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Volume III,  Number 44               December 7 - 13, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Who are Iraq's Guerrillas?

By Stratfor

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The major guerrilla forces in Iraq comprise nationalists, Islamists and Sunni tribal warriors. The fight to end the U.S. occupation is their unifying principle, and how to treat Saddam Hussein's legacy is a spoiler. The guerrilla war likely will continue to be restricted to mostly Sunni regions in the near term, but a new and worrisome trend is emerging: guerrilla cooperation with groups with different agendas across the board. For the coalition, the most significant thing about the Iraqi guerrillas is that almost all of them have military training -- although only a minority has experience in guerrilla tactics.


The biggest mystery about the ongoing Iraq war is not whether former leader Saddam Hussein is alive but rather who is fighting the coalition troops. The U.S. government has called them Baathists, Saddam loyalists and al Qaeda. Stratfor sees these definitions as misleading, doing more harm than good for the U.S. forces. It is hard to fight a force you don't know much about; it is even harder to fight a force you identify incorrectly.

If Washington understood the forces it is battling in Iraq, it would help the Bush administration to craft a successful course.

Official Statements: More Harm Than Good?

To say "the guerrillas are Baathists" only adds confusion. The long-ruling Baath Party had more than 1 million members before the U.S. invasion. If a bulk of the former Baathists were fighting U.S. troops, American soldiers would be facing hundreds of thousands of insurgents. Clearly this is not the case. Likewise, if top Baath leaders were leading the resistance, the guerrilla war would be much more organized than it is. In reality, some Baathists likely have joined the resistance, but others have taken the U.S. side and a majority of the rest is sitting on the fence.

Calling the guerrillas Saddamists is misleading as well. Many Iraqis believe the Hussein government surrendered the nation to the United States in April because only a few regular Iraqi army units participated in the war. Hussein's prize forces -- the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and intelligence units -- largely "disappeared" without firing a single shot. Likely because they feel betrayed, many known Iraqi guerrilla groups say they oppose restoring Hussein to power as much as they oppose the U.S. occupation.

The main reason Stratfor does not believe the former Hussein regime is in charge of the resistance is that the guerrilla campaign does not appear to be coordinated from a top command center. Also, the guerrilla attacks, although they have grown increasingly sophisticated, have not come close to posing a serious threat to U.S. forces. To give an idea, the current level of organization, command, scope and impact of guerrilla attacks in Iraq bears no comparison to the massiv e, highly organized resistance movements against Germans in Yugoslavia and the occupied USSR during World War II, and against French and later Americans in Vietnam. Local communist parties led those movements. We do not see Hussein's apparatus being a similar main, central, prime organizer of the resistance.

Certainly, a minority of Hussein loyalists could be leading some guerrilla groups. But it is doubtful that they are leading much of the guerrilla campaign. Of 30 known resistance groups, only a few might be called Hussein loyalists. Also, the fact that guerrillas mostly use improvised explosive devises does not support this theory. If Hussein's former officials were leading the insurgency, tens of thousands of industry-produced land mines would be at the guerrillas' disposal.

We have no doubt, however, that al Qaeda is participating in the resistance. But it is not likely offering direct aid. Rather, al Qaeda sponsors -- financial and otherwise -- and other foreign and local Islamist militant groups are more likely lending their support to the insurgency. That is why no concrete proof of al Qaeda participation has been found so far. Al Qaeda is an ideological leader, strategic facilitator and, sometimes, logistic supporter for some Iraqi guerrillas, but not a fighting force.

Main Guerrilla Force: Iraqi Nationalists

The following is Stratfor's assessment of who the guerrillas in Iraq actually are, based on intelligence from our sources in some Arab military and European intelligence communities, talks with a number of U.S. commanders and our analysis of official and media reports.

The main -- in terms of numbers and probable impact -- guerrilla force seems to be the Iraqi nationalists. Though not united under one command, their top priority is Iraq's liberation from foreign occupation. The overwhelming majority is former Iraqi servicemen and members of Sunni tribes. A small number of Shiites and a few Kurds -- those who put Iraq above their ethnicity -- also participate in some nationalist resistance groups.

This tells us several important things about the impact of the nationalist guerrilla force on the war.

First, nationalists are trying to operate everywhere, not confining their attacks to the Sunni Triangle. This nationwide scope gives them the operational reach necessary to conduct major operations in the future. The downside is their vulnerable communication lines.

Second, nationalists are seen as Iraq's defenders. They mostly come from Sunni regions, which automatically give them popular support in these regions, including in the Sunni Triangle and Arab-populated areas of Mosul and Kirkuk. This in turn makes them hard to catch. With few Shiites or Kurds in their ranks, they are much weaker in the south and Kurdish-controlled north, though some isolated attacks against British forces in Basra can be attributed to the nationalists.

Third, having enlisted many former Iraqi soldiers on an individual basis, including special services and Fedayeen militia, nationalists are generally good at employing traditional guerrilla tactics, such as ambushes, and using standard weapons, such as small arms, grenade launchers and hand grenades. Some use their specialized knowledge of how to operate anti-tank missiles, mortars and portable air defense missiles. Nationalists are not as good with suicide-bombing techniques, though some nationalist-minded Fedayeen have employed the method.

Fourth, nationalists are not united. Their majority pointedly denies links to the former regime, but a minority is affiliated with some former Baath Party officials. This makes it hard for the various nationalist groups to coordinate.

The main guerrilla group among nationalists cannot be identified by name. In the current Iraq war, the most effective groups have a tendency not to declare their existence at all. Foreign intelligence sources and U.S. officers say these groups are too busy fighting to leave calling cards -- instead leaving the rhetoric to other groups, which sometimes make falsely claims. This is one of the guerrillas' tactics that make them hard to locate, penetrate and destroy.

What we can say about these anonymous guerrilla groups is that they likely are responsible for a majority of the attacks that have occurred so far, that they are strong in the Sunni Triangle -- including Baghdad, its suburbs and the Mosul area -- and that they likely are led by mid-rank former Iraqi officers.

Still, there are some nationalist guerrilla groups fighting that we can identify.

a. National Front for the Liberation of Iraq (NFLI): First declared Iraqi nationalist group -- established April 11 -- has carried out numerous ambushes, drive-by shootings and other attacks throughout Iraq from Mosul to Basra. Republican Guard and special forces officers lead some squad-sized combat units. The latest statement from this nationwide group was aired Sept. 29 -- Al Jazeera showed video footage of NFLI fighters attacking a U.S. convoy near Al Fallujah. United Arab Emirates military sources tell Stratfor that the NFLI has Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in its ranks. Anti-Hussein. 

b. Iraqi National Islamic Resistance (INIR): Began its attacks on U.S. forces in July. Led by former emigrated Iraqi officers; anti-Hussein. Special services officers are running a sabotage campaign for the INIR. On Aug. 18, the group destroyed a water main in Baghdad with a remote-controlled bomb. 

c. Al-Awdah (The Return): Comprises former Iraqi security officers, army soldiers, urban militia fighters and mid-rank Baath Party members; reveres Hussein. Conducts urban guerrilla operations -- including sniper attacks -- in Baghdad, Ar Ramadi and Mosul. Launched first attacks in June. Two smaller groups are linked to Al-Awdah.

Sunni Triangle: Sunni Tribal Warriors Lead the Resistance

The second-largest force in the Iraqi resistance is the Sunni tribes. From some of these tribes' perspective, they have good reason to fight U.S. forces. In the final years under Hussein's regime, Sunni tribes enjoyed privileges far above other groups in Iraq. That ended with the U.S. occupation. Moreover, Sunni sheikhs and tribal leaders would hate to see Washington's plan to install a Shia-led government under U.S. control fulfilled. That would seal Shia domination in Iraq at the Sunnis' expense.

For some Sunni tribes, the guerrilla war is their response to U.S.-Iranian plans. They are fighting to restore their domination over Iraq -- or at least carve a Sunni part out of the country independent of Shiites and Kurds.

Not all Sunni tribes participate in the guerrilla war; some sheikhs collaborate with Washington. Sunni tribes in Al Fallujah, Tikrit and probably Ar Ramadi are likely the force behind a majority of guerrilla attacks in the Sunni Triangle. Indeed, th e fierce resistance U.S. forces encounter in Al Fallujah and Tikrit would be impossible without massive local support. Such solid support could be provided only by the structure exercising real power on the ground. This structure is tribal.

Sunni guerrillas are active where their tribes live -- so it is not by chance that the Sunni Triangle has become the main fighting zone. Jordanian sources told Stratfor that some Sunni tribes close to the Syrian and Saudi borders also participate in the resistance. Among the tribal guerrillas are many former Iraqi soldiers.

A Breakdown of Sunni Tribes:

a. General Command of Iraqi Armed Resistance and Liberation Forces: One of the tribal-based guerrilla groups active in Al Fallujah. The group has been attacking U.S. troops since late May.

b. Wakefulness and Holy War: Another tribal guerrilla group active in Al Fallujah.

As nationalists, tribal warriors are divided on the Hussein issue. Sunni tribes aroun d Al Fallujah are against him, but those in Tikrit, Hussein's birthplace, hail him.

Islamists: The Main International Guerrilla Connection

Islamists represent the third major guerrilla force in Iraq. They are also the main international connection. Foreign fighters are entering Iraq to join mostly Islamist groups. Washington says several hundred foreign militants are fighting there.

Islamist guerrillas' specialty is in terrorist-style operations, including suicide bombings. They seem to try to use foreign fighters -- who are motivated to die in the process -- for such missions.

a. Iraqi Jihad Movement: An Islamist group likely using Syrians. In a statement to Agence France-Presse, it specifically thanked Syrians for joining the fight. Stratfor's Jordan government sources say Syrians do indeed fight in the ranks of this group.

b. Salafist Jihad Group: Another Islamist group fighting in the Sunni Triangle. It claims to be affiliated wit h al Qaeda.

Less Significant Non-Sunni Forces

Though several non-Sunni militant groups occasionally attack coalition forces, they will not grow into a major guerrilla force any time soon. This is because top leaders of Kurds and Shiites think a guerrilla war would harm their goals. Kurds hope eventually to gain more than the de facto independence they currently enjoy. Shia leaders, on the other hand, hope to dominate Iraq with U.S. help.

Still, there are some rogue groups that disagree with their communities' top leaders. They are engaged in sporadic attacks on coalition troops, but mostly are on the defensive against U.S. attacks. Among Kurds they are Ansar al-Islam, several other Islamist groups and the non-Islamist KADEK/PKK and Turkish-Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq.

Stratfor's military sources in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait say there are some rogue Shiite militant groups -- under the control of midlevel clerics -- that occasionally fire at coa lition forces in the south. A Ukrainian military intelligence unit recently ambushed a local Shia militia group in Al Kut, trying to capture weapons from an Iraqi army cache. Hand-to-hand combat resulted in the suspected militants' arrests.

Cooperation Across the Lines Worrisome for the Coalition

Though the anti-U.S. armed resistance remains mostly a Sunni affair, there is a new trend emerging that will worry the Pentagon. Some Shiites and Kurds have begun to join Sunni-dominated guerrilla groups -- mostly nationalists, because they have an all-Iraq agenda. Another worrisome trend is the creation of groups that combine a number of different agendas, for example nationalist as well as tribal. These trends have the potential -- albeit limited -- to expand the guerrilla war beyond the Sunni areas.

a. Companies of Jihad: Led by an Iraqi intelligence officer and comprising nationalists and Islamists. Interviewed by U.S. journalists on Oct. 5. The commander said the group would abduct U.S. soldiers to exchange them for al Qaeda suspects held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Jihad Brigades of Imam Ali bin Abi-Talib: Appeared in September 2003, comprising Islamists and tribal warriors at Al-Fallujah.

November 14, 2003


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