The Campaign to Pacify Sunni Iraq

Iraq’s Sovereignty Vacuum (Part 2)

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[This is the second of two pieces by Michael Schwartz on Iraq’s missing “sovereignty.” You can read the first, “A Government with No Military and No Territory,” here.]

The December elections in Iraq did not initiate a period of state building, but instead marked an expanding, many-sided conflict whose latest major horror was the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and the carnage it triggered. All the conflicts of the present moment have metastasized and spread from the ill-fated attempt by American-led forces to pacify Sunni communities in Baghdad and in four provinces to the north and west. Today, not only is the country edging toward an ever-more virulent civil war, but the Sunni resistance is stronger than ever, registering about 100 attacks a day in January.

This original war remains the central front in the ongoing battle for domination in Iraq and, as the core conflict, it continues to cast off enough bitterness, suffering, destruction, and rebellion to guarantee its never-ending spread to new areas and groups.

More than anything else, this low-level but fierce war is responsible for the constantly diminishing reservoir of sovereignty in Iraq. If the Americans sought to establish the legitimacy of the occupation by crushing early signs of Sunni resistance, that effort has, in the end, only helped convince Iraqis of the illegitimacy of the American presence. For all its failures, however, the occupation has succeeded in one endeavor. It has managed to undermine all efforts by other parties to establish their own legitimacy and therefore to build a foundation for a new and sovereign Iraq. If one day Iraq ceases to be, splitting chaotically into several entities, the way the occupation destroyed sovereignty (along with parts of Sunni cities) will certainly come in for a major share of the blame.

The Sunni Resistance

What the world has come to call the “insurgency “in Iraq is largely located in Baghdad and the Sunni-dominated cities to the north and west of the capital. In the Kurdish north and Shia south, residents have largely been organized into local quasi-governments that are frequently at odds with the American occupation (and therefore with the central government in the capital); but — despite notable moments of great violence — none of these localities has mounted a sustained war against the American-led presence as the Sunnis have.

While the Sunni insurgency is certainly the focus of Iraqi news coverage, the actual nature of the war in Sunni areas goes largely unreported. Coverage tends to focus on spectacular moments of violence and destruction, especially car bombs and other suicide attacks against civilian targets. Only rarely mentioned are the multitude of small-scale confrontations between resistance fighters and patrolling American troops that account for the majority of violent clashes. As a result, the methods of the American side — the use of assault weapons, tanks, artillery, and air power — and so the spreading “collateral” damage to Iraqi civilians is significantly underreported.

A recent James Glanz piece in the New York Times proved an exception to this pattern. Based on U.S. military statistics, Glanz offered strong evidence against the administration portrait of a weakening (or at least stalemated) resistance movement. Guerrilla attacks had, in fact, “steadily grown in the nearly three years since the invasion.” Even during a “lull” in December 2005, the 2,500 violent confrontations — over 80 per day — were “almost 250 percent [higher than] the number in March 2004,” which, in turn was twice the level of August 2003.

The chart that accompanied the article (originally delivered to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee by Joseph A. Christoff of the Government Accountability Office) contained an even more significant fact, almost unknown to the American public: Despite the impression we may have from news reports, Iraqi civilians constitute only a small proportion of resistance targets each month — never exceeding 20% and typically falling well below 10%. In December 2005, they accounted for just 8% — about 200 — of the 2,500 attacks. .

The overwhelming target of such attacks — in a typical month around 80% of them — was the American military and its coalition allies, mainly the British. Last December, the figure was a little over 70%; some months it reaches 90%. The Iraqi armed forces (integrated, as they are, into the American command) account for another 5-10% of the targets.

Until now, at least, the war in the Sunni areas of Iraq has largely been between the Americans and the guerrillas. The Iraqi government itself is not a factor in this confrontation, and consequently is rarely mentioned — even in a pro forma way — in news accounts of the battles, negotiations, and other elements of the war.

How then, as best we can tell, is the Sunni resistance organized in the many cities in the four provinces in central Iraq and in Baghdad where the war is an ongoing part of life?

Though it is divided into two ideologically contrary groups — the guerrillas who target the occupation and the jihadists who tend to seek out civilian targets — and within those divisions into many grouplets, the Sunni resistance is coherent enough to be another contender for sovereignty, at least in its own areas. It has tied down and exhausted the U.S. military, forcing strategic and tactical alterations in American policy. It continues to influence both national and local Iraqi politics, even as its internal contradictions increasingly set jihadists and guerrillas against each other.

The role played by the Sunni resistance can best be understood by briefly reviewing the situation in Falluja before its recapture by American forces in November 2004. In April of that year, after an abortive attempt to seize the city, the U.S. military had withdrawn, leaving it in the hands of the “Falluja Brigade,” made up mainly of Baathist army veterans. They were assigned the job of pacifying the city. Instead, the Brigade gave its support to a group of local religious leaders allied with the insurgency that soon evolved into a local government. Borrowing its organizational skeleton from the rich community organizations traditionally connected to Sunni mosques (including their Shari’a courts), it used the resistance fighters as a police force. Perhaps not surprisingly, the structure that developed was similar to those that had already formed in Shia cities like Basra.

During the period from April to November, Falluja had only the most tenuous ties to the national government in Baghdad. Nir Rosen, an independent journalist, produced remarkable descriptions of the city in this period (for the New Yorker and Asia Times). His pieces give a sense of the developing tensions between the jihadists, who wanted to establish Falluja as a safe rear area for their larger operations, and the local resistance, determined to keep the Americans out but uninterested in going on the offensive. The new government also heightened tensions by enforcing cultural customs similar to those adopted in Basra: head scarves for women, facial hair for men, and the abolition of liquor and western music. In these months, street crime disappeared, as did armed confrontations of any sort. They would prove the most peaceful in Falluja since the fall of Saddam’s regime.

As this interlude indicated, in the Sunni areas local clerics already constituted a proto-government-in-waiting, quite capable of enforcing “law and order” if not challenged by the occupation military. The fighting in Sunni cities comes and goes with the arrival and departure of the occupation military. When the occupation forces enter a city (or a neighborhood in Baghdad), the IEDs begin to explode, snipers fire away, and hit-and-run attacks start up. As soon as they withdraw to pacify another town, the city in question, in a more battered state, falls back into the hands of local clerics and their allies among the guerrillas.

At no time does the Iraqi government figure significantly into this process. Occasionally, it may appoint a governor or police chief, but these functionaries quickly discover (like their counterparts in Basra and Kirkuk) that they have little choice but to work with the local power structure, resign in protest over their lack of authority, or become assassination targets.

In a sense, the difference between Sunni cities — most of which have been wracked by fighting — and their Shia or Kurdish counterparts has been the determination of the American military to pacify them.

The Guerrilla War in Baiji

The experience of Baiji illustrates how little leverage the Iraqi government has over events on the ground in Sunni Iraq. As the site of the largest oil refining plant in the country, it is a more important city than its population of 70,000 might suggest. During the Hussein years, its 98% Sunni inhabitants were supported by well-paying jobs in a government-owned industrial district that grew up around the oil-refining facilities.

After the American-led invasion, however, Baiji fell on hard times. Thanks to one of the first executive orders issued by L. Paul Bremer, the Bush-appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that was then ruling from Baghdad, all government-owned enterprises, with the exception of the oil industry itself, were shuttered. This was in preparation for a privatization program considered crucial by American economic planners. Unemployment swept through Baiji, generating bitterness, inspiring a variety of protests, and eventually energizing what had until then been an exceedingly modest resistance to the U.S. presence.

In late 2003, in response to this growing discontent, the U.S. initiated what Washington Post reporter Ann Tyson characterized as “heavy-handed sweeps through Baiji… [that] left many people angry, frightened and humiliated.” She quoted Adil Faez Jeel, the director of the oil refinery, saying that the sweeps only solidified support for an armed resistance: “Most of the people fighting the Americans tell me they do nothing for us but destroy the houses and capture people… There are no jobs, no water, no electricity.”

By late 2004, Baiji’s guerrillas were strong enough to take control of the town in response to the American conquest of Falluja. In addition to skirmishes with U.S. troops and Iraqi police, the guerrillas began to sabotage pipelines around the refinery and to attack oil trucks. At one point, they launched a mortar attack against a mixed American and Iraqi National Guard patrol in the center of town, triggering two days of running battles. A doctor at the local hospital told the Agence France Press that at least 10 civilians were killed and 26 wounded in the ensuing melee.

For the next year, Baiji was out of the news, largely because the American military was busy with massive sweeps in the west of Anbar province. In late 2005, however, the Americans returned to Baiji, characterized at the time by Tyson as “firmly in the grip of insurgents.”

According to U.S. military sources, this pacification attempt was provoked by suspicions that guerrillas were using Baiji as a staging area for attacks in Mosul and Baghdad, and — more immediately — by evidence that, while targeting oil pipelines and convoys, they were also siphoning off a significant proportion of the refinery’s output for sale on the black market to finance their activities. A resistance supporter in Baiji told Inter Press Service reporters Brian Conley and Isam Rashid that that these efforts were meant to stop what he considered an American “theft” of Iraqi oil.

The Americans temporarily closed the refinery and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to retake Baiji. For a month, virtually no progress was made in pacifying the city, while American casualties were high. A quarter of the 34 soldiers in one platoon suffered casualties of one sort or another. Sgt. 1st Class Danny Kidd, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, attributed the hard going to the fact that Baiji residents supported the guerrilla fighters: “They have the place locked down. We have almost no support from the local people. We talk to 1,000 people and one will come forward.”

The degree of this support was illustrated by a gruesome incident during the early weeks of the campaign. Capt. Matt Bartlett, accompanied by a convoy of tanks and personnel carriers, sought information from a tribal chief about a group of bomb-makers suspected of operating in the chief’s domain. The convoy was cordially greeted by the sheik’s children, who accepted the officers’ gifts and “traded high-fives with them.” Capt. Bartlett was told, however, that the sheik was hosting a large gathering and could not meet him that day. Preparing to leave, the Americans found the street blocked by people and cars, apparently part of the gathering. They were directed instead down a dirt route along the Tigris River nicknamed “Smugglers’ Road.”

“A few hundred yards down the road, bordered by fields, the convoy was hit by a massive explosion. Behind the blast, [First Sgt. Robert] Goudy jumped out of his Humvee and ran forward toward the huge cloud of smoke and debris. As it cleared, he was confused by what he found.

“‘I saw this big piece of flesh and thought it was a goat or cow. I thought, ‘Wow, these guys put an IED in a dead animal,’ he recalled. He went on, hoping to find his men sitting in the truck. But as he got closer, he recalled, ‘I didn’t see the truck. I started seeing limbs and body parts.’ Goudy tripped over what was left of one soldier. Then he found the only survivor of the five soldiers in the Humvee, blinded and screaming.

“‘It was horrible,’ Bartlett said. ‘We had to pick up body parts 200 meters away.’ The Humvee was ‘ripped in half and shredded,’ he said, by a monster bomb later found to contain 1,000 pounds of explosives and two antitank mines, with a 155mm artillery round on top.”

Sgt Goudy and the other survivors were “convinced Iraqis living nearby knew about the bomb but did nothing to warn them.” In fact, it appears that they participated in luring the convoy into a trap. The soldiers’ thoughts naturally turned to revenge: “I felt so angry and violated…. We all wanted to go out and tear up the city, kick down the doors, shoot the civilians, blow up the mosque.”

Subsequent reports from Baiji contain no accounts of such acts of revenge, but the incident, and the failure of other strategies to pacify the city, led to an official escalation of the American assault. According to the Army Times, the new strategy was modeled after “walls built around Falluja and Samarra in recent months [that] have quelled restive insurgent cells.” An earthen barrier was constructed around Siniyah, the most rebellious neighborhood in the city. Checkpoints were set up to stop “all vehicles leaving or entering… as soldiers look for known insurgents, bomb-making materials and illegal weapons.”

These draconian measures disrupted normal life. Anyone with business inside or outside the community could not reliably pass through the checkpoint: College students interrupted their educations; employees lost their jobs. Sumiya, a 33 year old Siniyah housewife, who spoke on the phone to Conley and Rashid, described the situation inside the community of 3,000:

“Siniyah has become a real battlefield now, and the occupation forces have destroyed many of our homes…. There is no security inside Siniyah and it is worse than any place in Iraq now. The occupation forces and Iraqi National Guard are raiding Siniyah houses everyday and arresting many people. There is a curfew from 5 pm. to 5 am; in Baghdad it is only midnight to 5 AM.”

One resident commented to the Inter Press reporters, “We live in a very big jail for three thousand”; while a local cleric told the Army Times that Siniyah had become “a concentration camp.”

This situation will prevail until the American troops move on to “pacify” another city. At that time, the residents — further alienated from the occupation — will attempt to rebuild their lives, though from an even deeper hole than before. The jerry-rigged local government left behind will have no resources with which to address their problems, and there will be none forthcoming from either the Americans or, of course, the Iraqi government which has none to offer.

As in other Sunni cities, while the fighting in Baiji has occurred episodically, the physical, economic, and infrastructural decline of the city has been more or less continuous. So has the inability of either the Americans or the resistance to create a stable government. Each has undermined the credibility of the other. And the national government has no presence at all. In such circumstances, any residual faith residents might have in the idea of a sovereign state has undoubtedly evaporated as well.

Sovereignty Lost?

“Stay the course,” President Bush tells us. “Democracy is being built,” he insists. His case rests on high turnout percentages in the national elections, which demonstrate, he believes, that the vast majority of Iraqis want (and support) a national government. American forces, in his view, are training the Iraqi military and police to provide that government with the coercive force it needs to destroy a small but persistent insurgency that relies on intimidation and terror to keep the majority of Iraqis from speaking out and acting as they might wish. The developing institutions of civil society will provide, in his opinion, a nonviolent social infrastructure for a successful central government. But all this naturally takes time and money, and the American people need to give his administration the space to apply both effectively.

The on-the-ground evidence suggests quite a different reality. Sovereignty is made up of four ingredients: ultimate control over the means of coercion; sufficient resources to deliver government services; an administrative apparatus capable of carrying out these functions; and the acquiescence of most people in the exercise of such power. The government in Baghdad has none of these, nor will any of them soon be available to it.

As the war between Sunni communities and the occupation military continues, and as it throws off pieces of rebellion that set off new conflicts, the impotent isolation of the Iraqi government within its Green Zone sanctuary becomes more visible to all. In the meantime, the various contending parties — the occupation, the Sunni resistance, the Shia fundamentalists, and the Kurdish nationalists — frustrate each other’s designs on power while destroying any group’s ability to establish sovereignty.

One symptom of the debilitation of Iraq under the weight of this war has been its ever-declining oil production which, in January 2006, fell to perhaps half of the already depressed production levels during the last embattled years of Saddam Hussein.

Oil — that most precious commodity — has become scarce in oil-rich Iraq. But sovereignty — an even more precious commodity — is scarcer still.

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His email address is

Copyright 2006 Michael Schwartz

This piece appeared first, with a short introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at


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