US military officials and analysts interviewed believe that these trained paramilitary forces have been joined in significant numbers over the last year by disaffected Sunnis who were on the fence but now strongly oppose any US presence.

Retired Colonel BOB KILLEBREW (Army): Not under central authority, certainly not with any discernable political motive except to cause chaos and eventually drive the US out of their country.

WESTERVELT: Military analyst and retired Army Colonel Bob Killebrew says that simple yet vague political platform has been enough to replenish the foot soldiers of the insurgency.

Mr. KILLEBREW: The political agenda is to drive the United States out, to deny the emergence of another Iraq that's dominated by Shia and Kurds and to arrive at some kind of undefined state in the future of where the Sunnis, who were so important under Saddam Hussein, can regain some kind of autonomy.

WESTERVELT: Then there is the small but extremely potent force of foreign jihadists. Pentagon sources believe they account for less than 10 percent of the insurgency, but the foreign fighters are believed to be behind some of the largest and deadliest suicide bomb attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld doesn't see the insurgents having coherent political or nationalist goals. The Defense chief says it's senseless violence, effective only in fueling chaos.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (State Department): I think it would be a mistake to suggest that this insurgency has the support of the people or that it's popular. I mean, there's no Ho Chi Minh. There's no Mao Tse-tung. This is--what you've got is a bunch of people, a lot of them foreigners, in there killing Iraqis. They're now killing not just Shia but they're killing Sunnis, and they're angering people in that country because they realize that it's mindless carnage.

WESTERVELT: But do those carrying out the suicide attacks see it as mindless carnage? There have been more than 500 car bombings alone, the military says, since the US turned political sovereignty over to an interim Iraqi government just over a year ago. What is motivating these suicide bombers, a seemingly endless stream of young people willing to walk or drive high explosives into crowds of civilians or soldiers? President Bush has said repeatedly that taking on these foreign fighters is a key reason to continue the US military operation in Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And we fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they're making their stand.

WESTERVELT: The president often calls Iraq the central front in the war on terrorism, but new studies of radical jihadists captured on route to Iraq showed that the US invasion made Iraq a central front. A Saudi Arabian researcher interviewed 300 Saudi nationals caught coming into Iraq. He found that the vast majority was motivated by imams and Internet activists calling for the expulsion of American infidel occupiers from Arab soil. The researcher found that these young middle- and upper middle-class Saudis were radicalized by the US invasion. The majority had not been involved at all in terrorism before they left for Iraq. Professor and researcher Richard Dekmejian thinks both Sunni insurgents and radical foreign Islamists are united in their belief that the US wants long-term control of Iraq, a perception, he says that fuels the insurgency.

Professor RICHARD DEKMEJIAN: Now this is their perception: that we want to establish in Iraq a basis to project American power to control the oil and so on and so forth. The question is how to change that perception for us to get out of this mess.

WESTERVELT: Others say changing that perception would do little to stop suicide terrorism in Iraq. University of Michigan professor and terrorism expert Scott Atran has also interviewed captured jihadists and would-be bombers. He says suicide terrorist in Iraq are motivated by more than a struggle over foreign occupation. The US could pull out of Iraq tomorrow, he says, and the suicide bombers would continue to strike targets from Baghdad to London and beyond, motivated by a broad sense of humiliation of the Muslim world, he says, something senior al-Qaeda leaders like Ayman Al-Zawahiri often rail against.

Professor SCOTT ATRAN (University of Michigan): Guys like Zawahiri constantly go over the fact that globalization degrades Muslims, and tourism as much as military occupation are part and parcel of that humiliation, and that has to be fought.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, a referendum on Iraq's as yet unfinished constitution is scheduled for mid-October, and a nationwide vote for a more permanent government is planned for December. By then, says analyst Anthony Cordesman, the world should be able to access two vital things: if Iraq's US-trained security forces are viable.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Analyst): And the other is whether the Iraqi political process can move forward and will be inclusive and resist civil war. If it does, we probably will succeed. If we fail in either of both of those areas, then it's almost impossible to see how we can make Iraq work.

WESTERVELT: American and Iraqi officials have stressed for months that any victory over insurgents will rest on political, not military solutions, where disaffected Sunnis are brought more fully into the new government. If that happens, the big `if,' that still leaves the radical jihadis to deal with, that small but potent part of the insurgency who, by all accounts, continue to try to enter Iraq almost daily.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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