Good news about the insurgency in Iraq

By Joshua Steinman

Fierce retaliation ensued following the bombing of an Iraqi police recruiting station on January 5. Key local al Qaeda leaders were assassinated, and regional strikes were carried out in an effort to drive the foreign fighters from the city. Most interesting, though, was the acting party: Sunni insurgents.

Iraq might be turning a corner, and one need only look to the heart of the insurgency to understand why.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, two groups have formed in opposition: foreign al Qaeda–aligned fighters, and Iraqi Sunnis and Baathists.

Al Qaeda fighters see Iraq as the latest iteration of the struggle against the “infidels” as called for by Osama bin Laden in his August 1996 Fatwa. Their aim, according to a seized training manual, is to bring about “confrontation called for by Islam with the godless and apostate regimes.” To this end, Iraq is a means.

Sunni fighters have much more immediate political concerns. The U.S. invasion stripped them of power. The Sunni-led insurgency stemmed partly from the White House decision to disband the Iraqi Army, comprised mostly of Sunnis, who then began leading guerilla attacks against the invading force. For the Sunnis, the struggle has an end in itself: restoration of political security.

These two divergent goals sought by distinct groups have finally come to a head. The bombing in Ramadi, one vertex of the “Sunni Triangle,” targeted police recruits—a key component in the race to buttress the power of the newly elected government. The reaction to the bombing was swift: tribal leaders expelled the al Qaeda fighters from Ramadi.

Discord has arisen due to the differing methods by which these two groups believe they can best achieve their goals. For al Qaeda, a total U.S. defeat, replete with quintuple-digit casualties, a trillion dollar price tag, and international humiliation is the final aim. For the Sunnis, reasonable say in the political process, internal security, and prosperity (things that they would say they enjoyed under Hussein) seem to be enough.

Until this month’s elections, it wasn’t clear to the Sunnis that their aims might be achieved through the political process. Now, with the election of Sunni legislators from Sunni political parties to the Iraqi parliament, the native insurgents have a reason to invest in the system: It might just give them the ability to achieve their political goals without outright warfare.

The heart of the Iraqi political system is the ability to impose rule over the country through the exclusive right to the use of force, à la Max Weber. To this end, trained police play a large role in, if not effecting the government policy, then creating the image of the new Iraq as a sovereign and viable state. Even if the police can’t control 100 percent of the country, having a solid police force that promotes the rule of law is key to creating a stable Iraq.

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the foreign-born leader of “al Qaeda in Iraq,” on the other hand, has no such investment in the Iraqi political system, and in fact is likely threatened by the emergence of a viable Iraqi state. The attack on the Iraqi police recruits was one of many that have been carried out in the years since the end of military operations against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, however, this is one of the first that have caused such a harsh reaction by native Iraqis.

The tangible effect is evident in their split methods of operation. Reuters reports local insurgents were providing the intelligence and explosives, whereas the foreign fighters carried out the suicide attacks, a clear indicator of not only the division of labor, but also of intention. Fairly soon, all but the most explicit U.S. targets may elicit a violent reaction from al Qaeda’s former allies. Bomb anything but a U.S. Forward Operating Base, and you’re attacking the Iraqi state, not the “Crusader/Zionist Alliance.”

Therein lies the rub. Al Qaeda cares not how many Iraqis it kills in pursuit of its goal, nor do they care if Iraq lies in shambles until the day of the Caliphal resurrection. The Sunnis, on the other hand, care a lot about the state of their country. And so do the Americans. Over the past few weeks, news agencies have reported increasing contacts between insurgents and government officials, seeking dialogue.

The local opposition to al Qaeda comes at a watershed moment in the history of the Iraqi struggle: Osama bin Laden’s latest tape claims that it is the United States that has “tried to prevent [Muslims] from leading a dignified life,” and that, instead, Muslims will seek “a dignified death.” It seems that the Sunni insurgents are finally discovering that true humanists, true patriots, and true members of the modern world, though willing to die for the sake of their people or country or cause, in fact can make a much greater impact by living for it.