Iraq’s Sunni insurgency waged by convenient bedfellows

A Shiite Muslim cleric holds the Koran as volunteers walk under it to a brigade to fight against Sunni Muslim militants in Iraq.
A Shiite Muslim cleric holds the Koran as volunteers walk under it to a brigade to fight against Sunni Muslim militants in Iraq.
(Haidar Hamdani / AFP/ Getty Images)
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The protests that sprouted last year in the Sunni Arab village of Karmah were a peaceful sort, tribal leader Laurence Hardan recalled, with residents “wearing dishdashas and carrying the Koran” in opposition to the Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government.

It is a very different scene in Karmah now, Hardan said. Under siege by Iraqi security forces, the village is guarded all around by a latticework of Sunni militias — tribal fighters, neo-Baathists, ex-army officers and militants with the powerful Al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State.

“You name the group and they’re here,” Hardan said with pride, speaking by phone from the village in central Iraq, 50 miles west of Baghdad. “We are using any means to defend ourselves.”


As anger at Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government has deepened, the armed Sunni opposition has grown more diverse and unified than Iraqi and U.S. officials often acknowledge.

The strident militant group Islamic State has grabbed territory and headlines — its leader declaring a caliphate and demanding fealty from the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims — while support for the insurgency has come from a broad base of Iraqi Sunnis who for years have demanded greater rights from Maliki’s administration.

Experts say that not all Sunnis subscribe to the brutality and bombast of the group, which until recently was known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But even in cosmopolitan Baghdad, still firmly in government hands, middle-class Sunnis often refer to the militants who have seized chunks of northern and western Iraq as “rebels” and “protesters,” lending a quiet legitimacy to the violence.

“The government has the wrong idea about us, that all of us are terrorists, all of us are ISIS and we want to kill people,” Hardan said. “Here in Karmah, we are just fighting for our rights.”

Many people have latched on to the Islamic State out of fear, but others believe its aggression presents the best chance to resolve the grievances Sunnis have held for years under Maliki, who has been accused of aggregating power and packing the security services with fellow Shiites. The Sunnis’ demands include the release of prisoners held without trial, a bigger share of civil service jobs and greater representation at top levels of the government and security forces.

Maliki on Wednesday tried a familiar tactic, extending a general amnesty to tribes fighting his government in the hope of peeling Sunni moderates away from the hard-core militants. The strategy worked in 2007 for U.S. military commanders, who threw money and weapons behind the anti-Al Qaeda tribal uprising known as the Awakening, but Maliki’s offer barely registered.


“It really is a very forlorn effort to break what looks to me like quite a cohesive Sunni Arab insurgency,” said Gareth Stansfield, director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, who visited Iraq last month. “I don’t think it’s going to be tremendously successful.”

The amnesty was a rare conciliatory gesture from the two-term prime minister, who in the same speech declared that defeating the insurgency was more important than forming an inclusive new government, as Iraq’s most influential Shiite clerics have demanded. He is angling for a third four-year term despite fierce opposition, and the squabbling bloc of majority Shiite lawmakers hasn’t decide whether to support his bid or nominate a replacement.

According to Iraqi military officials and analysts, the insurgents confronting Maliki include a hodgepodge of secular and Islamist Sunni groups: the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which include former soldiers in the disbanded Iraqi army; Baathists from the Saddam Hussein era; the Mujahedin Army, an anti-Shiite nationalist group; and the Thuwar al-Ashayer, or revolutionary tribes.

“ISIS is only one component of many,” said Ramzy Mardini, a former State Department official who is an analyst at the Atlantic Council. “It’s the most active of all the other groups but it certainly doesn’t outnumber them.”

Among the evolutionary tribes is Hardan and his fighters in Karmah. ISIS seized the village in January, over the objections of Hardan and others, but the militant groups now are jointly defending the village.

A decade ago, Karmah was considered one of the most violent cities in Iraq, a source of near-daily mortar attacks and small-arms fire on U.S. military convoys. When U.S. forces mounted a major offensive in nearby Fallouja in late 2004, villagers helped send weapons and medical supplies into the besieged city.


Hardan said his target is now the Iraqi army, which has been hitting the village with mortar shells and occasional airstrikes since January. Dozens of civilians have been killed, he said, although that could not be independently verified. For seven months, he has not left his home.

He described a division of labor among the Sunni groups protecting Karmah: a few units based in houses, some stationed at a central office and others positioned on the outskirts of the village to guard against Iraqi army incursions. Snipers are poised on rooftops, Hardan said, adding that Iraqi soldiers have not come closer to the village than about four miles.

Apart from opposing Maliki, the groups have little in common, and many believe they will eventually turn on one another.

Hisham Hashemi, an Iraqi analyst who studies the militant movement, said that last month in Mosul, which is held by the Islamic State, Baathist fighters put up a picture of their leader, Izzat Ibrahim, Hussein’s former deputy. The poster violated an ISIS order that only its flag be flown in the city, and two Baathists were executed, Hashemi said.

By declaring a caliphate last week — and himself the caliph, or spiritual leader, of Muslims worldwide — Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the mysterious Islamic State leader, might create opposition from rival groups. But some experts believe that Baghdadi’s group is too strong for others to fight at the moment, and that their main enemy still is Maliki’s government.

“The Sunni insurgents aren’t going to lift the pressure off the Shiite government until they extract concessions,” Mardini said. “Otherwise, confronting ISIS now undermines their negotiating power at the table in Baghdad.”


The insurgents’ diversity poses a serious dilemma for U.S. officials, who say the Iraqi army cannot regain much of its lost territory without wooing some Sunni groups to its side. President Obama is weighing airstrikes against the insurgents, but experts say that such action risks generating more sympathy for the extremists among Sunnis.

Other efforts to get Sunnis to turn against the extremists also have backfired. Maliki this year pumped millions of dollars into an effort to arm tribes, but Hardan and others say many of the weapons were stolen by ISIS. In early 2013, Maliki backed Hardan’s brother, Wissam, to lead a government-backed Awakening movement; the tribal leader dismissed it as “worthless” propaganda.

Experts say that it will require much more than Maliki’s removal or a coalition government to calm the insurgency, and that greater concessions will be needed to get Sunnis to oppose the extremists.

“There is no unified Sunni endgame,” Mardini said. “It’s a leaderless movement and a hodgepodge of interests and motives that only converge to oust Maliki from power. There is no singular solution to this problem.”