The Iraq surge: glossing over the long defeat

Issue: 118

Simon Assaf

Iraq is now a different place from one year ago. We must do all we can to ensure that 2008 will bring even greater progress.1
George Bush, January 2008

During his Middle East visit in January George Bush boasted that the “surge” of 38,000 US troops had bought stability to Iraq, and that sections of the resistance were now cooperating with US forces in pacifying key parts of the country. General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, claimed attacks were down to a level “not seen since the late spring and summer of 2005”.2 The number of soldiers lost by the US fell to 24 for December 2007—the lowest since the occupation began.3 The military now boasts that it receives unprecedented cooperation and information leading to a “cascade effect”—the collapse of resistance organisations.4

The logic behind the surge was that a sustained US military offensive would break the political deadlock that has hampered attempts to stabilise the occupation. Bush listed a number of policy “benchmarks” to track this progress, including a new oil revenue sharing agreement, national reconciliation, the reintegration of former members of the old regime, and disarmament of militias.5 But the short terms successes for the surge mask deep problems for the occupation.

The insurgent offensive

The US military dismissed the small acts of resistance that began soon after the fall of Baghdad as the death throes of “regime remnants” and were confident that mass arrests would end the attacks. Instead a cycle of repression and protest galvanised growing anger at the occupation and created the conditions for the rise of the resistance.

The resistance comprised former units of the Iraqi army; small groups of fighters under the leadership of local mosques; Islamic militants drawn from across the Arab world; adherents of the ultra-puritanical and exclusive Salafi version of Islam (also known as Wahabis); fighters affiliated to nationalist political currents; and Shia community and political organisations, in particular the movement headed by the young Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The resistance had no national leadership. Instead it was the product of hundreds of independent groups, largely defined by the area they lived in. The decentralised nature of this resistance made it impossible for the US to launch an effective counter-insurgency strategy.6

In April 2004 a nationwide uprising broke out, centred on the mainly Sunni city of Fallujah and Shia areas in southern Iraq, destroying the credibility of the occupation. The battle for Fallujah was waged by a combination of Salafis and local resistance organisations. A decisive role was played by the Shia masses in Baghdad, who blocked the Iraqi army from joining the US assault on the city. In the aftermath of the April uprising attacks on coalition forces topped 2,000 a month, rising steadily over the next two years to a peak of 5,000. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff warned that, although the most powerful army in the world was not yet broken, “it was breakable”.7

In the wake of the uprising the US conceded national elections. These were boycotted by Sunnis, but vast numbers of Shias voted under instruction from their religious leaders. The government formed after the elections drew its support exclusively from Shias and Kurds, creating conditions for a split in the resistance and the growth of sectarian divisions.8

An article in this journal three years ago warned of limits of the resistance:

Islamist groups have played a leading role in the resistance, and it is possible for a national liberation movement to develop with an Islamist leadership, as the experience of Lebanon demonstrates. But the question of forging links of resistance across sectarian and ethnic divisions remains important, as at the moment neither Sunni nor Shia clerics in Iraq can on their own speak for a genuinely national movement. Resistance has been most successful when it has appeared as a force for national unity with a broad popular appeal, rather than as a specifically Sunni Islamist or Shia project.9

Following the elections, the US appointed John Negroponte as director of national intelligence with the aim of physically wiping out the resistance. He armed Shia sectarian forces and encouraged them to terrorise the population into submission. The Iraqi ministry of the interior was handed over to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq,10 and its militia, the Badr Brigades, launched a mass campaign of terror, known as the “war of the corpses”, which would have a profound impact on Iraqi society. It triggered the biggest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the fall of Palestine in 1948.11

The limits of the resistance became pronounced as Iraq became a battleground in several separate yet interrelated wars. In Sunni areas there was a struggle between nationalists and Salafi currents, while in Shia areas there was a fight between nationalist sectarian forces and the religious establishment. In all areas there was opposition to the occupation.

The Shia resistance

The US has claimed to be fighting a “proxy war” against Iran, which is said to be arming, training and funding Shia militias. The accusation owed more to the US obsession with Iran in the next phase in the “long war” than to any facts on the ground. The classification of the Shias as “Iranian” (Iran is a Shia Muslim state) hides deepseated complexities.

A central aim of the “surge” was to disarm “the militias”—a coded reference to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Sadr was one of the key victors of the resistance that drove the British out of Basra and the south of Iraq. His organisation dominates large parts of Baghdad and is challenging for control over other Shia areas of the country. The biggest influence on Sadr’s brand of nationalism is Lebanon’s Hizbollah. As one of his aids put it, “We want to become Iraq’s Hizbollah. We want to show that we can defend our country from the occupying forces and provide security from internal enemies. We also want to be the main centre of social services in the country”.12 The US sees Sadr as one of the biggest impediments to the future of the occupation.

For Shia Muslims, the 2003 invasion had removed their chief tormentor, Saddam Hussein, and US troops had initially been welcomed in Shia neighbourhoods of the capital. But the honeymoon was short lived, and in the months following the invasion Shias joined the rest of the population in the protests that exploded into a national uprising. However, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq, was able to demobilise Shias in return for the US agreeing to elections. In the elections Sistani’s patronage brought together diverse Shia currents in the United Iraqi List, which emerged as the strongest force and entered into an uneasy accommodation with the occupation. Sadr, a junior cleric, gave way to Sistani. But the new government found it impossible to rule the country, and as its popularity among Shia declined, so too did Sistani’s influence.

The outbreak of sectarian fighting severely tested Sadr’s Mahdi Army. It was in danger of splintering into three pieces after the destruction of the Shia shrine at Samara in February 2006. Large sections broke away to join in the sectarian “cleansing” of Baghdad and other mixed areas, while Sadr himself withdrew from sight and was declared an enemy by sections of the resistance. This crisis showed the difficulties in maintaining an anti-occupation nationalist current defined by narrow Islamist politics. However, when the Samara shrine was attacked for a second time, Sadr re-emerged and was able to maintain control over his fighters. He ordered his ministers to resign from the government and has since attempted to rebuild the Shia-Sunni cooperation seen in the April 2004 uprising.

Sadr responded to the announcement of the “surge” by calling a ceasefire since he did not want his fighters to face a US military offensive, and this has frustrated attempts by the occupation to disband his army.

In May 2007 he called for the formation of a “reform and reconciliation project” with elements of the Sunni resistance. This marked a political break with Sistani’s United Iraqi List.13 Babak Rahimi of the University of California notes:

Sadr’s most recent tactic is to reshape himself as a true Iraqi nationalist. He is now operating on both political and military levels, which reflects his long term strategic vision for consolidating power, especially in non-Shia regions. Sadr represents not merely a military challenge to the US presence in Iraq, but a major political one as well.14

Some of the Shia sectarian parties associated with Sistani’s list have pushed for the partition of Iraq. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a key US ally, set out a plan for federalism that would, in effect, give his party control over large parts of Iraqi oil wealth. Al-Hakim’s plan found favour with the US who have been raising the possibility of the “soft partition” of the country.15 But for Sadr the break-up of the country is unacceptable. He draws his support from the slums of Baghdad, from Basra in the south and from rural areas around the major cities. Federalism would cut the capital adrift from the wealth of the country, formalise sectarian cleansing and launch Iraq into an endless cycle of ethnic and sectarian conflict.

The Sunni resistance

The resistance in Sunni Muslim areas comprises two broad formations: that of the nationalist groups and that associated with Al Qaida. The nationalist groups share a pan-Islamic nationalist ideology and are divided mainly by geography. Ishmael Jubouri, the leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq—one of the resistance umbrella organisations—told the Washington Post that his organisation was predominantly composed of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and some Shias. He described the organisation as “Islamic nationalist”, and claimed it was hostile to the Salafis and Al-Qaida.16

Diffuse and localised resistance began to coalesce into larger formations from 2005 to 2007. There are eight such fronts, according to Abdul Jabbar al-Kubaysi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance.17 One such organisation, the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, is itself an alliance of six groups: the Islamic Army in Iraq, the al-Mujahideen Army, Ansar al-Sunna, the al-Fatiheen Army, the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (Jameh) and Iraqi Hamas.18 These organisations, with their extensive networks of supporters, logistics and intelligence, have engaged the occupation forces in a withering campaign of roadside bombs and ambushes, accounting for the bulk of US casualties.

The nationalist currents have combined opposition to the occupation with attempts at accommodation. An offensive in 2006 forced the US military to seek negotiations, leading to talks in Jordan. The US offered a general amnesty, a reversal of the de-Baathification programme and their de facto recognition as representatives of Sunni Iraq,19 even while continuing to denounce the resistance as “terrorists” in public. Many of Bush’s “surge benchmarks” were hammered out during these talks.

The rationale on the nationalist side for entering into negotiations was the feeling that the formation of a government dominated by sectarian Shia forces left them isolated. A spokesman for nationalist Islamic Army in Iraq told Al Jazeera: “There are two occupations in Iraq: Iran on one side through the militias which they control and through direct involvement with the national guard and the intelligence services, and the American occupation which destroys the Iraqi people”.20

The Salafi current and some nationalists denounced these negotiations as a betrayal. They were unprepared to talk to an enemy they considered on the verge of defeat, and maintained that the talks were throwing the occupation a lifeline. Yet many groups saw negotiations as a natural stage in any uprising. So the Islamic Army in Iraq said, “Al Qaida has accused the insurgent groups of desiring a truce with the Americans, and thus, obviously, they do not understand the difference between conditional negotiations and surrender”.21

The US eventually realised it could exploit the growing schism inside the resistance, drawing sections of it into a political process under the US’s control and demobilising them.

The Islamic State of Iraq

As talks gained momentum, the Salafi current seized control over Sunni areas with disastrous consequences.

Ayman al-Zawahari, the deputy leader of Al Qaida, had broadcast a message in July 2005 proclaiming that the US had lost the war in Iraq and that the resistance should prepare for the withdrawal of foreign troops. He instructed the Salafi-inspired fighters to accept the leadership of Musab al_Zaraqawi—the Jordanian born leader of Al Qaida in Iraq—and bring all other resistance organisations under their control. The Salafis then established the “Islamic State of Iraq” in the areas under their control, and began enforcing puritanical doctrines alien to Iraq’s overwhelmingly secular culture.22 They used these areas as bases to launch waves of attacks on Shia Muslims.23

The Salafi current in Middle Eastern Islam can trace its roots to Sheikh Muhammad ibn Wahab, an 18th century religious reformer in the Arabian Peninsula who denounced practices he considered to contravene the true teachings of the religion. Muslims had to return to the supposed founding principles of Islam and adopt the simple lifestyle of the “noble ancestors”. His movement attacked the Sunni religious establishment and the Shia, who ibn Wahab denounced as apostates, and was able to increase its influence through an alliance with the powerful ibn Saud, whose armies sacked the tomb of Hussein in Kaballah—one of the holiest Shia places. It is ibn Saud’s descendants who rule Saudi Arabia today and the Wahabi doctrine is Saudi Arabia’s rigidly imposed official religion. But in recent decades some of its adherents have concluded that Wahabism has become the ideological cover for growing corruption. They have attracted layers of the disenchanted Arab middle classes, urban poor and dispossessed by preaching a return to the original principles of Salafism.

Salafi anger at imperialism and corrupt local regimes has propelled the Salafis into the resistance in both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, as a doctrine that sees other interpretations of the faith as apostatasy, it also targets Shias, Sufis and non-Muslims. It frames its overtly sectarian campaign against Shias in Iraq, including deadly attacks on their mosques, markets and religious festivals, as a religious and political battle against what it perceives as a Shia government in alliance with the US.

Attacks on Shias drew harsh criticism from the mainstream sections of the resistance. The Association of Muslim Scholars, the mouthpiece of the nationalist current inside Sunni areas, aimed a stinging rebuke at al-Zaraqawi and the Salafis:

There is no religious basis allowing you to take your revenge on the innocent while ignoring the true criminals…this only serves the most deadly wishes of our enemies—the desire to tear apart our country and to initiate a battle amongst the faithful. The threats made by al-Zaraqawi have damaged the image of the jihad and take away from the success of the jihadi resistance project in Iraq.24

This war of the Salafis against Shia “apostates” culminated in the destruction of the golden mosque in Samara (an attack that echoed the sacking of Kerballa by ibn Saud), which triggered murderous retaliation by death squads from the Badr Brigades and some elements of the Mahdi Army. Areas such as Haifa Street in Baghdad, once a key battleground between the resistance and the occupation, became a frontline between Shia and Sunni death squads. The capital was carved into a Shia east and Sunni west. Mixed neighbourhoods were torn in two. Regions around Baghdad became killing fields pitting Iraqi against Iraqi. Sunnis began to flee north and west, Shias south and east.

The waves of sectarian bombings, kidnappings and terror created a deep unease inside Sunni areas. An open fight developed when the Islamic State of Iraq attempted to take control of the mainstream nationalist resistance organisations, and by summer 2007 there was a furious battle between the nationalist and Salafi wings of the insurgency. A spokesman for one nationalist group complained that “the decline in jihadi operations against the occupier is due to the fact that they are engaged by Al Qaida” and that in the large “area of its operations” against the nationalists “Al Qaida did not target a single American, Shiite militia or the Shiite police”.25

The struggle within the Sunni insurgency culminated in the assassination of Harith Tahir al-Dari, the respected commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Al-Dari was the nephew of Dr Harith Sulaiman al-Dari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars and Iraq’s most prominent Sunni cleric. The irony for the Salafis was that the 1920 Brigades had refused to join in the negotiations with the US and had been working for a truce between the warring factions.

The US moved to exploit the contradiction in Salafi strategy. Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer summed up the scale of what he called their “blunder”:

Al-Zaraqawi’s attempt to force himself into the leadership of the Iraqi insurgency, his zeal in taking credit for most resistance activities, his decision to televise the beheading of captives and his indiscriminate slaughter of Shiites, whether or not they were working for the US-backed regime, all undercut what must be regarded as the always limited potential for Shiite-Sunni cooperation after the occupation ends. Al-Zaraqawi’s actions alienated many neutral and anti-American Sunnis and led to the transitionary success of the so-called “Awakening” programmes in the Anbar Province and elsewhere.26

The occupation now discovered that thousands of resistance fighters were willing to swap sides, at least temporarily. The US could boast in the autumn of last year that Sunni organisations were fighting alongside occupation troops to crush the Islamic State of Iraq. Colonel Joseph Davidson of the 2nd Infantry Division told the Washington Post that his troops were “partnering with Sunni insurgents from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which includes former members of ousted president Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army”.27

There was an acceleration in the formation of the Majalis alSawaha (the Awakening Councils) by Sunni militias to fight the Islamic State of Iraq.28 With the blessing of and funding from the US military, they became a serious challenge to the resistance and a counterweight to Sunni insurgent groups. In some areas they have developed into sectarian militias similar to the Badr Brigades.

The Salafis were in retreat across the country by the beginning of 2008. The US military claimed it had killed 2,400 Salafi fighters, captured 8,800 and pushed the rest out of Baghdad and Anbar province. In an interview with the Washington Post, one local Salafi commander admitted, “We do not deny the difficulties we are facing right now. The Americans have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the Sunnis against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully”.29

However, the upbeat statements by the US have drawn a note of caution from former leading CIA agent Mike Scheuer:

The bottom line is that even if Al Qaida in Iraq is defeated, the Iraqi insurgency—because it is authentic—will continue. In this light, current US successes—while worthwhile and to be applauded—will not be a major factor, let alone determinative, in defeating the Iraqi insurgency.30

An unstable occupation

In the heady days following the invasion the Bush administration was confident that Iraq would become a model for neoliberal economic success. Deregulation, privatisation and investment funded by rising oil production would draw in a layer of Iraqi society to act as a buffer between the US and Iraqi people. Yet most of the oil revenue was either shipped out of the country, funnelled into private accounts, or remains unspent. In January 2008 the US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, admitted to Congress that the Iraqi government had only spent 4.4 percent of its reconstruction budget.31 Iraq was once considered one of the most economically and socially advanced states in the Middle East. Now it is teetering on the edge of disaster. The failure to rebuild its infrastructure, revive the economy, or provide security are all testimony to the failure of the occupation.

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be a “cakewalk”, in the words of the now discredited neocons. Five years of occupation have seen the humiliation of the most powerful army in history, and the US has been reduced to trying to “manage the defeat” since the uprising of April 2004.

The occupation has found some comfort in the setbacks faced by the Salafis, cooperation with some former resistance forces and moves towards federalism. Yet this conceals deeper problems it continues to face. Neither the Mahdi Army nor the nationalists have been defeated, and the Iraqi government remains unstable, while the economic and social collapse has deprived the US of a layer of Iraqi society that could rule on its behalf. In this context the “surge” is a crude method to keep a lid on the resistance. Despite the proclamations of victory, the Iraq war has become a long and grinding defeat for the US. The final chapter on this occupation is yet to be written.


1: BBC News 24,

2: International Herald Tribune, 30 December 2007.

3: US casualty figures are compiled by

4: “Al-Qaeda In Iraq Reported Crippled”, Washington Post, 15 October 2007.

5: The full list of benchmarks is: to perform constitutional review; enact de-Baathification reform; form semi-autonomous regions; hold provincial elections; address amnesty for former insurgents; establish support for Baghdad Security Plan; ensure minority rights in Iraqi legislature; keep Iraqi Security Forces free from partisan interference; disarm militias; provide military support in Baghdad; empower Iraqi security forces; ensure impartial law enforcement; establish support for Baghdad Security Plan by the Maliki government; reduce sectarian violence; establish neighbourhood security in Baghdad; increase independence of the Iraqi security forces; implement new oil legislation; and distribute Iraqi resources equitably.

6: See Alexander and Assaf, 2005a, for more on the rise of the resistance.

7: “US Army Chief: Iraq War Has Sapped Ability To Fight Iran”, Haaretz, 22 October 2007,

8: For more on the sectarian distribution of Iraqi ministries see Alexander and Assaf, 2005b.

9: Alexander and Assaf, 2005a.

10: Renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council in 2007.

11: “Iraq Displacement-2007 Mid-year Review”, International Organisation for Migration,

12: Cited by Rahimi, 2007a.

13: Rahimi, 2007b.

14: Rahimi, 2007b.

15: “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq”, The Brooking Institute,

16: “Marines Widen Their Net South of Baghdad”, Washington Post, 28 November 2004,

17: “Iraqi Voices of Resistance”, The Brussels Tribunal,

18: Many had been formed out of similar alliances composed of members of the old regime. One formation declared that “22 Iraqi Resistance fighting groups had convened a unification congress in a liberated neighbourhood in Baghdad. The congress resolved to unite all the resistance groups that were in attendance at the meeting, which agreed that its aim was the total liberation of the entirety of Iraq, however long that might take. The congress resolved to create a supreme command of the Jihad and liberation struggle and it elected Iraqi president Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri [a key ally of Saddam Hussein in the 1968 coup] the supreme commander.” The statements from the nationalist current of the Iraqi resistance can be found at

19: “Iraq: Amman Talks Could Bring Political Breakthrough”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3 November 2006,

20: “Inside The Islamic Army of Iraq”, Al Jazeera, 20 November 2006,

21: “The Islamic Army In Iraq Issues A Response To The Messages of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi”,

22: Their attempt to set up a state, or emirate, was to generate deep divisions among insurgent groups. This strategy flows directly out of the experiences of Islamists during the Algerian Civil War in the 1980s. The Salafis would impose their rule in “liberated” areas while avoiding any direct confrontation with the more powerful enemy. The state was able to contain these areas and hope that the population would eventually sue for peace or turn against the Salafis.

23: Some commentators, such as leading academic Juan Cole, maintain that this strategy was also adopted by some of the nationalist groups. For more on this go to

24: Communique from the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, 15 September 2005,

25: From

26: Terrorism Monitor, volume 5, issue 22, the Jamestown Foundation,

27: “Offensive Targets Al Qaida In Iraq”, Washington Post, 20 June 2007. The 1920 Revolution Brigades denied the report: “We say to the occupation and to your followers and agents that you made a very big lie in linking us with the Diyalia anti Al Qaida campaign.” The group maintains that the organisation to which the US military spokesman referred was “Iraqi Hamas”, a splinter from the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

28: One such organisation is the Al-Qassas Brigade (also known as the Revenge Brigade). This militia was formed in March 2006 during the height of the “war of the corpses”. Its primary focus was fighting Shia death squads, the Iraqi army, interior ministry troops, the Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army. It rarely attacked US troops.

29: “Shift In Tactics Aims To Revive Struggling Insurgency”, Washington Post, 2 February 2008.

30: Terrorism Monitor, volume 4, issue 34, the Jamestown Foundation,

31: “GAO Questions Report on Iraq”, AP News, 15 January 2008.


Alexander, Anne, and Simon Assaf, 2005a, “Iraq: The Rise of the Resistance”, International Socialism 105 (winter 2005),

Alexander, Anne, and Simon Assaf, 2005b, “The Elections and the Resistance in Iraq”, International Socialism 106 (spring 2005),

Rahimi, Babak, 2007a, “Moqtada al-Sadr’s New Alliance with Tehran”, Terrorism Monitor, volume 5, issue 4 (1 March 2007), the Jamestown Foundation,

Rahimi, Babak, 2007b, “A Shiite Storm Looms on the Horizon: Sadr and SIIC Relations”, Terrorism Monitor, volume 5, issue 10 (24 May 2007), the Jamestown Foundation,