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Iraqi insurgency shows no signs of fading

Insurgent attacks in Iraq appear to be on an upswing with more than 400 victims over the past two weeks.   NBC News' Richard Engel explains why the peak in violence should come as no surprise and is likely to continue.    
Car Bomb Explodes Near Busy Market Place In Eastern Baghdad
An Iraqi policeman stands guard at the scene of a car bomb explosion on Thursday in eastern Baghdad.Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Insurgent attacks in Iraq appear to be on an upswing with more than 400 victims over the past two weeks.

The wave of attacks underscores the intensity of the fight for Iraq's future in the three months since the country's first democratic elections — and more than two years since the United States declared the end of major combat.

NBC News' Richard Engel, who has reported from Iraq for the last two years, explains why the peak in violence should come as no surprise and why the strength and determination of the insurgency is likely to continue.

What does the wave of  attacks in Iraq this month, averaging about 70 attacks a day this month, up from 30-40 in February and March, according to a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, say about the state of the insurgency Iraq?
It depends on who you ask. If you ask the U.S. military, they continue to come back with what sometimes seems like an illogical statement: They’ll say that the reason attacks are up is because the insurgents are losing. It is often a difficult thing to understand or an unusual argument.

But the U.S. military makes the argument as follows: The Iraqi insurgents are on their back foot. The insurgents realize that each day the Iraqi government and the Iraqi armed forces are getting stronger and their days are numbered. So they are lashing out and this is a desperate attempt to try to put some roots down in the country.

Unfortunately, I have trouble believing that argument. I think there are several fundamental reasons why the insurgency is going on in Iraq. This is based on interviews with Iraqis, with professors, analysts, and other members of the military who aren’t necessarily as “on message.”

Many analysts say that there is a significant proportion of the population which does not support this current government, which is Shiite dominated. [They say] that the Sunnis in the Anbar province, in particular, do not relate to this government and really feel isolated by it.

There is also the belief, among many Sunnis, that this is an Iranian-backed government that does not represent them. They believe that the Kurds are just driving for independence. They feel that they are chronically disenfranchised and if they don’t fight for their independence they will be overrun by Iran.

Whether that is true or not, it is certainly a belief that a large base, maybe even the majority of the Sunni community feels, particularly in the Anbar province.

So, that fundamental reason is definitely keeping the insurgency going.

It doesn’t explain why attacks are up now. But it explains that this is not the final moments of this insurgency. This insurgency, according to most analysts here, is going to go on for a very long time.

Other reasons why the insurgency is spiking right now is that the Sunni Muslim fundamentalist militant former regime members recognize that this is a weak period.

[They see] this is a period of transition, this is a time to strike. If you don’t want the new government to stand on its feet — this is the time to strike its legs off.

The government has partly helped that case by being so powerless and indecisive.

It has taken more than three months for this government to emerge since the elections. They have only recently chosen a defense and interior minister. And even the different positions- the deputy ministers and the director generals — of each of the different ministries are still undecided.

So, the power dynamics within the new Iraqi government are still being worked out: which general or interior minister will emerge on top, for example? This has created a golden opportunity for the insurgents to capitalize on. If they want to strike, now is the time.

To summarize, the fundamental problem of isolation is still there. The indecision and weakness of the transition, as well as the opportunism of the insurgents, explains why the violence is peaking right now.

A number of the attacks have been at police recruiting centers and in markets, places that represent opportunity and normalcy. How are the attacks eating away at the confidence of the Iraqi people in the U.S.-led coalition and the new government?
The average Iraqi person — this is something people really should know — are deeply religious and deeply fatalistic. They have been in a society that has been brutal and has not respected freedom or individual will for more than three decades.

I was out today talking to woman who is a milkmaid and a man who is a gardener and I spent the afternoon at their house.

Time and time again when you ask them, they just say, we hope for the best and we put our faith in God and we take care of ourselves and we take care of our neighbors.

She was there milking her cow. She was delivering the cheese and the yogurt that she makes from the milk to her neighbors and borrowing flour from them. She also delivered it to the police on the corner so that they would be sure to watch out on their particular street.

They were trying to mind their own business. Hoping to stay away from this horrible storm that is raining death down on people in this country.

I think that’s the way people are looking at it. They are trying to mind their own business. They are very confused.

I asked this woman who is behind these attacks and who does she blame? She said she doesn’t know who to blame. Sometimes we hear the Americans are killing all these people, sometimes we hear foreign terrorists, sometime we hear the Israelis are behind it. She really had no idea.

There is a tremendous disconnect between perceptions and reality.

A person who interrogated an insurgent recently told me about this encounter. He said that he found a foreign fighter who had been in Iraq blowing up oil pipelines. He went to the interrogation and asked him, “Why are you blowing up these pipelines?”

The insurgent replied, “Well, you know. Don’t make me tell you, because you know the reason.”

The interrogator said, “No, I don’t. Why?”

The insurgent said, “Well of course, because all of the oil goes to Israel. We know that.”

The interrogator said, “OK, well it's not. But what are we going to tell you.”

So, the people carrying out these attacks have a totally different mentality. A totally different mental paradigm then reality or connected to what the Americans are telling the Iraqi people.

They are living in a world of jihad. They believe that there are signs that the end of the world are coming. They believe that this is a conflict of different proportions.

The people that are fighting don’t call themselves the resistance anymore. They say the resistance is one thing. The resistance means we are fighting the Americans, we are fighting the occupation here in Iraq. They call themselves the muhajadeen. They say we are fighting for Islam, we are fighting a jihad.

So, whether it is here or elsewhere, it is a much bigger war. It is not just a resistance.

So, the mujahadeen will say that we accept the resistance — that’s a noble goal that you want to liberate your country. But, that their goal is much bigger. From their perspective, their goal is more divine — it is to fight infidels here in Iraq or elsewhere. 

There are estimates that one third to one half of these attacks are suicide bombers. That seems like an awful lot of recruits to convince to kill themselves.  Can the insurgents keep this up indefinitely?
Probably. Yes, they can probably keep it up for an indefinite period of time. But, I don’t know how long they can keep it up.

Can they keep it up persistently? Who knows? It’s hard to tell. They’ve been keeping it up for a long period of time.

Obviously, if they are going to have a long drawn out insurgency, there is a base of disgruntled people in this country who they can draw upon.

This is the extremist Arab Muslim cause in the world. It was Afghanistan twice, it was Chechnya, it’s been Palestine for decades, it was the Balkans for a while, now it’s Iraq.

So, there are plenty of people around the world willing to contribute money and manpower. Again, we are seeing the same patterns. Saudi Arabia contributes the money and Syria is working with the logistics base. Then we see Egyptians, Sudanese, Yemenis, who are the poor countries in the region, contribute the manpower. These countries tend to offer up what they have surpluses of. Again we’re seeing the same things that we saw with al Qaida — the same patterns we saw in other countries in the region now here in Iraq.

I think this can go on for a long time and it shouldn’t be surprising that it may.

Can they sustain 70 attacks versus 30 attacks versus 40 attacks? That’s really minutiae. So, maybe it’s 70 this week, maybe next week it will be 60, maybe it will even go down to 30. But, tracking the EKG monitor and looking at the attacks as they rise and fall, I think is not necessarily the best way to judge long term success here in the country.  

The U.S. Marines have launched what has been described as a major offensive near Syria – in the region that is reportedly harboring U.S.’s most–wanted insurgent leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? How  would the capture of al-Zarqawi impact the strength of the insurgency?
He is a symbol, but he is also an effective leader. So, it would be a major setback for the insurgency. It would encourage the morale of the Iraqi government — it would encourage their popularity.

It would encourage the American troops. It would be a major success and there is no reason to deny that. He is an active and effective insurgent leader, directing an organization, as far as our best knowledge, that is deadly and quite powerful.  

So I think his arrest, or death, would be very significant. The insurgency would still continue. Someone else would surely rise to fill the position he has created for himself. But, it would be a while before that other person would have the skills or name recognition that he has right now.