Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Iraqi Islamist Side Of The Insurgency

When discussing the insurgency in Iraq, three groups are most often mentioned as being its core constituency. Those are Al Qaeda in Iraq, former Baathists, and members of the old security forces, which were disbanded by the Americans. There was an important fourth element that has often been ignored in the discussion, Iraqi Islamists. Foreigners like Abu Musab Zarqawi were thought to have introduced militant Salafist ideas to Iraq, when in fact those beliefs were already present in the country.

(Middle East Online)
The earliest statements by American officials about the insurgency claimed it consisted of former regime members and foreigners. In June 2003 for example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that criminals and Baathists were attacking U.S. troops. The next month, General John Abizaid, the new head of the Central Command, claimed the U.S. was facing Baathists and foreign fighters. That was echoed by the America commander in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez who blamed former regime members, Islamists, foreign fighters, and criminals for the violence. Paul Bremer pegged the same groups. All ignored the indigenous Islamists that had been growing within Iraq for the last twenty years.

Salafism and Islamism had been spreading in Iraq since the 1980s, just like in the rest of the Arab world. Salaf refers to the original followers of the Prophet Mohammed. Salafis believe that they are returning to the original tenets of Islam. In the 1980s these ideas grew in prominence in many Muslim countries, including Iraq. Saddam Hussein even turned to Islam to shore up support for his regime. In 1993 he launched the “Faith Campaign” for example, which pushed religion in the schools and media. That was because the Baathist ideology of secularism, socialism, and pan-Arabism had lost much of its appeal by then. Many Iraqis were turning to Islam as well during the hardships of the sanctions period from 1990-2003. Many met openly in mosques, but there were some secret Islamist cells as well. The militant Ansar al-Islam was also formed in northern Iraq, and carried out a war against the Kurdish autonomous region before the U.S. invasion. Most groups were based upon the teachings of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the first and largest modern Islamist group. Iraq had a wing of its own led by Ahmad al-Rashid. He preached pragmatism such as organizing the Muslim community, along with calls for jihad by claiming the Muslim countries were acting unIslamic, and would have to be dealt with at some future time. He wrote several books, but they were banned by Saddam. Many ended up being published in Egypt however, and were then imported into Iraq. There were several Islamist clerics in Jordan and Syria that were popular during this period as well that helped spread Salafist ideas. Islamism was spreading during this time because many Arab countries had stagnated economically and politically, and were tied up either with the West or East, both of which were seen as secular, and therefore antithetical to Islam. In Iraq, living conditions had deteriorated due to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and then the sanctions imposed because of Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and his refusal to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. That provided a fertile ground for recruits. Islamism was therefore alive and well in Iraq before any foreigners came to the country preaching attacks upon the Americans.

Iraqi Islamism became more radical and militant after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With the Baath Party no longer dominating the country, and mosques being one of the only institutions to survive the fall of the government, Salafi ideas began to spread. Many Islamists ended up joining the more militant insurgent groups in the country like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization, and Ansar al-Islam. They also formed their own like the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Mujahedeen Army in Iraq, both of which claimed to have been created before 2003. Some believe that the Islamists eclipsed the Baathists in the insurgency by 2005. Salafi ideas presented an organizing ideology and sense of identity to many Sunnis that wanted to resist the U.S. occupation. They could claim they were fighting against the Western invaders that were at war with Islam, while trying to create an Islamic state that would return Sunnis to power. Many also promoted extreme fear and hatred of Shiites. They were often portrayed as Persians or Iranian-puppets to create an image of foreign otherness. These ideas would eventually lead to the sectarian civil war.

An example of a domestic Islamist insurgent was Omar Hussein Hadid of Fallujah. Hadid became a Salafist in the 1980s, and began speaking out against Saddam. In the 1990s, he blew up a theater in the province, killed a senior Baathist, and then fled. He was sentenced to death in absentia as a result. After 2003, he moved back to Fallujah and became an electrician. He quickly joined the insurgency, and by 2004 was the leader of the Black Banners Brigade with about 1,500 fighters under him. During the first battle for Fallujah in April 2004, Hadid became a member of the ruling council of militants that ran the city. After the second battle of Fallujah in November, Hadid ended up escaping the U.S. forces, and continued his activities in another section of Anbar province. While plenty of Iraqi Salafis ended up following Zarqawi, many more were in their own organizations, and set their own paths. They became an important part of the insurgency.

Iraq’s Islamic militants have been largely neglected in research upon the country’s insurgency. Baathists and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have gotten the vast majority of the coverage. The U.S. invasion also unleashed a wave of religious opposition ranging from Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement to the Salafists. The latter would eventually become the backbone of the insurgency, with many Baathists and former soldiers even turning towards Islam. That complicated the U.S. narrative about the war, which pegged most of the resistance to their occupation upon former regime members who had lost power and foreigners like Zarqawi. Iraqis needed neither of those groups to come out against the Americans and the new Shiite led government. There were many domestic organizations active in the country before the U.S. invasion that then took advantage of the fall of Saddam to spread their ideas. The Islamists were an example, but are largely an unwritten part of the Iraq conflict.


Baram, Amatzia, “Who Are the Insurgents? Sunni Arab Rebels in Iraq,” United States Institute of Peace, April 2005

Benjamin, Daniel and Simon, Steven, The Next Attack; The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, New York: Times Books, 2005

Debat, Alexis, “Vivisecting the Jihad,” National Interest, 6/23/04

Elliott, Michael, “The War That Never Ends,” Time, 7/7/03

Johnson, Scott, “Portrait of a Shadow,” Newsweek, 2/23/09

Kher, Unmesh, “3 Flawed Assumptions About Postwar Iraq,” Time, 9/22/03

Kimmage, Daniel, and Ridolfo, Kathleen, “Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images And Ideas,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 2007

Klein, Joe, “Saddam’s Revenge,” Time, 9/26/05

PBS Frontline, “Interview L. Paul Bremer,” Truth, War and Consequences, 10/9/03

Phillips, Dr. Andrew, “How Al Qaeda Lost Iraq,” Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Associated, 8/28-31/08

Schlesinger, Robert, “General in Iraq says U.S. faces a guerrilla war,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/17/03

Steinberg, Guido, “The Iraqi Insurgency,” German Institute for International and Security Affairs, December 2006


AndrewSshi said...

So would it be accurate to say that we took Saddam's problem and made it our own?

Joel Wing said...

I don't think so. Saddam was trying to co-opt the Islamist wave growing throughout the region, and his totalitarian rule seemed to keep it under wraps. There were some secret cells, etc., but they didn't seem to be coming out against the government like in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, etc. When the U.S. came in and the government collapsed it just gave these groups a huge amount of leeway to expand and become more radicalized and violent to fight the Americans and Shiites that came to power.

Overall, I think Saddam was far more concerned about the Kurds and Shiites in his country than the Sunni Islamists.

Anonymous said...

Islamic fundamentalism is arguably the most authentic form of Arab nationalism.

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...

Very insightful piece. Easy to understand, for example, how, after the institutions of government/society collapsed, the vacuum turned to religion, and that the Quietists in Iraq further left the vacuum for others.

I am hoping that the second draft of history, as it emerges, begins to piece together the other side of the coin in ways that will allow genuine insights into the real dynamics in Iraq in early and mid-2000s.

Am I right that the perceived threats of the Kurds and Shias also triangulated to Iran?

Joel Wing said...


Yes, all the interviews with Saddam, top Iraqi officials and research into Iraqi papers made after the 2003 invasion show that Saddam's number one concern was always Iran, Iran, Iran, followed by the Kurds and the Shiites.

Iran was the biggest supporter of both the KDP and then the PUK when they broke off. Those earlier articles that I wrote about the Kurds during the 1970s and 1980s show that Iran was the largest foreign supporter of the Kurdish parties, and they would often flee to Iran when the government cracked down on them out.

The Dawa was the main Shiite party and ended up fleeing to Iran as well due to government repression, and carried out terrorist bombings within Iraq operating out of Iran. The Supreme Council obviously was formed in Iran as well, and their Badr Brigade was an official arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

All those parties, the PUK, KDP, Supreme Council all fought on the Iraqi side in the Iran-Iraq War as well in the 1980s.

So you're correct, to Saddam all those parties were not just internal threats, but linked to the Iraq's historical rival Iran.