Iraqi insurgency

From Academic Kids

The Iraqi insurgency comprises various guerrilla and insurgent groups that began battling the U.S.-led multinational force and the New Iraqi Army shortly after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Not all those opposed to the occupation and/or the government use violent means; there are various Iraqi groups and political parties advocating peaceful, non-violent resistance. Thus the broader term "Iraqi resistance" is favored by some.

Please also see Iraqi opposition (post-occupation).
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Killing of Western Civilian Contractors in Falluja, Iraq, March 31, 2004



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Iraqi insurgents celebrate while riding through the streets of Falluja, May 1, 2004.

The Iraqi insurgency is composed of over a dozen major insurgency organizations and countless smaller cells. Due to its clandestine nature, the exact composition of the Iraqi insurgency is difficult to determine. It is often subdivided into several main ideological strands, some of which are believed to overlap:

  • Ba'athists, the armed supporters of Saddam Hussein;
  • Nationalists, mostly Sunni Muslims who fight for Iraqi independence;
  • Sunni Islamists, the indigenous armed followers of the Salafi movement;
  • Foreign Islamist fighters, largely driven by the similar Sunni Wahabi doctrine, as well as the remnants of Ansar al-Islam; although it includes a broad range of religious/ethnic and political currents united by their opposition to the occupation;
  • Militant followers of Shi'a Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and
  • nonviolent resistance groups


The Ba'athists are former Ba'ath Party officials, the Fedayeen Saddam, and some former agents of the Iraqi intelligence elements and security services, such as the Mukhabarat and the Special Security Organization. Their goal, at least before the capture of Saddam Hussein, was the restoration of the former Ba'athist regime to power. The pre-war organization of the Ba'ath Party and its militias as a cellular structure aided the continued pro-Saddam insurgency after the fall of Baghdad, and Iraqi intelligence operatives may have developed a plan for guerrilla war following the toppling of Saddam Hussein from power. Following Saddam's capture, the rhetoric of the Ba'athist insurgents gradually shifted to become either nationalist or Islamist, with the goal of restoring the Ba'ath Party to power as it once was seemingly out of reach. Many former Ba'athists have adopted an Islamist fašade in order to attract more credibility within the country, and perhaps support from outside Iraq. As of early 2005, most formerly Ba'athist cells seem to have dissolved, recognizing the fact that for the time being, a resurgence of Ba'athism in Iraq is inconceivable. Their members have returned to civilian life or, especially in the case of individuals with military or secret services background, have joined (and are much sought after) other groups according to their personal preferences.


The nationalists, largely hailing from the Sunni Arab regions, are drawn from former members of the Iraqi military as well as some ordinary Iraqis. Their reasons for opposing the occupation vary between a rejection of the foreign presence as a matter of principle to the failure of the occupation force to keep its promises to restore public services and to quickly restore complete sovereignty. Many Iraqis who have had relatives killed by coalition soldiers may also be involved in the nationalist insurgency. Beyond the expulsion of coalition troops from Iraq, there is no coherent political goal being pursued by the Iraqi guerrillas fighting under the banner of nationalism—only references to self-rule and even elections. Most likely, the majority of the low-level members of the indigenous Sunni insurgency (such as foot soldiers) fall under this broad category. A recent trend is for Nationalist groups to be more strongly influenced by radical (in this case mainly Salafi or Wahhabi) Islam; for which see below.

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Iraqi Shi'ites arrive in Najaf in a show of support for Moqtada al-Sadr in August 2004

Moqtada al-Sadr

Supporters of the young Shi'a Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are largely young, unemployed and often impoverished men from the Shi'a urban areas and slums in Baghdad and the southern Shi'a cities. The armed wing of the al-Sadr movement and al-Sadr's personal militia, known as Jaish-i-Mahdi or the Mahdi Army, is thought to have been funded and armed by Iran. The Mahdi Army area of operation stretches from Basra in the south to the Sadr City section of Baghdad in central Iraq (some scattered Shi'a militia activity has also been reported in Baquba and Kirkuk, where Shi'a minorities exist).

Moqtada al-Sadr is suspected by the U.S. government to have ordered the assassination of the moderate Muslim Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who returned from his exile in Britain and was stabbed to death in Najaf on April 12, 2003 by a group wielding knives and bayonets. Some members of the group claimed to have received their orders directly from al-Sadr. On March 29, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority shut down al-Sadr's daily newspaper, al-Hawza, claiming it was an incitement to violence, and on April 5, 2004, the coalition issued a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest in connection with al-Khoei's assassination. These acts, along with the arrest of one of Sadr's top aides and other motions to suppress the movement, resulted in thousands of people turning out to protest. The ensuing riots soon escalated into organized armed attacks by the Mahdi Army that initially led to the deaths of one Salvadoran and several American soldiers, as well as scores of insurgents and civilians.

Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr are driven by a variety of beliefs and grievances which combine both the nationalist and ultra-conservative religious tendencies of the movement. They see the U.S. and UK as foreign occupiers and oppressors, that they have failed to live up to their promises, and that Islamic law must eventually be established in Iraq. Al-Sadr's movement also opposes any breakup of Iraq according to ethnic, religious, or other lines.

The Mahdi Army is believed to number between 3,000 and 10,000 guerrillas.

Sunni Islamists

The Sunni Islamists are composed of Iraqis belonging to the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, which advocates a return to the pure Islam of the time of the Prophet Mohammed and opposes any foreign non-Muslim influence. The beliefs of Salafi Islam are roughly similar to the Wahabi sect of nearby Saudi Arabia (of which Osama bin Laden is a member), one difference being that Salafis in Iraq do not usually condone intolerance towards the Shi'a. Hard-line clerics and remaining underground cells of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq have helped provide support for the indigenous militant Islamist movement. Emerging as the most public face of this faction of the Iraqi insurgency, and the most influential of the hard-line Salafi clerics, is the founder of the ultra-conservative Association of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Hareth al-Dhari.

Foreign fighters

These are non-Iraqi Muslims, mostly Arabs from neighbouring countries, who have entered Iraq, primarily through the porous desert borders of Syria and Saudi Arabia, to assist the Iraqi insurgency. Many of these fighters are Wahabi fundamentalists who see Iraq as the new "field of jihad" in the battle against U.S. forces. It is generally believed that most are freelance fighters, but a few members of Al-Qaeda and the related group Ansar al-Islam, members of whom are suspected of infiltrating into the Sunni areas of Iraq through the mountainous northeastern border with Iran, may be involved. The U.S. and its allies point to Jordanian-born Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the key player in this group. Zarqawi is believed to be the head of an insurgent group called Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad ("Monotheism and Holy War"), which according to U.S. estimates numbers in the low hundreds.

The extent of Zarqawi's influence is a source of controversy. The U.S. government describes him as the single most dangerous and capable insurgent operative working against the U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi allies, responsible for a large number of major terrorist attacks. There are signs that an increasing rift is developing between supporters of al-Zarqawi, including both foreign guerrillas and some Iraqis who have adopted a hard-line Wahabi philosophy, and the nationalists and more moderate religious elements of the insurgency. The main source of the divide is over the suicide bombings that have inflicted heavy Iraqi civilian casualties, along with disagreements about whether to cooperate with the Shi'a and their insurgency. However, the publicity given to Zarqawi has ensured that he has become an iconic figure to various Sunni Islamist groups, regardless of the actual scope of his influence, by much the same process that has made Osama bin Laden a symbol of the causes of various Islamist groups following the events of September 11th, 2001.

Usage of the term "foreign fighters" has received criticism as being US-centric because taken literally, the term would encompass coalition forces. [1] ( [2] ( [3] ( [4] ( Zarqawi himself has taken to taunting the American occupiers about the irony of the term: "Who is the foreigner, O cross worshippers? You are the ones who came to the land of the Muslims from your distant corrupt land." (Communique of 10 May 2005 [5] (

While it is not known how many of those resisting the U.S. occupation in Iraq are not Iraqi, it is generally agreed that foreign fighters make up a small percentage of the insurgency. Major General Joseph Taluto, head of the 42nd Infantry Division, said that "99.9 per cent" of captured insurgents are Iraqi.[6] (

Non-violent groups

Apart from the armed insurgency, there are important non-violent groups that resist the foreign occupation through other means. The National Foundation Congress set up by Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi includes a broad range of religious, ethnic, and political currents united by their opposition to the occupation. Although it does not reject armed insurgency, which it regards as any nation's right, it favors non-violent politics and criticizes the formation of militias. It opposes institutions designed to implement American plans, such as the Iyad Allawi government and the U.S.-organized national conference designed as the antecedent to a parliament. [7] (

Although the CPA enforced a 1987 law banning unions in public enterprises, trade unions such as the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and Iraq's Union of the Unemployed have also mounted effective anti-occupation opposition. [8] ( Trades unions have, however, themselves been subject to attacks from the insurgency. Hadi Saleh of the IFTU was assassinated in circumstances that pointed to a Ba'athist insurgency group on the 3rd of January 2005. No trades unions support the armed insurgency. [9] (

Another union federation, the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE) opposes the occupation and calls for immediate withdrawal but was neutral on participation in the election. Whereas the GUOE wants all foreign troops out immediately, both the IFTU and the Workers Councils call for replacement of US and British forces with neutral forces from the UN, the Arab League and other nations as a transition. [10] ( Many unions see the war as having two dimensions: military and economic. The GUOE has won strikes against both the Governing Council for pay raises and against Haliburton over the use of foriegn workers. [11] (

Insurgency tactics

Some political tactics have included the attempted disruption of the January 2005 national assembly elections. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi followers have attempted to provoke ethnic or religious strife by deliberately attacking Shia, Christians and others who they view as collaborators or enemies of Islam.

Many insurgents regard Iraqi citizens who support the interim government as "collaborators with the enemy" and insurgent groups have shown in their attacks little regard for civilian casualties, in many cases even deliberately targeting civilians. Other insurgent groups have claimed to avoid targeting civilians, and to attack only the foreign military forces [12] (

For most attacks, the Iraqi guerrillas operate in small teams of 5–10 men in order to maintain mobility and escape detection. Since April, 2004, attacks involving larger groups of insurgents have become more common, although large units also appeared in a few instances beforehand, such as a battle near the Syrian border town of Rawa on June 13, 2003 and a large ambush of a U.S. convoy in the town of Samarra on November 30, 2003.

Assaults involving IEDs, RPGs, mortars, and car bombs all at once have increasingly appeared. Heavier and more sophisticated weapons that could deal more damage to U.S forces backed by armor and air power have not appeared in the insurgent arsenal, both because they are difficult to move around without detection and would compromise the mobility of the guerilla bands.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

Many Iraqi guerrilla attacks against coalition targets have taken the form of attacks on convoys and patrols using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. These explosive devices, made from former Iraqi military armaments and/or home-made materials, are concealed or camouflaged along main roads and detonated either by remote control or by wire when a convoy or patrol passes. The devices come in a wide variety of forms, but usually take the form of 155 mm artillery shells, rigged with plastic explosives, and attached to a detonator that is triggered by a cell phone signal or through a garage-door opener.

IEDs are often hidden behind roadside rails, on telephone poles, buried in the ground or in piles of garbage, disguised as rocks or bricks, and even placed inside dead animals. This has emerged as the most lethal method the insurgents have developed to attack coalition forces and civil targets not associated with the occupation.


In addition, Iraqi guerrillas frequently launched ambushes of U.S. convoys and patrols, along with those of Iraqi security forces, using AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Soft-skinned humvees are most commonly targeted. The congested and constricted terrain of the urban areas, and in the rural areas, palm groves and other crops, offer cover and concealment for insurgents launching ambushes. These attacks are usually broken off before support can be called in, in traditional guerrilla fashion. There have been isolated cases of larger ambushes, such as an attack on a coalition convoys in Samarra on November 30, 2003 that involved 100 fighters and a massive ambush of a coalition convoy in Sadr City on April 4, 2004 by Mahdi Army militiamen numbering over 1,000 men.

Mortar and rocket strikes

Another common form of attack involves hit-and-run mortar strikes on coalition bases, or on specific buildings in urban areas associated with the Iraqi government or coalition forces. Insurgents fire a few mortar rounds or rockets and quickly escape before their position can be identified and effective counter-fire directed. Insurgents use urban areas heavily populated by civilians as firing positions to discourage counter-fire, and in the countryside, palm groves and orchards are used for concealment.

This method is very inaccurate and rarely hits the intended target, since the guerrillas don't have time to aim properly, but casualties are still periodically inflicted by incoming mortar rounds and rockets (reportedly, due to the volume of fire). Improvised multiple-rocket launchers have also been used to target buildings in urban areas.

Attacks on helicopters

Since the beginning of November, 2003, helicopters have also been increasingly targeted. The insurgents, often concealed in palm groves, lie in wait for the helicopters and then, usually, attack the helicopter from the rear. The weapons used include rocket-propelled grenades and heat-seeking shoulder fired missiles such as the SA-7, SA-14, and in one case the SA-16. Countermeasures taken by helicopter pilots, such as flying very low at a high speed, have considerably reduced the number of helicopters shot down by reducing the accuracy of the heat-seeking missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.

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An Iraqi policeman guards a blazing oil pipeline after a sabotage attack in southern Iraq on July 3, 2004.


Insurgent saboteurs have also repeatedly assaulted the Iraqi oil industry. Guerrillas, using either rocket-propelled grenades or explosives, regularly destroy portions of oil pipeline in northern Iraq, and had expanded to southern Iraq by April, 2004. This sabotage diminishes the ability of the Iraq interim government and the foreign forces to operate in Iraq by reducing oil revenues. Among the reasons the insurgency gives for sabotage is to prevent American control of Iraq's hydrocarbon reserves.

In the early months of the occupation, oil pipelines repeatedly came under attack. The northern oil pipeline to Turkey was destroyed immediately following the U.S. announcement of the intent to ship oil out via that route, and on June 23, 2004 a major pipe junction leading to Syria and Lebanon was destroyed. Together these attacks crippled much of the ability to transport northern Iraqi oil. In the south, an attack on June 22, 2004 destroyed the main oil pipeline leading from southern oil fields to the Baghdad oil refineries. In addition, widespread looting, which contractors believe to be systematic and intended as sabotage, has crippled the attempt to bring production in the supergiant Rumaila oil field back up to speed. By April 2004, after the establishment of Iraqi oil pipeline police, production in the north and south oil fields had returned back to pre-war levels. The overall production was still 600,000 barrels (95,000 m³) per day below the pre-war level, and 2.8 million barrel (450,000 m³) per day below U.S. plans for 2004. A series of attacks in early June, 2004 again crippled production to near zero.

There have also been allegations of attacks on water pipelines and the electrical grid by the Iraqi insurgents, although there is controversy as to whether the incidents in question did indeed represent intended sabotage.

Suicide bombers

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Relatives mourn over the bodies of victims of a massive suicide car bomb in Baquba, north of Baghdad, which left a scene of carnage in its wake, mostly among civilians.

Since August, 2003, as the invading forces gradually strengthened their defences, suicide car bombs have been increasingly used as weapons by guerrilla forces. The car bombs, known in the military as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, have emerged as one of their most effective weapons, along with the roadside improvised explosive devices. They have a number of benefits for the insurgency: they deliver a large amount of firepower and inflict large amounts of casualties at little cost to the attackers. However the toll paid by the civil population is a high one.

Non-military and civilian targets

There have also been many attacks on non-military and civilian targets, especially since August, 2003. These include the murder of Iraqis cooperating with the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Governing Council, and suicide bombings targeting the U.N., the Jordanian Embassy, Shi'a mosques and civilians, the International Red Cross, the Iraqi police, Kurdish political parties, the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, hotels, Christian churches, and a restaurant. Militants target private contractors working for the coalition, as well as other non-coalition support personnel. The proportion of attacks on "soft targets" has steadily increased. The origin of the large-scale bombings is probably foreign fighters, former Iraqi secret service operatives, or a combination of the two.

Coalition officials and some analysts suspect that the aim of these attacks is to sow chaos and sectarian discord. Coalition officials point to an intercepted letter suspected to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which he makes the case for attacking Shi'a in order to provoke an anti-Sunni backlash and thereby galvanize the Sunni population in support of the insurgents, as evidence. While hardcore Wahabi mujahideen among the insurgency may indeed desire a sectarian war, other insurgents charge that the coalition is attempting to instill a fear of civil war as part of a divide and conquer strategy.

Assassinations and kidnappings

Assassination of local and government officials, translators for coalition forces, employees at coalition bases, informants, and other (so-called) collaborators has been a regular occurrence. Assassinations have taken place in a variety of ways, from close-range small arms fire and drive-by shootings to suicide car-bombers ramming convoys.

Kidnapping, and in some cases, beheadings, have emerged as another insurgent tactic since April. Foreign civilians have borne the brunt of the kidnappings, although U.S military personnel have also been targeted. After kidnapping the victim, the insurgents typically make some sort of demand of the government of the hostage's nation and give a time limit for the demand to be carried out, often 72 hours. Beheading is often threatened if the government fails to heed the wishes of the hostage takers. Several individuals, including an American civilian (Nicholas Berg) and a South Korean (Kim Sun-il), among others, have been beheaded. In many cases, tapes of the beheadings are distributed for propaganda purposes.

The goal of the kidnappings appears mainly to be to terrify foreign civilians into immobilization and to attract media attention and possibly inspire recruits. Most kidnappings have been conducted by radical Sunni groups, but a Shiite group, possibly indirectly linked to Jaish-i-Mahdi, kidnapped an American journalist in August of 2004. Aides of Moqtada al-Sadr successfully lobbied for the individual's release. The Mahdi Army, as well as the nationalist and more moderate religious elements of the Sunni insurgency, have rejected kidnapping as a legitimate tactic.

Attacks on the police

Insurgent tactic that has been increasingly used since April of 2004 include assaults and raids on police stations and compounds of Iraqi security forces, whom insurgents view as collaborators, involving platoon-sized elements or larger, oftentimes up to 150 men.

Raids and larger attacks

Assaults combining the following weapons and tactics, involving IED's, RPG's, mortars, and car bombs all at once, have increasingly appeared. Such raids and larger attacks have been advanced by Sunni insurgents in cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baquba and by Shiite Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad, Najaf, Kufa, al-Kut, Nasiriyah, and other central and southern cities. These attacks are usually coordinated and are meant to kill soft targets, to throw the Iraqi security forces into disarray, to conduct psychological warfare, and to draw out the coalition occupation forces. Guerrillas have also conducted large ambushes, including a coordinated ambush on U.S convoys in Sadr City by the Mahdi Army in April of 2004 that involved nearly 1,000 militiamen. However, these ambushes usually fail to result in heavy casualties for US troops, since most of the insurgent's weapons (such as most notably AK-47s and RPG-7s) cannot dent US tanks or supply vehicles.

Analysis and polls

A great deal of attention has been focused on how much support the guerrillas have among the Iraqi population and on winning hearts and minds. It appears as though the Iraqi insurgency retains a degree of popular support in the Sunni Triangle, especially in cities like Fallujah. The tribal nature of the area and its concepts of pride and revenge, the prestige many received from the former regime, and civilian casualties resulting from intense coalition counter-insurgency operations have resulted in the opposition of many Sunni Arabs to the occupation.

Polls indicate that the greatest support for the insurgency is in al-Anbar province, a vast area extending from the Syrian border to the western outskirts of Baghdad. This is for a number of reasons; many residents received employment and opportunities from the former regime, the area has a history of strong tribalism and suspicion of outsiders, it is religiously conservative, and it has seen civilian casualties from coalition counter-insurgency operations.

Some observers, such as political scientist Wamidh Nadhmi, believe that the major division in Iraq is not between religious/ethnic groups nor between the general population and violent groups, but between those who collaborate with the foreign occupation and those who resist it.

Outside the Sunni Triangle and in the Shiite and Kurdish areas, violence is largely eschewed. Many, however, especially in the Shiite community, although supportive of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, are very unhappy with the occupation. Farther north in the Kurdish areas, there is a great deal of pro-American sentiment and an almost unanimous distaste for anti-coalition violence. The situation is more complicated in the Shiite regions. Support for violent insurgency is notably less enthusiastic in the Shiite than the Sunni community since the Shiites, like the Kurds, saw persecution under the Ba'ath regime and from the Sunnis. Shiites having also been influenced by a moderate clerical establishment under Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that has advocated a political solution. However, Moqtada al-Sadr (a radical Shiite cleric who has advocated violent insurgency) has drawn support from a portion of the Shiite community, mainly young and unemployed men in urban areas. Sadr's support varies region by region; while likely drawing under 10% support in Najaf (a stronghold of the clerical establishment which was occupied by Sadr's militia and has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting), some polls have indicated Sadr's support among the Shiites of Baghdad may be as high as 50%. However, in the 2005 legislative election a party closely associated with Sadr's movement did poorly, bringing in only 0.8% of the votes.

Spontaneous peaceful protests have appeared in Shiite areas against the occupation. The Shiite intellectuals and the upper classes, as well as the inhabitants of rural regions in the south and followers of more moderate clerics such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, tend to cooperate with the coalition and the Iraqi interim government and participate in peaceful protest instead of violence. Many Shiites and Kurds suffered heavy persecution under the rule of Saddam Hussein's regime, which may cause a reluctance to use violence against Coalition forces. This is in contrast to the more radical Moqtada al-Sadr, who draws his support from the lower classes, the uneducated, and the Shiite urban population.

A series of polls have been conducted to ascertain the position of the Iraqi public further on the insurgency and the Coalition occupation. A poll in late 2003 showed that about one-third of all Sunni Arabs are staunch supporters of the guerrillas and consider armed attacks on occupying forces acceptable. In al-Anbar province, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, solid support for the Iraqi insurgency stood at 70%. Only about 10% of the Shiite Arab population supported violent insurgency. Support was very minimal for attacks on coalition forces among the Kurds. Curiously, the poll (which was supposed to cover an even distribution of the Iraqi population) showed more people stating that they are Sunnis (44%) than Shiites (33%), leading to speculation that the poll's sample was skewed. [13] ( The poll was also conducted before the spring 2004 occupation crackdown on the insurgency in Fallujah and the fighting in the Shiite heartland.

In another instance, in late January and early February 2004, a joint statement was distributed in leaflet form by a dozen insurgency organizations vowing to take control of Iraqi cities after occupation forces withdraw, and portraying the U.S's planned withdrawal as a defeat. Iraqi civilians' reaction to the statement were reported to vary widely, from being "hailed as the manifesto for a legitimate resistance movement" to being dismissed "as mere bravado."

A later poll (March-April 2004) found that 80% of Iraqis distrust the occupation authority and 82% disapprove of the presence of coalition military forces there.[14] (

U.S./Middle East historian Juan Cole assesses the recent outcome of the Najaf standoff of August 2004 as follows: The Americans (becoming more unpopular) and the Allawi government (viewed more as the indecisive neo-imperialist's puppet) are losers. Sistani has gained nationalist credentials as a national hero saving Najaf. Muqtada has neither lost nor gained. His southern cities slums movement is intact, even with a weakened paramilitary. [15] (

A Zogby poll in January 2005 found that 82% of Sunnis and 69% of Shiites want the US occupation to end. The poll also found that over 50% of Sunnis "believe that ongoing attacks in Iraq are a legitimate form of resistance."[16] (

On 9 April 2005, the two-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad (which the Iraqi government had declared a national holiday (, Al-Sadr supporters staged a demonstration in Baghdad's Fardus Square, where Marines had helped Iraqis pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The number of protesters in Baghdad was variously reported as "thousands" [17] ( to "tens of thousands" [18] (; some estimates even ran as high as 300,000 (,0,1677779.story?coll=la-home-world).

Scope and size of the insurgency

The most intense Sunni insurgent activity takes place in Baghdad and a triangle stretching west from the capital to the town of Ramadi and north to Tikrit in an area known as the Sunni Triangle. Guerrilla activity also takes place around al-Qaim in western Iraq and around the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk to the north, as well as some other areas of the country. Although estimates of the total number of Iraqi guerrillas vary, and the number itself likely fluctuates, the latest assessment put the number at 20,000, including both the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies. In November of 2003 the Coalition military and the U.S. CIA put the total number of core fighters at 5,000, along with a network of 20,000 to 50,000 active supporters. This included only the Sunni insurgents, since the Mahdi Army uprising had not yet occurred. The Iraqi police and insurgents have certain factors in common: they include a large number of veterans of the elite former military and security services, they are traditionally religiously conservative, and they have histories of strong tribalism. At various points, the U.S has provided estimates on the number of fighters in specific regions (although these numbers likely fluctuate).

In Fallujah, a major safe-haven and base area for the guerrillas and considered the center of the Sunni insurgency, it was estimated in April of 2004 that 2,000 guerrillas were present. There were reportedly over 2,000 in Samarra. In Baquba, another Sunni city north of Baghdad considered a major flashpoint, a June 2004 estimate put the number of insurgents at 1,000. In December of 2003, the Coalition military reported that it believed there were 1,000 insurgents in Baghdad (this number has likely grown larger, especially including the Shiite insurgency) and 2,000 in Samarra, another Sunni guerrilla center about 25 miles south of Tikrit.

Guerrilla activity also takes place in a number of other areas. One is the city of Ramadi, which has seen some of the heaviest and most skilled insurgency and is under guerrilla control, with the exception of about half a dozen small forts operated by the U.S. Marines. Another is the region around al-Qaim, a Sunni city near the Syrian border believed to be an infiltration route for non-Iraqi Arabs and Muslims. Insurgents are also contesting control of the ethnically diverse northern city of Mosul, and both Sunni and Shiite insurgents have been known to operate in Kirkuk, another northern city with religious and ethnic tensions. The rural belt of land along the Tigris river stretching north of Baghdad to Tikrit has also seen concentrated Sunni guerrilla activity.

Rate of attacks and Coalition casualties

Main article: Invasion and occupation of Iraq casualties

The total number of guerrilla attacks on coalition forces from June 2003 to March 2004 generally remained steady at between 12 and 20 attacks per day, with the exception of a surge of attacks in November 2003 during which as many as 50 attacks per day were reported on some days. The average number of attacks spiked to 70 a day during April, before stabilizing to 35–50 a day after the beginning of May, where it has remained since. As of June 16, 2005, 1714[19] ( U.S. soldiers and 89 British soldiers had died in Iraq, and 6442[20] ( U.S. soldiers had been wounded.

History of the Insurgency

Main article: History of Iraqi insurgency


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Supporters of Iraqi ex-President Saddam Hussein march in the streets of the northern city of Mosul on July 4, 2004 in protest of the Iraqi Special Tribunal.

In May of 2003, after the war to topple Saddam Hussein had officially ended and the Iraqi conventional forces had been defeated, the Coalition noticed a gradually increasing flurry of attacks on U.S troops in various regions of the so-called “Sunni Triangle,” especially in Baghdad and in the regions around Fallujah and Tikrit. These consisted of small groups of suspected guerrillas firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at Coalition patrols and convoys in attacks that were often poorly planned and demonstrated poor marksmanship and training. In many cases the insurgents were killed in the return fire. The attacks were blamed on remnants of the Ba’ath Party and the Fedayeen Saddam militia, and it now seems likely that these were the forces driving the budding insurgency at that time.

On December 13, 2003, Saddam Hussein was arrested, removing the leader of the Ba'athists, the Fedayeen Saddam, and others agents. On June 30, 2004, Saddam Hussein, along with 11 senior Ba'athist officials, were handed over legally to the interim Iraqi government to stand trial for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other offences. The first legal hearing in Saddam's case was held before the Iraqi Special Tribunal on July 1, 2004. Broadcast later on Arabic and Western television networks, it was his first appearance in footage aired around the world since his capture by Coalition forces the previous December.

Early 2004

The period from the end of November 2003 to the beginning of March 2004 marked a relative lull. It is believed that although some real damage was done to the underground insurgency, especially to the Saddam Hussein loyalists that had not yet given up the fight, this was mainly a period of reorganization during which new Coalition tactics were studied and a renewed offensive planned.

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A burst of tracer rounds emanate from U.S. Marine positions during fighting near Fallujah.

In the spring of 2004, some Iraqi security forces refused to fight against the insurgency and, in some cases, joined them in their uprising against the occupation. Though this period saw fewer guerrilla attacks, it was fraught with terrorist bombings taken to an entirely new scale. Attacks on Iraqi security forces increased both in brazenness, number, and lethality. Although the guerrilla attacks were less intense, the terrorist offensive, possibly connected to the followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, only increased. Hundreds of Iraqi civilians and police were killed over this period in a series of massive bombings. The bombings indicated that as the relevance of Saddam Hussein and his followers was diminishing, radical Islamists, both foreign and Iraqi, were stepping in to fill the vacuum.

The Coalition military had failed to develop significant and reliable human intelligence capability, while the insurgents continued to undermine efforts to do so by exploiting Coalition missteps for propaganda and through intimidation. A Sunni insurgency, with nationalist and Islamist motivations, was becoming clearer. Shiite dissatisfaction with the occupation, especially among the urban poor, had been gradually increasing for some of the same reasons it had been among the Sunnis: the perception that the coalition had failed to deliver on its promises and a nationalist dissatisfaction with foreign occupation. Over three months, over 1500 Mahdi Army militiamen, dozens of coalition soldiers, and hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed in the conflict. The Coalition gradually took back the southern cities. A truce was reached, temporarily ending the fighting.

Najaf hostilities

The insurgency did not go away. In August 2004, fighting in the south broke out again. The U.S. Marines, having taken control of the area around Najaf from the U.S. Army, began to adopt a more aggressive posture with the Mahdi Army and began patrolling zones previously considered off-limits. Soon, the Mahdi Army declared that the truce had been broken and militiamen launched an assault on a police station. U.S forces responded, and in the first week of August, a prolonged conflict broke out in Najaf (one of the holiest cities in Shi'ite Islam) over control of the Imam Ali shrine, often thought of as the holiest Shi'ite shrine in Iraq. Although much of the coalition fighting was done by US forces, it was anticipated that only Iraqi forces would enter the shrine. Negotiations with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shi'ite cleric in Iraq and leader of the Mahdi Army defending the shrine, did not resolve the standoff.

British troops in Basra also moved against al-Sadr followers, arresting four on 3 August. After the expiry of a noon deadline to release them on 5 August, the Basra militia men declared holy war on British forces. [21] ( On 12 August, British journalist James Brandon, a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph was kidnapped in Basra by unidentified militants. A video tape was released, featuring Brandon and a hooded militant, threatening to kill him unless US forces withdrew from Najaf within 24 hours. He was released after intervention by al-Sadr. [22] (, [23] ( While negotiations continued between the interim government and the Mahdi army, there were unconfirmed reports that al-Sadr had been wounded [24] ( In the following days, a delegation sent by Iyad Allawi was welcomed into the shrine to negotiate with al-Sadr. The members arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter and waited to meet with al-Sadr, but were eventually turned away without seeing him. Further information on the Najaf standoff can be found in articles on the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr.

On August 25, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arrived in Iraq and began travelling with a "peace convoy" towards Najaf "to stop the bloodshed." By the next day, an agreement brokered by Sistani seemed to come into force. Although the exact terms of the agreement are not clear, it requires the Mahdi militia to disarm and leave Najaf and U.S. troops to withdraw from the city; these forces are to be replaced by interim government security forces. An interim government spokesman said al-Sadr's supporters could join the political process and al-Sadr may remain free. These requirements are essentially the same as those under the truce agreed on in June. According to the agreement, Ayatollah Sistani would also take over responsibility for the Imam Ali Mosque; fighters would leave the shrine, and visitors would be allowed in. Additionally, the Iraqi interim government would agree to repair damage to buildings caused by the fighting. [25] ( Militia men began handing in their weapons after al-Sadr asked them to do so, and left the complex escorted by worshippers. The U.S. welcomed the agreement and vowed to respect a ceasefire. This resolution occurred two days before the one year anniversary of the assassination of Sayed Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a prominent Shi'ite cleric from Najaf.

Continued insurrection and the recapture of Fallujah

On August 30, insurgents attack pipelines and brought oil exports from southern Iraq to a complete halt. An oil company official stated this was part of a rebel campaign to undermine the nation's post-war reconstruction efforts. [26] ( On the same day, the French government refused demands of elements of the insurgency who had kidnapped two French journalists in Iraq (the French government insisting that a law banning Muslim headscarves in school would not be ended). [27] (,2763,1293758,00.html) Later that day, the radical Iraqi insurgency cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, called for a nationwide cease-fire. An aide to Sadr stated that the cleric would join the political process.

Throughout the end of 2004 the Iraqi insurgency continued attacks on coalition troops and Iraqi targets. Increasingly the violence was blamed on Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group Monotheism and Jihad was considered by many to be the most extreme of all rebel forces. It was widely believed that Zarqawi was operating out of Fallujah, the city U.S. forces had laid siege to in April of 2004, and calls within the U.S. military were made to allow the Marines to retake the city. On October 17 2004, Zarqawi reportedly took the step to declare allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in general, renaming his group from Monotheism and Jihad to al Qaeda in Iraq. Bin Laden from then on referred to Zarqawi as "the prince of Iraq." It is still unclear if the al Qaeda still nominally headed by bin Laden has given al Qaeda in Iraq any funds or support, or if it is even able to. But it is certain that al Qaeda has, if not a strong base, at least a powerful ally in Iraq.

Following the election of George W. Bush for his second term on November 2 2004, U.S. Marines that had surrounded Fallujah since the aborted April siege prepared to retake the city. On November 7, 2004 the Marines began an all-out assault on the city, swiftly capturing the crucial city hospital - where rebel forces had inflamed Muslim sensibilities by reporting high numbers of civilian causalties during the April battle - and the bridge over the Euphrates river where the charred bodies of two U.S. contractors were hung on March 31 2004. Within a week U.S. troops had killed an estimated 1-2,000 rebels, losing 38 Americans and six Iraqis from the Iraqi security forces("Marine General: Enemy is 'broken' in Fallujah" ( By the end of the first week, Marines commanders declared the city taken with only isolated pockets of resistance remaining. These pockets continued to fight on, but Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was not among them. According to U.S. sources, it is believed he escaped prior to the assault.

During November Mosul in northern Iraq also suffered a large uprising by Sunni insurgents, taking over police stations and overruning many government buildings. The uprising was, according to rebel sources, retaliation for the assault on Fallujah. Throughout November large numbers of Iraqi police were killed in Mosul, numbering, as some estimate, into the thousands. As Fallujah cooled down, U.S. forces shifted troops from the mopping up operations in Fallujah to Mosul, where they eventually restored order after battling further with insurgents.

The Insurgency and the New Iraqi Government

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi continued to be on the run, and U.S. forces came within hours of capturing him on at least one occasion. However, the insurgency that al-Zarqawi now appeared to be at the heart of continued, bombing U.S. troops and favoring suicide attacks on Shiite mosques and Iraqi security force recruits. On January 31 2005, Iraqis turned out in large numbers to vote for the first free election in Iraq's history. Few Sunnis voted, but amongst Shiites and Kurds the election was a huge success, and the insurgency's threats to disrupt the elections were for the most part muffled when violence did not tear apart the streets as promised. During the next two months the insurgency seemed to be regrouping from the defeats suffered in Fallujah, Mosul, and most recently at the elections. In late April 2005 the Iraqi government formed, and at the same time the insurgency launched a new offensive against Iraqi targets, continuing suicide attacks and car bombs. Throughout May of 2005 insurgents kept up a steady stream of attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces, killing nearly 600 Iraqi civilians and scores of American troops. The Iraqi government responded by clamping down on the capital of Baghdad with nearly 40,000 soldiers in Operation Lightning, an operation that was the first of its kind to be led by Iraqi troops. As June of 2005 continued on, the insurgency kept up its offensive with no signs of letting up.

Iraqi Insurgency Organizations

Major Iraqi guerrilla groups include, but are not limited to, the following:

An English article detailing the many insurgency groups: [28] (

External links and references

Middle East




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