Even Without Brothers Hussein, Iraq's Insurgency Will Continue

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As if to prove that their resistance would continue without Saddam's sons, guerrilla fighters in Iraq have killed five American troops in the past two days. The attacks were not unexpected; Baghdad's U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, had warned that supporters of the old regime would seek revenge for the killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein by U.S. forces in Mosul on Tuesday. The death of two of the three men at the heart of Saddam's regime certainly delivered a telling blow against those fighting to resurrect it, but it remains far from clear that the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein — confirmed for Iraqis Thursday by the publication of grisly photographs of their corpses — will end the resistance that has plagued U.S. reconstruction efforts. Indeed, the same day as the photographs were published, the Pentagon also announced a schedule of troop rotations that would maintain current U.S. force levels in Iraq for the next year and beyond.

Even before Tuesday's firefight in Mosul, there had been signs that the resistance was expanding both in the scope and number of its attacks, and also in its increasingly brazen public-relations efforts. The day after Saddam's sons were killed in Mosul, the pan-Arab cable channel al-Jazeera aired footage of masked Saddam loyalists bearing Kalashnikovs and RPG launchers vowing to avenge Uday and Qusay Hussein. The footage was shot on a dusty street in broad daylight "somewhere in Iraq," the network explained. Not to be outdone, Jazeera's Dubai-based competitor Al-Arabiya on Thursday carried footage of a self-styled 'fedayeen' fighter, masked in a keffiyeh and touting an RPG, warning that attacks will intensify.

Saddam Hussein is clearly also inclined to maintain his own media profile by smuggling taped messages to Arab TV networks, most recently Tuesday's exhortation to his loyalists to fight on. And for sheer chutzpah, it's hard to beat the Baghdad newspaper al-Mustaqila, published under the noses of the occupying authority, which was shut down after proclaiming it a religious duty to kill Iraqis who cooperate with the U.S.

Even some of the footsoldiers of the resistance appear to have developed an appetite for publicity. When the Palm Beach Post's Larry Kaplow ventured into Fallujah, where U.S. forces have encountered some of the most sustained resistance, he found local insurgents eager to show off their weapons caches and discuss their tactics with a Western reporter. They described a network of local men organized into cells and able to act both under the direction of local commanders and on their own initiative to attack U.S. units. And they plan to fight on even after Saddam is killed. Their security and sustenance is ensured by local tribal and clan structures, and they say they're being joined in battle by volunteers from other Arab countries. Newsday's Mohammed Bazzi managed to land an an interview with two publicity-hungry Arab jihadis who claim to be handling explosives and weapons for the resistance.

The same Newsday reporter had previously interviewed an intelligence officer of the former regime, who claimed to be a commander in a network of cells comprised largely of former Baathists and military and security personnel working to lay the groundwork for a long-term guerrilla resistance like that mounted by Hezbollah against the Israelis in southern Lebanon.

Earlier this week, the insurgents even made prime time when CBS Evening News aired an interview with three Iraqis who claim to have ambushed American troops. But these self-styled "farmers" denied being supporters of Saddam, telling CBS they were glad the dictator was gone, but were now fighting to end the occupation of their land. Their motivation, they said, was religious, which jibes with reports of a distinct Islamist element in the anti-American resistance. Some Sunni clerics have called for jihad, and U.S. officials believe a recent blast at a mosque in Fallujah occurred during a bomb-making class being taught inside the building.

The Islamists and Baathists are not necessarily even working together — U.S. officers cite widely divergent levels of skill and professionalism in the attacks they encounter every day. Some involve skillful planning and use of weapons such as mortars, surface-to-air missiles or remote-detonated bombs assembled with some expertise; others simply involve young men bearing rifles or RPGs firing wildly before scattering.

The fact that most of these attacks have occurred in the "Sunni triangle" stretching north from Baghdad, however, signifies that the insurgency has a distinct social base. Sunni Arabs constitute 15 percent of Iraq's population, but they have dominated its politics and economy for most of the past century. Many of them were not Baathists, but as Iraq expert Professor Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan, notes, the Sunnis enjoyed a privileged status under Baathist rule equivalent to that of white South Africans under apartheid — the state always rewarded them with a disproportionate allocation of resources and opportunities. The onset of democracy in Iraq, where Shiites compose two thirds of the population and even Kurds outnumber the Sunni Arabs almost two-to-one would almost certainly erode their position of comparative privilege.

Uncertainty over the future (particularly among the Sunnis), the humiliation of occupation and the breakdown in security and services that has accompanied it has created fertile ground for the insurgency to grow, and the country is awash with weapons distributed by the old regime. An independent assessment commissioned by the Pentagon (downloadable from the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that defeating the insurgency and winning the peace depends on the coalition very quickly turning around the security situation and restoring normalcy to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. "The 'hearts and minds' of key segments of the Sunni and Shi'a communities are in play and can be won," the report noted, "but only if the Coalition Provisional Authority and new Iraqi authorities deliver in short order."

An insurgency confined to the Sunni minority can harass and disrupt U.S. efforts for months or even years, but as Bremer has noted it does not represent a strategic threat to the U.S. position in Iraq. That might change, however, if the rebellion extended to the Shiite majority. Two major Shiite parties previously exiled in Iran have, with the blessing of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah, joined the Iraqi Governing Council established by Bremer, and are therefore committed to pursuing their goal of ending the occupation through cooperation with the U.S. But those groups are facing a growing and increasingly militant challenge from the more radical followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, who is more inclined to challenge the Americans, albeit through non-violent means for now. But he did call for recruits for an army last Friday, and denounced the Governing Council as "infidels." The following day, 10,000 of his supporters took to the streets of Najaf in response to rumors that the U.S. was about to arrest al-Sadr. Until now, Sadr and his supporters have studiously avoided advocating violence against the U.S. But they have not necessarily been as averse to fratricidal violence — Sadr supporters are blamed for killing a prominent pro-U.S. Shiite cleric at Najaf in the last days of the war, and the Pentagon's consultants warn that "internal fighting between rival factions" may become a danger to the coalition's work.

Of course, one factor that has always held even the most anti-American of Iraq's Shiite groups back from advocating violence against the U.S. was the fear of facilitating a return to power by Saddam's regime, which butchered hundreds of thousands of Shiites. But as President Bush pointed out Wednesday, the killing of the brothers Hussein is a sign that the old regime isn't coming back. Still, even if some Shiites become more inclined to take up arms against the occupation, communal tension remains a huge impediment to cooperation between Sunni and Shiite militants — Sadr's supporters have enraged Sunni clerics by laying claim to their mosques in the predominantly Shiite south. Keeping the Shiites off the battlefield will be a key dimension of U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. And also a long-term counterinsurgency program and billions of dollars of aid to restart economic life and undermine resistance among the Sunnis. As the Pentagon's new deployment schedule suggests, this may still take years.