The Iraqi insurgency and the risk of civil war: Who are the players?
Coalition and Iraqi forces must deal with a complex mix of threats - only some of which have as yet come into play. The Bush Administration summarized the nature of the insurgency, and its successes and failures, as follows in its October 2005 report to Congress: (1)
The insurgency is primarily a Sunni Arab phenomenon and is not a national movement; it has a very narrow base in the country. It continues to be comprised of semi-autonomous and fully autonomous groups with a variety of motivations. Measuring the strength of the insurgency in terms of numbers alone does not provide an adequate assessment of insurgent capabilities.
Insurgent numbers are a very small fraction of Iraq's population. The vast majority of these groups are connected in some way through members belonging to social networks (e.g., familial, tribal, and former professional) that stretch across Iraq and beyond.
Insurgents can also be grouped into several strands: terrorists and foreign fighters, "rejectionists" (mostly Sunni), Saddam loyalists, and criminals.
The main threat to achieving Iraqi control of and responsibility for security in provinces is, in the near and medium term, terrorists and foreign fighters because of the psychological impact on the population of their terror campaign, which appears to target Iraqi civilians indiscriminately.
... One noteworthy strategic indicator of progress in the security environment is the continued inability of insurgents to derail the political process and timelines. This is a key objective they are failing to achieve. As expected, there has been an increase in the average number of insurgent attacks during the period leading to the constitutional referendum. Insurgent attacks remain concentrated in four of Iraq's eighteen provinces; half of the Iraqi population lives in areas that experience only six percent of all attacks.
Six provinces reported a statistically insignificant number of attacks based on population size. Although about 80% of all attacks are directed against Coalition Forces, about 80% of all casualties are suffered by the Iraqi population.
...Iraqi rejectionists maintain a steady level of violence that complicates efforts to stabilize Iraq. Criminal elements and corruption often enable the insurgency. As noted, these several strands of the insurgency have failed to derail the political process, and their efforts to foment ethno-sectarian conflict have not been successful due in large part to key Iraqi figures calling for restraint among their communities.
Successful elections will not likely change the foreign fighters' strategy. The Iraqi rejectionists - particularly those who are Sunni - may, nonetheless, lose some of their support base as the political process advances. Saddam loyalists may present a longerterm threat to building a democratic, prosperous Iraq because they remain focused on creating conditions in which they can disrupt and subvert the government.
Multi-National Force-Iraq operations in several of the areas most affected by the insurgency have combined with local commanders' engagement of local officials, tribes, and clerics. These operations have disrupted a number of key insurgent cells, limited their freedom of action, and maintained cooperation with influential local leaders in order to keep reconstruction and democracy building moving forward. A significant factor enabling progress against the insurgency is the dramatic increase in intelligence tips received from the population in the past several months, indicative of increasing popular rejection of the insurgents.
... Insurgent groups continue...to demonstrate an ability to adapt, relocate, regenerate, and sustain a campaign of intimidation against Iraqi officials, professionals, "collaborators with the coalition," and religious figures.
The insurgency remains concentrated in Baghdad, Nineveh, al-Anbar, and Salah ad Din provinces. In these areas, the insurgency sustains a level of violence and casualties that can produce effects that include: maintaining a non-permissive environment that undermines local governance, emerging institutions, reconstruction efforts, and economic growth; inhibiting foreign investment and diplomatic representation; limiting the roles of non-governmental organizations and contractors; and increasing the costs of reconstruction.
The Regional, Sectarian, and Ethnic Nature of the Insurgency
The insurgency in Iraq has not been a national insurgency. Iraqi Kurds have never supported it, and only small numbers of Shi'ites have taken an active role. It has been driven by a relatively small part of Iraq's population concentrated in part of the country, and its most violent actions have been led by a group of foreign volunteers and extremists which did not seem likely to exceed 3,000 full time insurgents as of September 2005.
Although there are no accurate census data, the Arab Sunni population may only to be around 15-20% of Iraq's total population. Such estimates are, however, uncertain. The CIA placed Iraq's population at 26,074,906 as of July 2005. It CIA estimated in January 2006, that Iraq's population was 75-80% Arab, 15%-20% Kurdish, and 5% Turkoman, Assyrian or other 5%. It estimated that the sectarian split in the entire population was 97% Muslim (Shi'a 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%), and 3% Christian. This estimate by Muslim sect, however included the 20%-25% of the population that was not Arab, and not just Arab Sunnis.2 It is unclear any accurate figure exists for the number and percentage of Sunni Arabs, although election registrations to date would put in close to the 20% figure.
Regardless of the exact ethnic and sectarian split, only about 6-8% of Iraq's total population is located in the areas most hostile to the Coalition and the Iraqi government. Moreover, if one looks at the total population of all the scattered cities and areas where insurgents and terrorists largely dominate, it does not exceed 6-9% of Iraq's total population.
(1) "Report to Congress, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," October 13, 2005.
(pdf* format - 1.81 MB)
© The Center for Strategic & International Studies