Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

An Unholy Alliance

Upsurge in attacks in Iraq suggest Islamic radicals are teaming up with Saddam’s security men.
By Hiwa Osman

The recent escalation of attacks in Iraq involving the use of terrorist-style tactics such as suicide bombings points to an alliance between foreign Islamic militants and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Diehard elements of Iraq’s security services and military are still active, launching ambushes and bomb attacks on United States-led coalition forces.

But the recent strikes against civilian targets such as the Jordanian embassy and the Red Cross, and the more sophisticated tactics employed, suggest that significant numbers of foreign militants are at work.

The suggestion is that these latest attacks are being coordinated with former Ba’ath and security officials, who are in a good position to provide local knowledge and guidance.

When the huge security and intelligence systems were dissolved, the broad, coordinated guerrilla war that some expected did not materialise. Instead, these Saddam loyalists melted away and laid low.

The more experienced officers have a lot to offer a resistance force, with established networks, intimate knowledge of the Iraqi geography, especially in the central region, and an understanding of the infrastructure of major urban centres.

They have now had seven months to regroup, and have begun to reappear, holding neighbourhood meetings in Baghdad and recruiting new members to clandestine networks.

Given the brutality with which Saddam ran Iraq using these same security forces, it is at first sight difficult to conceive that his supporters would get much popular support once they were on the losing side.

But it appears that large numbers of Iraqis who should be predisposed to favour a new order are being won over to the resistance. Many have come to see the US as an occupying power rather than a force for positive change. In part, this is because Iraqis feel marginalised and increasingly disaffected with the way the US military and civilian administration is running the country.

Nor has the cultural insensitivity and occasional arrogance of US soldiers in the streets done much to win hearts and minds.

With these two elements in place – a skeleton organisational structure and a potential recruiting base – as well as a local network of Islamic fundamentalists, groups such as al-Qaeda and Ansar Al-Islam have found it easy to set up shop.

One such organisation, the shadowy Muhammed’s Army, has even set out terms for the arrangement in a blueprint for action. The group gained notoriety in August when it claimed responsibility for the suicide truck bomb at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 23 people including UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Two months before, Muhammed’s Army distributed a statement in the capital in which it called on members of the Ba’ath Party, the Republican Guards, the fedayeen militia, and other security and paramilitary units of the old regime to “prepare yourselves”.

“Contact each other, because you know each other very well,” said the statement. “Organise your ranks, and be a model for the people and a support to the mujahedin, so that the people forgive what some of you did to them.”

What was interesting was that the statement drew a distinction between the mujahedin – the Islamic fighters – and the old guard, and recognised that the latter had a poor record because of past crimes.

Five months later, it appears that this was a prescription for what actually happened.

The more conventional attacks on US military targets bear the hallmark of former regime supporters. Former Iraqi military officers have told IWPR that when Saddam was in power, they trained security, intelligence and Ba’ath party members in conventional urban warfare methods.

There is, therefore, no shortage of men able to use hand-held missiles and automatic weapons to mount simple raids. It is also believed that local Iraqis may be hired to carry out some of these smaller attacks. With an estimated 60 per cent unemployment rate and a large disgruntled population, finding a few people willing to take the risk cannot difficult.

More recent attacks in Baghdad such as those on the UN building, the Jordanian Embassy, the Red Cross and a number of Iraqi police stations would have required the sophisticated assembly of car bombs and a supply of volunteer suicide bombers, and are likely to be the work of al-Qaeda, Ansar and allied groups.

Regime loyalists would be unlikely to choose suicide methods themselves, but would offer the knowledge needed to plan such assaults, such as street layout and security arrangements.

This leads to the suspicion that both conventional and suicide attacks are coordinated by a network of former Ba’athists led by high-up regime figures who are still at large. Although this senior-level network is small, it is influential enough to play a crucial orchestrating role. These officials are also believed to help the Islamic groups infiltrate new recruits from abroad.

A pattern has emerged where reported sightings of former senior Ba’ath officials in a given area are followed by an increase in attacks on US military and civilian targets. On November 5, US forces captured two former army generals in the town of Fallujah, saying they were suspected of funding and organising resistance forces. The arrests came three days after a US helicopter was shot down in the town, killing 15 servicemen.

What can be done to slow the growth of this increasingly organised resistance force? There is little point in trying to dissuade either Islamists or Ba’athists – and force does not appear to be working either.

But there are arguments in favour of taking steps to drain their support

A greater Iraqi role in the reconstruction project would build bridges between the administration and the public, and begin to fill the political vacuum that now exists.

More local control over security and policing would reduce the sense of estrangement felt by many Iraqis, as well as producing better results than now. Iraqi security forces would be in a better position to penetrate and disrupt clandestine networks.

Lastly, economic growth – itself dependent on a greater sense of security – will begin to thin the ranks of desperate people willing to carry out attacks for money.

Hiwa Osman is an IWPR editor/trainer in Baghdad.