Can the Iraqis Tame the Insurgents?

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More Carnage: Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visits the scene of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad

For the domestic audience, the Bush administration's hand-over of sovereign authority in Baghdad on June 28 was intended to mark a light at the end of the Iraq tunnel — a crucial step toward making the problems in Iraq mostly the problems of Iraqis. But for U.S. troops in the country and their families back home, the worrying news has hardly skipped a beat. In the 16 days since U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer handed over the keys to Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, some 35 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq. The number of insurgent attacks continue to average close to 40 a day, and the enormity of the security challenge facing the new government is underscored every day — Wednesday's toll included ten killed by a car bomb near the government's headquarters in Baghdad, and the assassination of the governor of Mosul. And, of course, for now at least, the burden of the Iraqi government's security crisis is born primarily by U.S. forces.

Not that anyone was expecting that the hand-over of authority would, in itself, turn things around in Iraq. U.S. officials insisted, instead, that it was the necessary starting point to putting Iraq's security in Iraqi hands. But the nascent Iraqi security services are some way off from being in a position to succeed where the U.S. has failed in snuffing out the insurgency. On the one hand Allawi's government has adopted tough new emergency powers that will allow for martial law, curfews and detention of suspects without due process; it has launched security sweeps through some areas — ostensibly directed at "criminals" — that have led to dozens of arrests; and its leaders use language so uncompromising that one even threatened to cut off the heads of terrorists.

At the same time, however, the new government is aware that the American experience has shown that force alone is unlikely to defeat the insurgency. The government is combining get-tough measures with political incentives to lure more moderate elements in the insurgency to pursue their goals through political channels, particularly the elections to be held in January. The interim government plans later this week to unveil an amnesty offer to insurgents willing to put down their weapons. This announcement has been delayed for more than a week, surrounded by some confusion over just how and to whom it will apply. The premise of the amnesty is that the ranks of the insurgents include implacable Islamist and foreign fighters but also secular nationalists and patriots enraged by foreign occupation, and that the key to beating the insurgency is to isolate the hard-liners and foreigners from elements closer to the mainstream of Iraqi society. "We're negotiating with what I call the non-criminals, those who never really were the hard core like Zarqawi and his aides and the al-Qaeda-style people," Allawi told the New York Times last week, referring to contacts between his administration and insurgents.

But the foreign forces against which even the "non-criminal" insurgents — as Allawi calls them — have been fighting are still the major security presence in Iraq, and that creates a double-edged problem for the new government: On the one hand, it makes it harder to convince the insurgents that the occupation is over; on the other hand the U.S. forces on which Allawi is forced to rely aren't going to easily accept the instant "rehabilitation" of men who have killed and wounded Americans, and continue to do so.

The government is trying to finesse the terms of the amnesty, telling Western media that it will be limited to those who have not actually killed Americans or Iraqis. The problem with such narrow terms, of course, is that it offers no incentive for those who are actually doing the fighting to stop, even though it could, if heeded, peel away an important layer of non-combatant support on which the insurgents clearly rely.

The new government can, however, take some comfort from the fact that isolating the foreign element in the insurgency may be emerging as a point of consensus. To the extent that foreign fighters, particularly those linked with Jordanian extremist Musab al-Zarqawi, are seen as responsible for suicide bombings that indiscriminately target Iraqi civilians — and also for the gruesome kidnapping and beheading of foreign civilians — they are a problem not only for the new government, but also for its Arab neighbors and even for the more nationalist element of the insurgency.

For ordinary Iraqis who repeatedly tell pollsters that their Number 1 priority is security, the primary concern is rampaging criminality and arbitrary terror directed at civilians. They are not nearly as troubled by ambushes on U.S. patrols as they are by suicide car bombs driven into crowds of Iraqis lining up for jobs. Iraqi public opinion shows little support for going after a figure such as the Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr who launched his own insurgency against U.S. forces when they sought to arrest him, but plenty for going after those responsible for mass-casualty attacks on Shiite mosques and other Iraqi targets. Dealing with the suicide-terror element is therefore a top priority for the government. And so, too, for Iraq's Arab neighbors, who fear that locals who had gone over to fight alongside the insurgency may be returning home to wreak further mayhem in the name of jihad.

Equally important is the idea that the foreigners are becoming a problem for some of the nationalist leaders of the insurgency itself. Figures associated with the insurgency have begun telling Western reporters that they reject the beheading of hostages and indiscriminate terror attacks against other Iraqis. One group, styling itself the "Salvation Movement," has even threatened to kill Zarqawi and his supporters if they don't leave Iraq, accusing them of defiling Islam and killing innocent Iraqis. "If you don't stop," the group adds, "we will do to you what the coalition forces have failed to do."

The tension between Zarqawi and nationalist insurgents was made evident some months ago in the letter intercepted ostensibly from the Jordanian to Osama bin Laden, in which he complained that the Iraqis were averse to suicide attacks and that they wanted to go home to their wives after a day's fighting. In other words, Zarqawi complained that the Iraqi insurgents actually imagined a future for themselves. And that being the case, they'd be averse both to suicide attacks and also to tactics such as the indiscriminate killing of Shiites (as advocated by Zarqawi) that would imperil prospects for holding Iraq together. For the global-jihadists, of course, Iraq is but a moment in an international campaign planned to last for decades, whose primary weapon is suicide attacks and whose footsoldiers envisage a future only in the paradise they believe they will enter as a result. But for nationalist Sunnis even of religious bent, driving foreign forces out of their own country may be an end in itself. This tension between the global agenda of groups with an al-Qaeda type ideology and local insurgents has played out elsewhere, in situations such as Chechnya and also among the Palestinian radical groups. And it could prove decisive in shaping the security situation in Iraq.

It may well be, then, as some U.S. officials have suggested, that Zarqawi could be killed in the near future, by some of the very same people in whose name he claims to fight. The irony, of course, could be that those who do the killing might be as hostile to the American presence in Iraq as Zarqawi is. And while everyone from the new government to many former Baathists may share the objective of purging the foreign jihadist element, their differences over Iraq's future — and over the presence of American forces in their midst — remain substantial.