Saturday, January 14, 2006

Why Iraq's Resistance Differs From Insurgency

By Roger Cohen
International Herald Tribune
January 14, 2006

BAGHDAD--Forget the insurgency. We all know about that. It's time to think about the Iraqi resistance, which may hold the key to the success or failure of the great American gamble in Iraq.

What is the resistance and how does it differ from the insurgency? It's the great mass of Sunni Arabs for whom the American invasion turned life on its head. It's the Sunnis toppled by U.S. tanks from a centuries-old dominance and angered by the ascendancy of the long-trampled Shiite majority.

These Sunnis, perhaps 20 percent of the Iraqi population, are the sea in which the double-headed insurgency (part Al Qaeda fanatics, part Saddam irredentists) has thrived. They're the folk who have granted insurgents safe passage, turned a blind eye to myriad acts of sabotage, taken small payments for small services, and generally wished America ill. Resistance can be largely passive but no less effective for that.

Nothing will change the insurgents; they're in this to the death. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia will not cease its monstrous dream of a restored caliphate, nor stop cutting infidel throats in pursuit of that illusion.

The die-hard Baathists nostalgic for the ancien regime will not stop their murderous quest to restore the comfortable world they knew and loved of lucrative trade monopolies locked in by kill-on-a-whim despotism.

But the Sunni resistance is another story. Like human nature, it's malleable. It's composed for the most part of people who want jobs and a stake in the new Iraq and may start to think differently should those be provided.

If the resistance can be turned, the sea could dry up and the insurgents' lives become arid. It is to this task, very late in the day, that the United States has now turned.

Conversations with American officials and officers here reveal a couple of important new catchphrases. One is "pushing the envelope with the Sunnis." Another is "the Sunni buy-in." The former is supposed to secure the latter.

It may seem bizarre that close to three years have been needed to focus on the resistance, but then America's attempt to change the course of Middle Eastern history through Iraq has been characterized from the outset by a whimsical disregard for the enormity of the upheaval set in motion by the invasion.

Chief among these was the destruction of a Middle Eastern order dominated by Sunni strongmen - one with which the United States had long seemed happy enough so long as the oil flowed - and the propulsion of the downtrodden Shia toward power through a revolutionary idea: one Iraqi, one vote.

The Sunnis were staggered: how could Washington give its backing to the people they disparagingly call the "Iranians" or the "Safavids" (after an old Persian dynasty) because Iran is a Shiite theocracy? Their astonishment was soon accompanied by an implacable anger; the resistance was born.

But Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. defense secretary, could not see that - those fighting America were mere "bitter-enders" - and he was not alone in his illusions. The ending of a despotic regime was also the ending of an entire social order. Yet America chose to ignore the enormity of its deed.

It was only in recent weeks that President George W. Bush stumbled on the notion that alongside "the Saddamists and terrorists" lurked a category of Iraqis he called "the rejectionists." These, he said in a speech on Dec. 7, are "ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had."

What Bush did not say is that the "rejectionists" make up the resistance and, in the words of an official here, the resistance is "a big thing."

Making it smaller is now a chief American policy objective, embraced so determinedly that the Shia are nervous.

Pushing the envelope with the Sunnis has involved reaching out to their leaders; pleading for participation in the Dec. 15 election; beginning the enormous task of recruiting Sunnis to the new Iraqi armed forces dominated by Kurds and Shiites; displaying public anger over abuse of Sunnis in the Shiite-led Interior Ministry; and making it clear that the best hope for Iraq is a centrist, cross-sectarian government.

The belated change of U.S. policy has borne some fruit; a Sunni "buy-in" may be under way, albeit with ambivalence. Votes are still being counted, but Sunni parties are expected to take close to 20 percent of the seats in the new Parliament.

Even in Anbar Province, the heartland of the insurgency, voter turnout was about 55 percent, up from 1 percent in the vote for a transitional authority a year earlier. The shocking thing about the recent suicide bombing in the Anbar town of Ramadi was not the act itself but the fact that 1,000 men lining up for police jobs provided the target. That's 1,000 Sunnis "buying in."

Once the votes are counted, probably by Jan. 25, the horse-trading on a four-year government will begin. Two things are certain: the bargaining will be long and the United States will use all its muscle to ensure a significant Sunni cabinet presence.

The Shia will kick and scream. Already some of their leaders have accused the United States of siding with "the terrorists." But America has learned that the Iraqi resistance is real and must be tackled.

America's message to the Sunnis is now clear: you cannot have one foot in the government and one in the resistance. If you are buying in, you must forsake all support - tacit, passive, mercenary - for the insurgency. Another message: If it comes to an Iraqi civil war the chances of Sunnis winning are remote, so get on board now.

Whether the Sunnis are ready to take that step en masse is not clear. The ties between the resistance and the insurgency are many-layered. But new tensions between Sunni communities and the terrorists suggest a shift.

Revolutions bring resistance. It has taken America a long time to realize its invasion was also a revolution. Better late than never. Resistance, unlike terror, can be defeated.

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