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Who's fighting in Iraq?

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered



Any day now, the Iraq Study Group is expected to issue its report explaining how the Bush administration should proceed with the thus-far bungled U.S. war in Iraq. The ISG, led by Bush-family right-hand man James Baker, is expected to propose either a partial U.S. military pullout, or a redeployment of U.S. forces within Iraq. Also in the cards is a push for some sort of regional diplomacy effort involving Iran and Syria, the aim being to cut off foreign support for insurgent violence. Apparently, we don't negotiate with terrorists, except for when we do.

Whatever the proposed "solution" or "strategy" in Iraq, it will have to attempt to cope with the fact that Iraq is in the midst of a religious sectarian civil war. Since February 2006, the number of Iraqis killed in violence has never dropped below 2,000 people per month. Iraqi civilians are dying at a faster rate on their own streets than American soldiers did fighting the Germans and Japanese armies during World War II.

With new reports of mass killings every day, it's easy to lose track of who's killing whom in Iraq right now. The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index (available for download at estimates that there are more than 20,000 insurgents operating in Iraq. Only around 10 percent of them are thought to be foreigners.

The insurgency originated in 2003 as a violent campaign by Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arabs. Simply put, Sunni Arabs are afraid of living in an Iraq where they are no longer the politically and economically dominant ethnic-religious group. Though a minority, Iraq's Sunni Arabs did relatively well under Saddam Hussein (meaning they were brutalized slightly less and had better economic prospects than their Shi'ite Muslim Arab or ethnic Kurdish fellow countrymen). Sunni Arabs fear democracy in Iraq because they will be outvoted and put upon by Shi'ite Arabs and Kurds.

Remnants of Saddam's police-state machinery fed on and exploited this fear. Saddamites and Sunni Arabs started lashing out in 2003, using weapons left over from Saddam's military. They attacked U.S. troops. They attacked their Shi'ite countrymen. They attacked rebuilding efforts and civil-engineering projects. They attacked fellow Sunni Arabs who participated in rebuilding or cooperated with Americans.

Joining the Saddamite effort to stoke and exploit Sunni Arab fears are groups of Sunni Arab religious fanatics. Most are Iraqi, but some are foreign-born. The most well-known Sunni Arab insurgent group is al-Qaeda. Led until his death in June by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda In Iraq is known for beheading hostages on videotape and bombing attacks against Shi'ite Arabs designed to accelerate the cycle of sectarian violence. That said, the U.S. overstated Zarqawi's influence for two years as a way of linking the Iraq War to the overall War on Terror™ narrative. Al-Qaeda In Iraq announced earlier this year that it was "joining" a coalition of other Sunni insurgents under the umbrella name Mujahideen Shura Council. I bet those meetings are a hoot.

The people fighting on the Shi'ite Arab side of the sectarian divide are quite often referred to in the press as militias rather than insurgents. The Shi'ite Arab insurgency has become much more active since the February 2006 bombing of the much loved Shi'ite shrine in Samarra by Sunni provocateurs.

The two most prominent Shi'ite Arab armed groups are the Mahdi Army, led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade, which is the gun-toting faction of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the strongest Shi'ite political party in Iraq. Both groups are heavily represented in Iraq's government, which serves to stoke Sunni Arab fears that Iraq's post-Saddam government is out to get them.

The two largest fighting forces in Iraq are, of course, Iraq's government security forces and the U.S. military. Iraq has approximately 300,000 security personnel, but many, if not most, are active in the same militias whose violence they're supposed to be stopping. To many Sunni Arabs, Iraq's security forces are just another Shi'ite militia.

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