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Rémy Madoui

The Algerian war since the 1st November 1954



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     Iraq Insurgency: The Struggle for Power

The conflict in Iraq is not perceived anymore as a monolithic organization committing acts of violence against U.S. troops as Saddam’s loyalists, fanatical fundamentalists or foreign terrorists linked to Al Qaida. It is an insurgency waging guerrilla warfare, predominantly urban guerrilla (terrorism) and, like most uprisings in recent history, Iraqi guerrilla started with a myriad of groups and objectives aligned against a common enemy. Presently, there are several formations and subgroups carrying out attacks for a variety of reasons, motives and goals.

These rebellion hot spots have to outgrow the initial phase of an insurgency and evolve into a national guerrilla in order to survive. The major armed groups’ leaders would have to agree on a common cause, an integrated leadership and on sharing their popular base and logistics. This is likely to happen if two primary common grounds preexist and a charismatic leader (or leaders) emerges to tie them together and bridge the factions’ differences. The Iraqis’ perception of the “enemy” and Islam, a shared catalyst, constitute the common grounds. These two essential attributes coexist in Iraq even if they are at a gestation stage.

At first glance, it appears that the Iraqi insurgents are far from converging into a unified movement. They seem to be plagued with ethnic rivalries:   Arabs, Kurds, Chaldeans and Turkmen. Islam, the unifying thread, comes across as a house divided: Sunnis versus Shiites and there is no leader of national stature in sight.

The first precondition, people’s perception of the enemy, seems to prevail in Iraq. Except for most Kurds and the members of the interim government, their partisans and backers, virtually all Iraqi nationalist and patriotic individuals share the insurgent groups’ feeling: the resentment of the U.S. presence and the anger toward the U.S. failure to restore law and order. At this stage of guerrilla evolution, the adhesion of all the people is not vital for the guerrilla to spread nationally, as long as most Iraqis share a common feeling toward a perceived enemy. Initially, insurgencies rely heavily on kinship, tribal and inter-tribal ties and alliances to provide them with shelter, intelligence and assistance. When they consolidate their operational base, they round up the rest of the population to their cause and overpower any resistance by intimidation and violent means.

The second prerequisite, Islam, seems to be a deeper divide between insurgents. Islam in Iraq appears to be split into Sunnis and Shiites, and further fragmented within each sect. The predominant guerrilla Islamic ideology would probably arise from the coming together of splinter groups from all Islamic factions.

Can these groups overcome their religious differences? How really far apart are the Sunnis and Shiites? Actually, our frame of reference for Shiism is Iran and the “Sunni triangle” (Saddam’s loyalists) for Sunnis. It is a misleading paradigm because what comes to mind when the word Shiite pops up are the Iranian Ayatollahs, a parochial autocracy for which the Western world is Satan, American hostages humiliated for months, persecution of people in the name of God, etc.

Iraqi Shiites are not ethnically related to Iranians. Nomadic Arab tribes who settled down and took up agriculture populated central and southern Iraq. In the south, those tribesmen converted to the Shi'ite sect while their kinsmen remained Sunnis. They share the Arab culture and attributes. The differences between them are primarily political rather than ethnic or cultural and their struggle is for power over the right to govern and to define the future of Iraq. The Shiites political orientation is influenced by Iraqi nationalism with its distinct values and heritage and on a wider Arab nationalism for the Sunnis. Together, they constitute 75 percent of the population and Shiites became a majority in Iraq only during the nineteenth century. The two groups are linked by a large number of mixed marriages and shared social codes and cultural values built on the strong Arab tribal character. Both communities endeavored to preserve the country's territorial integrity ever since the British creation of modern Iraq in 1921. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Iraqi Shi’ites, who formed a majority of the foot soldiers of the Iraqi infantry, fought against their Iranian coreligionists and affirmed their allegiance to Iraq in spite of their discontent with Saddam’s regime and their sectarian affinity with Iran. The large majority of Iraqi Shiites probably have no wish to imitate the Islamic Republic of Iran. They do not want to replace a secular tyrannical dictatorship that oppressed them for decades by a domineering theocracy.

The Iraqi society is not homogeneous and each community is itself diverse. There are secularists, including liberals and communists, urban and rural dwellers, rich and poor and various religious groups but all share a mutual Islamic culture. There is no single leader (or group of leaders) who can speak for all Iraqis, a leadership vacuum that both violent and non-violent groups would like to fulfill.

The insurgent group that might take the lead and unite all fighters into a national guerrilla should have at least the following traits: be known as fiercely opposed to foreign occupation; is already waging a violent guerrilla warfare against the “enemies”; has no previous or current ties to the U.S. or to the interim government; has adopted an Islamic creed that appeals to most groups and; has already attracted a wider popular support beyond its community and sect. There are dozen of insurgent organizations that, theoretically, fit some of that profile. Each major Iraqi community produced at least one such group, active or still dormant but, so far, the Mahdi Army is well ahead of the crowd. The Mahdi Army, also known as Jaish-al-Mahdi, is largely composed of young unemployed and often impoverished men from the Shiite urban areas and slums in Baghdad and the southern Shite cities. The Mahdi Army area of operation stretches from Basra in the south to Sadr City in central Iraq and some scattered Shiite militia in Baquba and Kirkuk, where Shiite minorties exist.

A young, fiercely anti-US Shiite Islamist cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, commands this armed group estimated at 3,000 to 10,000 fighters. This movement involves only a small percentage of Iraq’s Shiites but it is gaining momentum and popularity. Sadr constitutes a serious threat to the traditional Shiite religious hierarchy, the interim government and to Iraqis who cooperate with the “enemies”.

Sadr’s rise to insurgency leadership came after coalition forces shut down his daily newspaper, Al Hawza, on March 29, 2004 and arrested Mustafa al-Yaqubi, his senior aide on April 3, 2004. Several protests followed those events. On April 4, 2004, another protest turned violent: thousands of armed members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army took over police stations and engaged in gun battles with coalition forces in four cities across Iraq. Since then, clashes and truces with US forces became Sadr’s game plan. His scheme is to send mixed signals: at times he calls for a national rebellion against foreign troops and Iraqi police.  At others he promises to disband his militia and become involved in the political process. This strategy keeps him in the limelight in Iraq, the U.S. and the world and the sporadic truces allow him to regroup.

Sadr seems to have all the attributes and background to be the insurrection leader who might unify the major groups into a national guerrilla or, at least, shape its doctrine and objectives. In addition, Sadr has a highly reputable lineage. His father-in law, was a leading Shiite activist before his execution by the government of Saddam Hussein in 1980. His father, a well-respected figure throughout the Shi'a world, was murdered along with two of his sons in February 1999 in Najaf by the same regime. Sadr went underground after his father and two brothers assasssination. He appears to be the “umblemished” resistant. He also attracted sympathies and support across religious lines and opposed any breakup of Iraq according to ethnic, religious, or other forms. It is obvious that Sadr survived all crisis with his standing enhanced, insuring him a major role in the political and military establishment in Iraq. Will he join the political fray, as he is invited to do so by the interim government, and become a small fish competing against experienced politicians with international networks? Or will he exploit his momentum and aim for guerrilla leadership? Regardless of what happens to Muqtada al-Sadr, the struggle for guerrilla supremacy will go on. Jockeying for guerrilla leadership is like national election, one day is a long time.

The coalition force succeeded in preventing a unified national guerrilla. It thwarted a civil war. It forestalled the spread of violence to the whole country. It built a solid foundation in spite of enemy’s propaganda: it got rid of a dangerous and cruel dictator, liberated the Iraqi population from decades of oppression, put Iraq in a path to freedom and democracy and made a commitment to help the Iraqis achieve their peaceful objectives. We want what most Iraqis want: security, freedom and economic opportunity.

We now need to do what Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraqi Interim Government Finance Minister said almost a year ago: “The Americans are coming to understand that they cannot change everything they want to change in Iraq. They need to let the Iraqi people decide the big issues.” [1]. He might be right and the biggest issue is the violence that is crippling Iraq. The U.S. should leave the fight against the insurgents to the Iraqis themselves. We know that a formidable army and highly sophisticated arsenal cannot overwhelm a guerrilla. An insurgency can only be eradicated if the majority of the people want to and, according to all reports from the field, most Iraqis are opposed to violence. If that is the case, Iraqis should fight the counter-guerrilla on guerrilla’s principles: by each individual, his family, his clan, his tribe, his community and religious association. Guerrilla is long-term, low intensity warfare and the longer it last, the more it benefits the radical groups of the insurgency and widens the apathy of the people. The coalition is not going to be there forever and if the Iraqi people cannot defeat the guerrilla, it is not the Iraqi army and police we are training that are going to do it, no matter the level of their ability.

The U.S. should continue to bolster support for Iraq's interim government but also seek out and engage actively with the whole spectrum of interest groups in Iraq and allow nonviolent avenues of political expression and participation. We should be working to win the support of Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Chaldeans and Turkmen who could contribute to rebuilding their country, regardless of their affiliation, their belief or which side they fought for.

Our continuous field intervention can only create more enemies. The U.S. military part of the counter-guerrilla war should be subordinated to political, social and economic objectives. We should help the Iraqi leadership to restore law and order and basic services, and give the Iraqis greater political freedom and sovereignty.

The current situation cannot be sustained indefinitely and a military victory alone is a short-term fix. A skilful U.S. and Iraqi leadership could co-opt the guerrillas and reconcile with their leaders. Historically, some guerrilla and terrorist leaders successfully built and lead countries after conflict resolution, and some of them became our closest allies in the war against terrorism.

Remy  Madoui
September 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved


[1] Quoted in “Attacks Force Retreat From Wide-Ranging Plans for Iraq” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in The Washington Post, December 28, 2003.


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