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In 2004 and 2005, Baathist and Sunni nationalist insurgent groups comprised the bulk of the resistance movement in Iraq. These groups were not necessarily waging a sectarian war, nor did they espouse a particularly radical religious creed. By late 2005, a number of secular and nationalist groups had decided to join the political process rather than armed combat. Some Sunni insurgent groups even provided voters with protection against Al Qaeda-in-Iraq (AQI) during the December 2005 constitutional referendum. Alarmed by these developments, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ordered the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra. Askariya's importance to the Shia community was underscored by Iraqi vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, who likened the mosque attack to 9/11.

This single bombing dramatically reshaped the entire insurgency. Shia reprisals were swift, devastating, and largely indiscriminate. These mass sectarian killings shattered the Baathist and nationalist insurgent factions. For rank-and-file Sunni insurgents, witnessing bloody attacks orchestrated by Shias made al Qaeda's sectarian arguments seem sensible for the first time. By early 2007, the violence caused by the remaining nationalist groups was negligible compared to that caused by AQI: intelligence sources confirmed that AQI and its ideological compatriot Ansar al-Sunnah were responsible for the vast majority of violence on the Sunni side. The most significant nationalist faction was the Islamic Army of Iraq--although even that ex-Baathist group purported to have embraced a radical Islamic ideology.

As the nationalist movement began to splinter after the Askariya bombing, Zarqawi's group consolidated power. The first step was bolstering the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), an umbrella organization of Sunni insurgent groups that was formed shortly before the mosque bombing.

The MSC served multiple purposes. Initially, its creation was Zarqawi's response to the orders of two senior al Qaeda leaders. Zarqawi was brutal and divisive, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy, warned him in a summer 2005 letter that "if the mujahideen are scattered, this leads to the scattering of the people around them." Thus the MSC helped to heal schisms between various Sunni insurgent factions. Moreover, by unifying these factions, the MSC helped to consolidate their efforts against coalition forces.

After Zarqawi's death, the Egyptian-born Abu Ayyub al-Masri assumed the leadership of AQI. Under his guidance, AQI's roster became dominated by Iraqis, as it incorporated former officials from Saddam Hussein's regime who served in the intelligence services and the Republican Guard. Al-Masri claimed that AQI had 12,000 men in arms and another 10,000 in training; military intelligence sources believed these figures to be credible.

While AQI became a more potent force under al-Masri, it also experienced increased resistance from fellow Sunnis. The above-mentioned Anbar Salvation Front, which formed in the traditional al Qaeda stronghold of Anbar province, proved to be a real thorn in AQI's side. It provided some stability on the ground in Anbar through the creation of emergency response units that served a policing function; developed an intelligence network that gave U.S. forces unprecedented access to information about insurgent activities; and mounted a theological challenge to the clerics supporting AQI's jihad.

As Sunni challenges to AQI's dominance gained steam in late 2006, the MSC announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). After the ISI was established, al-Masri pledged his loyalty to its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. AQI had previously been seen as a group led by foreign-born jihadists, so an Iraqi's appointment to head the Islamic State of Iraq suggested that AQI was trying to adopt an Iraqi face.

The ISI became the new umbrella organization for the Sunni insurgency. Some factions that joined the ISI did so because of al-Masri's policy of reaching out to Sunni tribes. Zarqawi had believed tribes themselves to be un-Islamic, but al-Masri was a more pragmatic leader. The ISI published its own declarations, and assumed responsibility for a great deal of the violence in Iraq, including the spike in helicopter attacks that kicked off 2007.

Because of AQI's increased effectiveness through such mechanisms as the MSC and the ISI, General David Petraeus identified the group as the most important adversary the U.S. faced on the Sunni side of the insurgency.

One significant group incorporated by ISI was Ansar al-Sunnah. Ansar al-Sunnah grew out of Ansar al-Islam, which was Iraq's original al Qaeda outfit, operating in the Kurdish areas even prior to the U.S. invasion. Michael Rubin notes that Ansar al-Sunnah incorporated not only Ansar al-Islam, but also "foreign al-Qaeda terrorists, and newly mobilized Iraqi Sunnis." As the group transformed from Ansar al-Islam into Ansar al-Sunnah, it morphed from being predominantly Kurdish to predominantly Sunni Arab.

Among Ansar al-Sunnah's notable attacks were a car bombing outside the Turkish embassy in October 2003, a car bombing outside a U.S. military installation in Ramadi in December 2003, parallel suicide bombings in Erbil on February 1, 2004, and the murders of countless Iraqi citizens and coalition forces.

Ansar al-Sunnah originally declined to join with AQI due to disputes with Zarqawi, and tensions between the two groups would continue in perpetuity. Nonetheless, Ansar al-Sunnah's merger with ISI benefited both. Ansar now had a vehicle for extending its influence beyond northern Iraq, while the Islamic State of Iraq had enlisted a formidable ally.

Because Ansar al-Sunnah shared with AQI an adherence to global jihadist ideology, informed intelligence sources believed it would be difficult to draw the group into Iraq's political process.

The Sunni insurgency was only part of what U.S. forces had to contend with. There was also the Mahdi Army -- the militia of Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr -- and by extension the militia of the Sadrist Movement, a faction that predated Moqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army's rank and file were largely young, desperate men who had seen no tangible benefits from liberation. A 2007 Pentagon report declared the Mahdi Army "the most dangerous accelerant" of sectarian violence in Iraq.

After the U.S. invasion, the Madhi Army consolidated its power, largely in southern Iraq. It easily rolled over Iraqi security forces in Kufa, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Basra and Sadr City, along the way taking over a number of government offices. The Mahdi Army also did battle with coalition forces--for example, supporting insurgent groups in Fallujah in their April 2004 confrontation with coalition forces. After the Mahdi Army consolidated power, it shifted the focus of its activities to the Baghdad area.

Like many militant factions, the Mahdi Army was not limited to a military wing, but also provided social services and participated in the political system. The Sadrist Movement controlled thirty seats in the United Iraqi Alliance (which held 128 of the 275 seats in Iraq's parliament) until al-Sadr and his allies withdrew from the Iraqi parliament in mid-April of 2007.

When al-Sadr fled to Iran following the announcement of the U.S. military's "surge" in early 2007, the Mahdi Army experienced massive splintering.

Another important Shia militant faction was the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development, originally known as the Badr Brigade. The Badr Organization was initially formed in 1983 as the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed group that opposed Saddam Hussein's government.

Shortly after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled, SCIRI chairman Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim was killed in a bombing in Najaf. This was devastating to SCIRI's leadership, and precipitated the split between SCIRI and the Badr Organization. Both SCIRI and the Badr Organization participate in Iraq's parliament, and the Badr Organization is part of the United Iraqi Alliance faction.

Today the Badr Organization is believed to have between 10,000 and 20,000 members. At times it was a force for stability, fighting against some Sunni insurgent factions and also the Mahdi Army. But the Badr Organization also augmented sectarian violence. It was accused of brutality against Sunnis even prior to the Askariya bombing. But the Askariya bombing was the real catalyst for the Badr Organization's increased violence; thereafter the group took part in organized campaigns targeting Sunnis.

Then there were outside influences that increased Iraq's instability. Extensive funding for the insurgency came from private sources, many of which were concentrated in Saudi Arabia. 

The insurgency also had its state sponsors. Syrian support for the insurgency was known as early as 2004. Zarqawi's organization (then known as Tawhid and Jihad) had a strong military presence in the town of al-Qaim, located close to the Syrian border. One clear reason why Syria supported the insurgency was that President Bashar Assad viewed a democratic Iraq as a threat to his own rule.

Finally, Iran was the largest outside influence on the insurgencies in Iraq. Iran attempted to garner influence in Iraq in four different ways:

  • It became involved in the Iraqi government, supporting such parties as SCIRI and Dawa.
  • It supported the Shia insurgency, supplying it with roadside bombs that were exceptionally lethal.
  • It also supported Sunni insurgents, apparently hedging its bets, so that whichever side was to ultimately emerge victorious, Iran could claim to have supported it.
  • It carried out at least one direct attack against Americans in Karbala, Iraq, where 12 men disguised as U.S. soldiers entered the Provincial Joint Coordination Center and killed five soldiers and wounded three.

Adapted from "Know Thy Enemies," by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi (May 11, 2007).



Know Thy Enemies
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Kyle Dabruzzi
May 11, 2007
Fact Sheet on Iraq’s Major Shi’a Political Parties and Militia Groups
By The Institute for the Study of War
April 2008 
Fact Sheet on Shi'a Militia Actors
By The Institute for the Study of War
April 2008

Who Are the Insurgents?
By the United States Institute for Peace
April 2005

Armed Groups in Iraq
By BBC News
August 15, 2006

Iraq Insurgency United by Opposition to US
By Gary Thomas
May 11, 2005


The Reason America Hasn't Won in Iraq
By Dennis Prager
March 27, 2007


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