Iraq's evolving insurgency:The nature of attacks and patterns and cycles in the conflict
The war in Iraq does not as yet show any clear trend in the insurgency. MNF-I intelligence estimates that the number of insurgent attacks on coalition forces, Iraqi forces, and Iraqi civilians; and acts of sabotage; rose by 29% in 2005. The total rose from 26,496 in 2004 to 34,131 in 2005 (1). These attacks have had a relatively consistent average success rate of 24% (attacks that cause damage or casualties) (2).
At the same time, there has been a shift to attacks on Iraqis, rather than Coalition troops. A total of 673 US troops were killed in 2005, versus 714 in 2004, and the number of wounded dropped from 7,990 to 5,639, a drop of 29%(3). US forces saw fewer casualties largely because more Iraqi forces were in the field and there were no major urban battles like the battle of Fallujah, and also because the insurgents shifted to Iraqi targets that were more vulnerable and had far more political impact at a point where it have become clear that the US and its coalition partners wanted to withdraw many of their forces.
These trends scarcely mean the insurgency is "winning." It is not able to increase its success rate, establish sanctuaries, win larger-scale military clashes, or dominate the field. It is active largely in only four of Iraq's 18 governorates. (Some 59% of all US military deaths have occurred in only two governorates: Al Anbar and Baghdad) (4). Much of its activity consists of bombings of soft civilian targets designed largely to provoke a more intense civil war or halt the development of an effective Iraqi government, rather than progress towards control at even the local level. So far, the insurgency has done little to show it can successfully attack combat-ready Iraqi units, as distinguished from attack vulnerable casernes, recruiting areas, trainees or other relatively easy targets.
At the same time, the insurgents are learning and adapting through experience. They have shown the ability to increase the number of attacks over time, and they have hit successfully at many important political and economic targets. Provoking civil war and undermining the Iraqi political process may not bring the insurgents victory, but it can deny it to the Iraqi government and the US, and the Sunni insurgents continue to strike successfully at politically, religiously, and ethnically important Shi'ite and Kurdish targets with suicide and other large bombings.
The insurgents continue to carry out a large number of successful killings, assassinations, kidnappings, extortions, and expulsions. These include an increase in the number of successful attacks on Iraqi officials, Iraqi forces, and their families, and well over 2,700 Iraqi officials and Iraqi forces were killed in 2005. The insurgents continue to succeed in intimidating their fellow Sunnis. There is no way to count or fully assess the pattern of such low level attacks, or separate them from crime or Shi'ite reprisals, but no one doubts that they remain a major problem.
Suicide attacks have increased, and killed and wounded Iraqis in large numbers. The number of car bombs rose from 420 in 2004 to 873 in 2005, and the number of suicide car bombs rose from 133 to 411, and the number of suicide vest attacks rose from 7 in 2004 to 67 in 2005 (5). In case after case, Shi'ite civilians and Sunnis cooperating with the government were successfully targeted in ways designed to create a serious civil war.
The use of roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices IEDs) remains a major problem for US and other Coalition forces. The total number of IED attacks nearly doubled from 5,607 in 2004 to 10,953 in 2005. While the success rate of IED attacks dropped significantly, from 25- 30% in 2004 to 10% in 2005, they still had a major impact. During 2005, there were 415 IED deaths out of a total of 674 combat deaths, or 61.6 % of all combat deaths. IEDs accounted for 4,256 wounded out of a total of 5,941, some 71.6% of the wounded. From July 2005 to January 2006, IED's killed 234 US service members out of a total of 369 total combat deaths, or 63.4%. They accounted for 2314 wounded out of 2980 total combat wounded, or 77.7 %.
To put these numbers in perspective, IEDs caused 900 deaths out of a total of 1,748 combat deaths, or 51.5 % during the entire post-Saddam fall from March 2003 and January 2006. IEDs caused 9,327 wounded out of a total of 16,606 or 56.2% (6). However, the numbers of personnel killed and wounded by IEDs are scarcely the only measure of insurgent success. Casualties may have dropped but the number of attacks has gone up. IED attacks tie down manpower and equipment, disrupt operations, disrupt economic and aid activity, and interact with attacks on Iraqi civilians and forces to limit political progress and help try to provoke civil war.
Insurgents carried out more than 300 attacks on Iraqi oil facilities between March 2003 and January 2006. The end result was that oil production dropped by 8% in 2005, and pipeline shipments through the Iraqi northern pipeline to Ceyan in Turkey dropped from 800,000 barrels per day before the war to an average of 40,000 barrels per day in 2005. In July 2005, Iraqi officials estimated that insurgent attacks had already cost Iraq some $11 billion. They had kept Iraqi oil production from approaching the 3 million barrel a day goal in 2005 goal that the Coalition had set after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and production had dropped from per war levels of around 2.5 million barrels a day to an average of 1.83 million barrels a day in 2005, and level of only 1.57 million barrels a day in December 2005 (7). These successes have major impact in a country where 94% of the government's direct income now comes from oil exports.
In short, there are cycles in an evolving struggle, but not signs that the struggle is being lost or won. For example, the number of attacks peaked to some 700 per week in October 2005, before the October 15th referendum on the constitution to 430 per week in mid-January, but this was more a function of insurgent efforts to peak operations in sensitive periods than any outcome of the fighting. Similarly, the number of US killed has averaged some 65 per month since March 2003. The total of US killed was 96 in October 2005, 84 in November 68 in December, and 63 in January 2006 (8). This reflected shifts in the cycles of attacks and in their targets. US experts estimated that some 500 Iraqis were killed between the December 15, 2005 elections and mid-January 2006, an "average" period in US casualties (9).
There have, as yet, been no decisive trends or no tipping points: simply surges and declines. This, however, does not mean the counterinsurgency campaign cannot be won. Much of the reason the insurgency continues is that Iraqi forces are not yet deployed in the strength to replace Coalition troops and demonstrate the legitimacy of the Iraqi government in the field.
Similarly, there seems to be little doubt that the most extreme acts of insurgent violence come from a relatively small minority of Neo-Salafi Sunni extremists. If the December 15, 2005 elections produce an inclusive national political structure that gives Iraq's Sunnis incentives to join the government and political process, many current Iraqi Sunni insurgents are likely to end their participation in the insurgency and the more extreme elements will be defeated.
The risk, of course, is that either Iraqi forces will not be successful, or that the political process will fail. These, however, are considerations that go far beyond the analysis of the patterns in the insurgency that follows.
(1) Rick Jervis, "Attacks in Iraq Jumped in 2005," USA Today, January 23, 2006.
(2) Reuters, "US Military Death Toll Down Past 2 Months," Washington Times, February 1, 2006, p. 3.
(3) Rick Jervis, "Attacks in Iraq Jumped in 2005," USA Today, January 23, 2006.
(4) John Diamond, "Insurgent Give US Valuable Training Tool," USA Today, January 26, 2006, p. 8.
(5) Rick Jervis, "Attacks in Iraq Jumped in 2005," USA Today, January 23, 2006.
(6) Data provided by Brian Hartman and Luis E. Martinez of ABC News and Department of Defense, January 29, 2006.
(7) Charles Kraul, "Decline in Oil Output Dims Iraqi Recovery," Washington Post, January 25, 2006, p. 2.
(8) Reuters, "US Military Death Toll Down Past 2 Months," Washington Times, February 1, 2006, p. 3.
(9) Patrick Quinn, "US Says Violence will Rise in Iraq," Philadelphia Inquirer, January 13, 2006.
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