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International Socialist Review Issue 40, March–April 2005

The Shape of the Iraqi Resistance


FROM THE beginning, Iraqis resisted the U.S. invasion. But the armed resistance to the occupation really took off in April 2003 after American troops fired on and killed thirteen demonstrators in Fallujah who were demanding that U.S. soldiers hand back a school they had occupied. It seems to have grown steadily since then, drawing in (mainly) Sunni, but also, some Shiite groups. Yet six months into the occupation, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the resistance as “the last remnants of a dying cause.”1 A brief examination of the resistance is necessary to show to what extent the reality differs from the propaganda.

According to a “working draft” report compiled by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End–2004,” the U.S. was from the beginning in a state of denial about the steady growth of the resistance. The U.S. systematically downplayed the size of the resistance and its potential to grow based on the increasing hostility of the Iraqi population to the occupation. The report is worth quoting extensively:

The U.S. failed to come to grips with the Iraqi insurgency during the first year of U.S. occupation in virtually every important dimension. It was slow to react to the growth of the insurgency in Iraq, to admit it was largely domestic in character, and to admit it had significant popular support. For all of 2003, and most of the first half of 2004, it referred to the attackers as terrorists, kept issuing estimates that they could not number more than 5,000, and claimed they were a mixture of outsider elements and diehard former regime loyalists (FRLs). It largely ignored the warnings provided by Iraqi opinion polls, and claimed that its political, economic, and security efforts were either successful or would soon become so. In short, it failed to honestly assess the facts on the ground in a manner reminiscent of Vietnam. As late as July 2004, the Administration’s senior spokesmen still seemed to live in a fantasyland in terms of their public announcements, perception of the growing Iraqi hostility to the use of Coalition forces, and the size of the threat. They were still talking about a core insurgent force of only 5,000, when many Coalition experts on the ground in Iraq saw the core as at least 12,000–16,000. Such U.S. estimates of the core structure of the Iraqi insurgency also understated the problem, even if the figures had been accurate. From the start, there were many part-time insurgents and criminals who worked with insurgents. In some areas, volunteers could be quickly recruited and trained, both for street fighting and terrorist and sabotage missions. As in most insurgencies, “sympathizers” within the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces, as well as the Iraqis working for the Coalition, media, and NGOs, often provided excellent human intelligence without violently taking part in the insurgency. Saboteurs can readily operate within the government and every aspect of the Iraqi economy.2
The report then provides a chart, compiled by an “NGO coordinating committee” showing the number and nature of attacks by the resistance for the year between September 2003 and October 2004 that is instructive:

Obviously, no chart compiled in wartime can be completely accurate, but it does give some sense of the distribution between the different types of attacks. Most striking is the fact that 75 percent of all the attacks were against “Coalition Forces,” i.e., military targets. And while what is listed in the chart as “civilian” attacks were the most lethal, presumably because they are referring to deadly car bomb attacks in civilian areas, they account for only 4.2 percent of all attacks. Finally, the chart indicates that in the period reviewed, the eight attacks on journalists accounted for 0.19 percent of all attacks. The U.S. press has played up the attacks on journalists and civilians in order to create a more unfavorable (and inaccurate) impression of the main targets of the Iraqi resistance, which are the occupying forces.

The resistance is large and continues to grow. The head of intelligence for Iyad Allawi’s puppet regime, General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, estimated in early January 2005 that there were 40,000 organized full-time fighters in the resistance, aided by more than 200,000 providing active assistance to the resistance. “The resistance is bigger than the U.S. military in Iraq,”3 he said. The growth of the resistance is fuelled by the brutality of the American occupation. As Mike Whitney writes on CounterPunch, “Fallujah has removed any doubt from the minds of young Iraqi men that a nonviolent settlement is possible. The flattening of a city of 250,000 confirms, in stark terms, that the war will be decided by force of arms. Fallujah has removed whatever ‘gray area’ there may have been before.”4

Boston Globe reporter Molly Bingham, who spent almost a year in Iraq tracking the resistance until last summer, agrees with Whitney. “Attacking Fallujah neither decapitated the resistance nor eliminated its support. Rather it is a powerful recruiting poster for Iraqis not yet engaged in the struggle and for foreigners motivated to join what they view as a Jihad.” She argues that the resistance began recruiting from the moment the U.S. occupation began, that while it consists of many different organizations and localized cells that operate independently of each other, it is united in its hatred of the occupiers.

The original impetus for almost all of the individuals I spoke to was a nationalistic one—the desire to defend their country from occupation, not to defend Saddam Hussein or his regime.… They view themselves, and are viewed by others, as Iraqis and Muslims, declaring their fight to be for their homes, their nation, their honor, and their faith against the imposition of a political structure by a foreign nation. Their struggle against us is not much more complicated than that, and it seems to me that the violence will remain until we are gone.5

Another assessment of the resistance, by Samir Haddad and Mazin Ghazi, published in the Baghdad paper Al Zawra last September, concludes that while there are some resistance groups that mainly focus on kidnapping and killing foreigners, the majority of resistance organizations reject this strategy:

Their intellectual tendencies are usually described as a mixture of Islamic and pan-Arab ideas that agree on the need to put an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq. These groups have common denominators, the most important of which perhaps are focusing on killing U.S. soldiers, rejecting the abductions and the killing of hostages, rejecting the attacks on Iraqi policemen, and respecting the beliefs of other religions.… These groups believe the Iraqis are divided into two categories. One category—the majority—is against the occupation, and the other—the minority—is on the side of the occupation. The resistance considers those who reject the occupation, whatever their description might be, to be on its side. The resistance considers those who are on the side of the occupation to be as spies and traitors who do not deserve to remain on Iraqi territory, and hence they should be liquidated.6
This argument is confirmed by the figures cited in the Cordesman report. The main resistance groups are composed of Sunni (primarily) and nationalist forces. A Shiite component to the resistance emerged in the form of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi army, which the authors say has “between 10,000 and 15,000 well-trained youths, the majority of whom were from the poor of the Sadr City, al-Shu’lah, and the southern cities.” Tariq Ali, author of Bush in Babylon, reported on Counterpunch that the resistance “exists also in the Shia south and resistance cells are numerous in Basra.”7

The Zarqawi phenomenon

In attempting to paint the Iraqi resistance in the most negative possible light, the Western media has focused on the activities of the organization headed up by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the attack on Fallujah, U.S. officials gave the impression that Zarqawi was the mastermind of the Iraqi resistance, and that the Fallujah offensive’s primary goal was to flush out and destroy his network, which consisted mostly of “foreign fighters.” “If they do not turn in al-Zarqawi and his group,” thundered Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last October, “we will carry out operations in Fallujah. We will not be lenient.”8 But after ten days of fighting in Fallujah, U.S. Commander General George Casey announced that of the 1,000 resistance fighters the U.S. claimed to have captured, only fifteen were non-Iraqis.9

The idea of Zarqawi as the mastermind of the resistance is a piece of pure propaganda. In a report published in The Age, an Australian newspaper, U.S. agents admitted as much:

“We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq,” one agent said. “Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one.” “The overwhelming sense from the information we are now getting is that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed several hundred and is perhaps as low as 200,” one agent said. “From the information we have gathered, we have to conclude Zarqawi is more myth than man. At some stage, and perhaps even now, he was almost certainly behind some of the kidnappings. But if there is a main leader of the insurgency, he would be an Iraqi. But the insurgency is not nearly so centralized to talk of a structured leadership.”10
Perhaps even more telling for anyone who was willing to listen, the Iraqi resistance has been clearly distancing itself from al-Zarqawi and attacks that target Iraqi civilians. Both Shiite and Sunni opponents of the occupation denounced a wave of attacks that killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians last June, at a time when not only Sunnis were battling U.S. troops, but Sadr’s Shiite militias were in open confrontation with the U.S. in Sadr City and Najaf. According to a report in the Washington Post:
“Which religion allows anyone to kill more than 100 Iraqis, destroy 100 families and destroy 100 houses?” raged [popular Sunni Cleric Ahmed Abdul Ghafour] Samarrae…. “Who says so? Who are those people who do this? Where did they come from?... It is a conspiracy to defame the reputation of the Iraqi resistance by wearing its dress and using its name falsely. These people hurt the Iraqis and Iraq, giving the occupier an excuse to stay longer.” Samarrae said he had learned that some Iraqi insurgent leaders have begun to clash with Zarqawi loyalists, insisting the jihadists do not represent the “right and true resistance.” He warned against those who he said want to tear the country apart in the name of Islam and suggested they were foreigners who should not be part of Iraq’s conflict. In a similar vein, a group of masked fighters in Fallujah stood before Reuters television cameras and read a statement insisting that the city’s violent struggle against surrounding U.S. Marines is being carried out by Fallujans, not Zarqawi or other foreign fighters. “The American invader forces claim that Zarqawi, and with him a group of Arab fighters, are in our city,” said one of the heavily armed men, reading from a paper. “We know that this talk about Zarqawi and the fighters is a game that the American invader forces are playing to strike Islam and Muslims in the city of mosques, steadfast Fallujah.”… Aws Khafaji, a cleric in Sadr’s militantly political stream of Shiite Islam, disowned [the] violence…in a sermon at the Hikma mosque in Sadr City. “We condemn and denounce yesterday’s bombings and attacks on police centers and innocent Iraqis, which claimed about 100 lives,” he said. “These are attacks launched by suspects and lunatics who are bent on destabilizing the country and ruining the peace so that the Iraqi people will remain in need of American protection.”11
Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar notes that the elusive Zarqawi, for whom there exists no known photograph, though in reality a “minor player” in Iraq, has been chosen by the U.S. as a kind of Iraqi bin Laden—the evil nemesis that justifies the atrocities the U.S. is committing in Iraq.
“Zarqawi” is much like a movie. Fake leg or not, return of the living dead or not, he is everywhere. American corporate media do not even bother to examine all the holes in the story. Who cares? Without Zarqawi, the Bush administration would have to painfully admit that the Iraqi resistance is a national liberation struggle. With Zarqawi, the administration can parrot to oblivion the line that Iraq is in the frontline of the “war on terror.” If multi-purpose “Zarqawi” did not exist, he would have to be invented. The “Zarqawi” myth straddles pre-invasion and post-invasion, so the neo-cons can use it to justify just about anything.12
Prospects for the resistance

Last spring, as the resistance grew and increasingly embraced both Shiite and Sunni, U.S. forces became alarmed and set out to do something about it. This was the impetus behind the assault on Fallujah in April 2004. However, the assault met not only intense opposition in Fallujah itself, but an outpouring of both Shiite and Sunni solidarity with the besieged Fallujans. Uncertain of how to proceed, U.S. forces ended up pulling back (after killing 1,000 people) and Fallujah became a resistance enclave. By summer, whole swaths of Iraq became no-go areas for U.S. forces, including Samarra, Tal Afar, and Ramadi. Shiite areas also, such as Sadr City in Baghdad and Najaf, fell under the control of the Mehdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Fearing things were spiraling out of control, the U.S. resorted to salami tactics. In March 2004, the U.S. moved to close Sadr’s newspaper, with the clear intention of provoking a fight, and then moving in to destroy his army and kill him. The conflict culminated in a nearly three-week siege of the holy city of Najaf last August. According to author Michael Schwartz, the U.S. chose Najaf because it considered Sadr City, where Shiites would be fighting to protect their homes, a tougher nut to crack than Najaf, where the Mehdi Army was more of an outside force.13

Najaf was left in ruins, but not the Medhi Army. Instead, the battle resulted in a ceasefire agreement and efforts by the U.S. to convince Sadr to disarm his forces and join the “political process” alongside the most popular Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has maintained a middle ground between the occupation and the resistance. With armed Shiite resistance at least temporarily neutralized, the U.S. turned its sights on destroying Fallujah in November 2004, which they accomplished with the utmost brutality, reducing the city to rubble. Significantly, neither Sistani nor Sadr offered any real solidarity in the second assault on Fallujah, having decided to advance their political goals through the upcoming elections.

The U.S. has, it seems, conducted some successful maneuvers to weaken the resistance politically by encouraging sectarian divisions. The centerpiece of its efforts has been Sistani. “The U.S. has little popular support in the country,” wrote Salim Lone in the British Guardian. “It has, however, won the support of the extremely influential Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who tolerates an occupation most of his followers hate, with the single-minded sectarian goal of having the majority Shia at the helm of power in Iraq.”14

Sadr’s last-minute pullout from the election process and recent overtures to the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association are indicators that although the ceasefire agreement and the recent elections may have temporarily sidelined the Shiite component of the Iraqi resistance, it is unlikely to stay that way.

The election’s outcome, which gave Sistani’s electoral coalition a majority of seats (though not the two-thirds necessary to control it), is likely to initially create more divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. There are already reports of bombing attacks on Shiite Mosques. This was certainly one of the intentions of U.S. policy in finally allowing these elections. This is good news for the U.S., which hopes that it can strengthen its position in Iraq by securing a layer of support among the Shiites by offering them limited political power. But as it becomes increasingly clear that the U.S. continues to call the shots, the Shiite election coalition that has held together under the auspices of Sistani will break up, and there will be a reversion of some Shiite groups, in the face of mass pressure against the U.S. presence, to a posture of active resistance. This will then create the possibility of developing a more united resistance movement.

Analyst Patrick Cockburn, writing from Baghdad, explains why the U.S. will not find it so easy to use some kind of coalition of Shiites and Kurds against the Sunnis as a means of strengthening its hold in the country:

Some U.S. commentators have wondered if Washington might not be able to hold Iraq or at least remain in covert control by relying on the Kurds and the Shia. Together they make up 80 percent of the population. This is known as “the 20 per cent solution” whereby the U.S. will be able to deal with a rebellion supported by the Sunni Arabs, 20 per cent of the population. This policy is based on a misconception. The Sunni are resisting the U.S. occupation in arms. The Shia have not joined this rebellion, though Muqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army fought the U.S. Marines for Najaf last August. A central feature of Iraqi politics is that since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. has become steadily more unpopular in Iraq outside Kurdistan. This is true among the Shia as well as the Sunni. An opinion poll by Zogby International shows that the Sunni Arabs who want the U.S. out now or very soon total 82 percent. The proportion of Shia wanting the U.S. to go is less than the Sunni but still overwhelming at 69 per cent. Shia religious leaders have been telling their followers to vote as the quickest way to end the occupation. The enthusiasm with which so many Shia went to the polls is a double-edged weapon. They did so in the belief that their ballots would translate into power.15
Does that mean that the resistance does not have severe weaknesses? Most obviously, it has not been able to project itself as a unifying, national movement with a unified program. Furthermore, it contains within it Sunni factions that are weakening the resistance by directing sectarian violence at Shiite civilians. It contains a minority of elements that focus on kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide bombings that seem more directed at ordinary Iraqis and journalists rather than the occupying forces—though we cannot rule out the possibility that some of these attacks (as well as the sectarian attacks on Shiites) are actually organized and deliberately promoted by the U.S. in order to weaken the resistance (a “counterinsurgency” tactic used in Vietnam and elsewhere). The resistance also includes forces that are wavering between fighting the occupiers and compromising with them. Sadr, for example, positioned himself as an armed opponent of the U.S. occupation, then allied himself with Sistani’s coalition in the lead up to the election. He later announced a last-minute, half-hearted boycott of the election (though he did not remove his candidates from the Shiite coalition’s list). After the election, he has made overtures to both the Sunni scholars, while simultaneously expressing support for former CIA asset and embezzler Ahmad Chalabi, who hopes to climb back into power through the elections and the good graces of the occupiers. In other words, he is inconsistently anti-imperialist.

None of this should prevent us, however, from solidarizing with the overall aims of the disparate resistance groups—freeing Iraq from colonial domination. We can’t lose sight of the fact, acknowledged even by analysts who want the U.S. occupation to succeed, that it is above all the unexpected strength of the Iraqi resistance that has prevented the U.S. from effectively pursuing its goals in Iraq and the region. This was underscored by a recent Power and Interest News Report:

The major reasons behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq derived from Saddam’s regime being a liability to U.S. and Western interests, in addition to the neoconservative vision of Iraq as an opportunity to foster long-term internal stability in Iraq and the region as a whole, to expand oil and gas exploration…and the opportunity to turn Iraq into a bridgehead against established foes in the region, primarily Iran and Syria. Yet, the United States ran into an immediate snag, and that was the development of a local insurgency which has had a strong enough impact to prevent U.S.-led forces from fostering stability. The continued failure to quell the insurgency has unraveled the bulk of the Bush administration’s goals and has created problems of its own.16

Paul D’Amato is associate editor of the ISR.

1 Erich Marquardt, “Implications of the Iraqi National Elections -Toward U.S. Strategic Interests,” Power and Interest News Report (PINR), February 16, 2005, available online at
2 Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End–2004,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 6, 2005, available online at
3 Erich Marquardt, “Iraq’s Perilous Election and the Need for Exit Strategies,” PINR, January 17, 2005, available online at
4 Mike Whitney, “Bush’s Grand Plan: Incite Civil War,” CounterPunch, January 15, 2005.
5 Molly Bingham, “Why Elections Won’t Quell Iraq Resistance,” Boston Globe, December 15, 2004.
6 Samir Haddad and Mazin Ghazi , “An Inventory of Iraqi Resistance Groups, Al Zawra (Baghdad), September 19, 2004, available online at
7 Tariq Ali, “‘Democracy Promotion’ and Resistance: Imperial Delusions,” Counterpunch, February 7, 2005.
8 Pepe Escobar, “Zarqawi—Bush’s Man for All Seasons,” Asia Times, October 15, 2004.
9 Tony Karon, “After Fallujah,” Time Online, November 16, 2004, available online at,8599,783584,00.html.
10 Adrian Blomfield , “Doubt over Zarqawi’s Role as Ringleader,” The Age (Australia), October 2, 2004.
11 Edward Cody, “Foes of U.S. in Iraq Criticize Insurgents: Clerics and Militiamen Decry Violence,” Washington Post, June 26, 2004.
12 Escobar.
13 Michael Schwartz, “You Thought Fallujah was Tough?: Guerrilla War in Sadr City,” Against the Current 114, January/February 2005.
14 Salim Lone, “An Election to Anoint an Occupation,” Guardian (UK), January 31, 2005.
15 Patrick Cockburn, “A Victory for the Shia: But the Occupiers Will Still Remain in Power,” CounterPunch, January 31, 2005.
16 Marquardt, “Implications of the Iraqi National Elections Toward U.S. Strategic Interests.”
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