Iraq: terrorism or “honorable resistance”?

This July 14 commentary from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty provides some long-overdue real analysis on the Iraqi insurgency. While the anti-war movement either ignores or glorifies the blood-drenched and reactionary “resistance” in Iraq, RFE/RL, funded by the State Department (which, unlike the anti-war forces, actually has something invested in the outcome in Iraq), at least looks at the question squarely. We cannot share their call “for Arab states to take action against insurgent Islamist groups”—if the death-squad regime in Iraq is a template for fighting Islamist resistance throughout the Arab world, we are looking at a future nearly too horrible to contemplate. But anti-war activists who are serious about actually understanding what is going on in Iraq would do well to read—and grapple with—this analysis.

Iraq: Blurred Line Between Terrorism And Honorable Resistance

By Kathleen Rido

Community leaders in Iraq have been calling for months for a distinction to be made between two core groups that both call themselves “honorable resistance.” The first group is the so-called nationalist forces — former Ba’athists and other secular Sunni groups. The second group consists of a number of Sunni Islamist groups including Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Tanzim Qa’idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn; the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, Muhammad’s Army; and the Islamic Army in Iraq.

Iraqis are debating whether any “honorable resistance” exists in the country, as both Hussein loyalists and Islamists are responsible for the kidnapping, rapes, and killings that are carried out daily under the banner of “resistance.” The fact that ordinary Iraqis have borne the brunt of the attacks has meant that much of the homegrown support for the resistance that previously existed has now dwindled.

The problem, many Iraqis say, is that the insurgency’s goal is convoluted; none of the so-called resistance groups have ever offered up a clear ideology. The “honorable resistance” that includes “nationalist” Sunni Arab forces claims their goal is to drive multinational forces from Iraq. Al-Zarqawi and other hard-line Islamist groups claim the same goal, but add that their intention is to form an Islamic state in Iraq. The difficulty in separating these two strands comes in the fact that both are responsible for unbridled attacks against civilians. Moreover, al-Zarqawi justifies the targeting of civilians by defining his enemy as “anyone who cooperates with multinational forces or the transitional government,” without offering any real differentiations to support his position.

Al-Zarqawi Enters The Debate

The Al-Qaeda leader has entered the debate on the honorable resistance himself, claiming in a 5 July audiotape attributed to him on the Internet ( that only those armed fighters in Iraq that belong to his group should be labeled “honorable resistance”:

“The honorable resistance is the one that makes its jihad an international jihad not based on color, race, or land, for the believers are all one nation whose blood is of equal worth…. It is not the so-called resistance that bases its objectives on the Sykes-Piko[t] borders…. The honorable resistance is the one…that rose up and pushed itself and relied on God…not the resistance that every time it suffers a hardship or tribulation, it lost its way and sought help from anyone…. [The honorable resistance] is not the resistance that…does not mind befriending and cooperating with those that disobey God and His Messenger for the sake of realizing some interests and gains. Those who were described as not belonging to the honorable resistance are the ones who have been fighting for the sake of God for more than two years…they are the ones who sacrificed their scholars, leaders, and cadre. Upon whose shoulders did the battles of Al-Qa’im rest? Whose blood was spilled in Al-Ramadi, Al-Fallujah, and Al-Hadithah?”

For al-Zarqawi, the ultimate betrayal of his cause has come from those Islamic scholars who criticized his insurgency in Iraq. “Is this what our scholars can produce?” al-Zarqawi asked in his statement. “How long would the scholars continue to avoid the battlefields of jihad, issue the rulings and counsel while they are distant from the reality of this nation?”

What To Do?

While most Iraqis critical of the nationalist insurgency agree that the only option now for the Sunni Arab-led nationalists lie in them joining the political process, many Iraqis remain torn about how to reconcile that with some 30 years of Ba’athist oppression and the past two years of devastating attacks against Iraqis in the name of resistance. Iraqi commentaries in the media tend to consider the reported talks between multinational forces and insurgent groups as an insult to civilians who have suffered at the hands of these groups. Some Iraqi newspapers have criticized the talks, saying that such discussions equate to U.S. support for bringing back the Ba’athist regime.

Shi’ite Arabs have found it particularly disturbing that such talks would be carried out without the participation of an elected Iraqi government, and the transitional administration has been quick to disassociate itself from the talks.

While a few Iraqis have called for a public reconciliation, it is unlikely at this point in time to be a real option. The regime loyalists that make up the “nationalist” insurgency are in no way apologetic for the crimes of the Hussein regime, let alone the crimes carried out in the name of resistance over the past two years.

Sunni Arab “nationalists,” by failing to disassociate themselves from the likes of al-Zarqawi — even if innocent from the crimes that are attributed to them — have by default implicated themselves by not making any real distinction between their cause and the cause of the Islamists. Should these nationalist resistance fighters lay down their arms and join the political process, they will find themselves vulnerable to attacks by pro-regime and Islamist forces opposed to such action. They could also find themselves vulnerable to Shi’ite and Kurdish groups seeking revenge. The current environment essentially leaves Sunni Arab resistance groups willing to lay down their arms stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Courting The Arab World

The Arab world, whether ready or not, is being pulled into the debate with growing frequency. A number of prominent Iraqis have called on Arab states to take firm positions against insurgent attacks in Iraq, claiming that the portrayal of terrorism as resistance in the Arab media has deluded many Arabs.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arab religious leaders, such as Muslim Scholars Association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari, have called on regional powerhouse Egypt to publicly recognize the right of the Iraqi people to resist occupation.

The Iraqi government has attempted to pressure Arab states to do more than pay lip service to the transitional Iraqi government by offering concrete assistance and through opening embassies on the ground. The kidnapping and killing of an Egyptian envoy by al-Zarqawi’s group was meant as a clear warning signal to Arab governments not to establish relations with Iraq.

An 11 July commentary in the “Jordan Times” offered up advice to non-Islamist insurgents in Iraq, while offering continued support for the insurgents’ cause. The commentary suggested that if the goal of “nationalist” insurgents is to drive multinational forces from Iraq, then civilians should no longer be targeted, since such attacks garner little support for their cause.

Iraqi commentators have called on the region’s Islamic leadership to take a decisive stand on terrorism through a fatwa (religious edict) “before Iraq is destroyed.” Muslim leaders stopped short of commenting on terrorism in a meeting in Amman, Jordan last week.

The three-day meeting brought together Islamic scholars from the eight Sunni and Shi’a schools of thought. Participants did, however, state emphatically in their final statement that fatwas should only be issued by clerics with religious authority. They also agreed that Muslims cannot label fellow Muslims as takfir (apostates), nor can Muslims kill fellow Muslims for what they deem “religious reasons.” Islamist fighters in Iraq have regularly justified attacks on civilians in Iraq by labeling their victims apostates. Al-Zarqawi’s group has gone so far as to label all Shi’ites apostates, and has established a unit to assassinate Shi’ite members of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq’s (SCIRI) Badr Organization.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, meanwhile, has called for a meeting of Arab interior ministers to produce a unified stance on the issue of terrorism. Such meetings, however, produce little real change. What is really required is for Arab states to take action against insurgent Islamist groups working for Iraq within their borders. Few states are likely to do so, however, fearing a backlash at home.

For Iraq, the consequences are dire. If the Iraqi “resistance” continues along the same lines, all Sunni Arabs in Iraq will, at some point, pay the price. The Sunni Arab community in Iraq needs to put action behind their outright condemnation of the so-called “resistance” by turning in armed fighters and demonstrating against the terrorism currently taking place. While it appears that public support for the tactics employed by the “honorable resistance” is waning, it is likely that the tide will only turn when there is a blanket change in the mindset of Sunni Arab Iraqis.

There are enormous consequences for the Arab world as well. States who do not take a firm position on terrorism must accept that at some point, Al-Qaeda will turn and target the Arab regimes, as the group expands its mission to depose what it sees as tyrannical Arab regimes and establish Islamic rule. Some regimes — such as Syria — may have falsely assumed a future immunity by their current aiding of Islamist terrorists. Stagnant economies lead to extremism and with more than 50 percent of the Arab world under the age of 18, more and more young people are susceptible to Islamist extremism. Arab leaders, meanwhile, appear to be under the delusion that if the fight is in Iraq, it won’t be fought at home.

Also worth checking out is a May report from the Project on Defense Alternatives, “Vicious Circle: The Dynamics of Occupation and Resistance in Iraq,” which provides ample documentation on how US counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq are paradoxically fueling the insurgency. But the report fails to grapple with what is actually to be done. And as we have repeatedly argued, the current anti-war position of “Troops Out Now” is insufficient—it amounts (at best) to a cynical Pilate-like washing of the hands and walking away, leaving Iraqis to deal with the mess our government has made of their country.

See our last post on Iraq, and on the politics of Islamic extremism.

    1. “Consumerist heaven”? Not for all of us, dude.
      We agree that the left in the West is stuck in its own ideological quagmire over Iraq, but I think we would disagree on its precise nature. Hey, your pals “fighting for national liberation” in Iraq just killed 98 Iraqi civilians. (Reuters, July 17) Or was that the CIA?

    2. Assumptions galore
      This analysis of the Iraqi quagmire is just the sort of biased, assumption-filled nonsense that belches forth from both the Left and Right. Namely:
      The Corporate Elite with long-term goals is responsible for Iraq. I thought it was the U.S. and U.K. which invaded.
      Iraqi civil rights have been curtailed. Curtailed since when? Since Saddam’s regime? Hard to imagine civil rights being more curtailed than under him.
      Iraqi water and soil contaminated by depleted uranium.Where are the figures of proof? Radiation samples? Increase in cancer unexplainable by other factors?
      The U.S. government has imported foreign fighters to join the resistance and kill U.S. soldiers.Where is your proof of this? It is so outrageous a claim that it must be proved.
      Americans have no intention of getting out of Iraq.Again, proof of this claim is needed. When did George B. or Donald R. say this?

      Overall, you give the U.S. gov’t far too much credit. You paint a complex plan, run by the corporate elite (whoever that is), with a double goal of splitting up Iraq into fiefdoms AND luring Muslim fighters to their death at the hands of Shi’ites. Well, Iraq is still whole with absolutely no talk or even hints of splitting it up. If that were the long-term plan, then those in power would have hinted at it by now.
      And the idea that part of the plot is to lure jihad-oriented Muslims to Iraq to kill them? I don’t think much of the Bush Administration’s ability to reasonably plan much of anything, but this is too stupid even for them. Internal suppresion of such people by gov’ts like Egypt and Jordan do far more to neutralize jihadists than getting them all excited and then luring them to some killing field.

      Here’s another theory: Based on flimsy evidence of WMDs, the feeling that Saddam would present some kind of danger some day, that waiting around for enemies to attack results in events like 9/11, the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and has made a has of the job, believing their own propaganda that it would be quick and easy.
      This theory is backed up by reported events and simple analysis. It makes more sense than yours, or at least requires less conspiracy theory thinking.

        1. Whoops! Yes, made a MESS of the job
          Sorry, sorry, I’m starting to type like a conspiroid, i.e., absent-mindedly, no spell checking, lacking sense, etc. Yes, I meant to write “made a mess of the job.” Thanks for catching that.

          1. Do you mean…
            “starting to type like a conspiranoid“?

            Sorry to be pedant. I apppreciate your comments, even if I’m a bit more paranoid than you are.

            1. Typing the word conspiranoid
              I guess I meant to type “conspiranoid”, because I thought that was what you said. I stand corrected. I was about to wag my finger at you and say that name-calling, even when clever, only alienates those you are trying to reach. But hey, I tried to do it myself, so who am I to talk?
              I like your web site, a bit of reason is welcome in the overall discussion. I wandered into the whole quagmire of 9/11 conspiracy theories because an acquaintance of mine, a British Muslim, believes in all of them, including that the London bombings were done by some combination of Israeli, British and possibly American interests. See So, I thought I’d look up what the theories are and, whooowee, there’s a lot of them. It’s seems that your site is some attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff and it’s a nice break to read something by someone who is not a true believer on either side.

              1. Well, whaddaya know?
                Always nice to hear from someone who “gets” what we do. Again, your comments are appreciated. Name-calling is a poor substitute for argument, but it can help add zest to arguments, especially when you come up with as accurate a neologism as “conspiranoid.” Another of our favorites is “megalopig.”

                1. Moussaoui and words
                  A fairly clever word invention by Mr. Moussaoui. What is his education? No matter, but the use of that single word makes him more interesting, more human, which then invites puzzlement as to how he can be what he is. Then again, Pol Pot was a school teacher who spent a couple of years studying in Paris. How could anyone be bitter/bloodthirsty after that?
                  Moussaoui’s coinage indicates some knowledge of Greek, as starting from English one would be more likely to say “megapig”. Had he said “megalochoiros”, I would start searching Athens for a freaky Al-Quaida connection.
                  Well, keep up the good work while realizing (given the amount of dreck available in the WWW world) that the inmates are running the asylum, or are at least have too many keyboards and time on hand.