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Chaos in Iraq: Understanding the Enemies Within

They’re at it again. Iraqis are killing each other in dramatic fashion. To most Americans, the violence in Iraq is pure chaos. It didn’t seem to make sense to me, until I put boots on the ground there a few years ago while rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. So let me try to break the code and explain what is going on. 

Most Iraqi citizens simply want a decent job, a good school for their children, a safe neighborhood, electrical service to their home and clean water to drink. That would level the playing field across most of the country. But some groups in Iraq want more. 

American troops faced three clear enemies during the insurgency: former Ba’ath Party loyalists, Shia militiamen and Al Qaeda terrorists. Elements of these groups still exist and are at the core of the fighting. We could tell which enemy was attacking us by where and how they did it. Some enemy attackers were in it for the money or power. Some were just criminals. Some were terrorists. It was a daily blend of bad actors, often using religion as a cover to hide their true motivations.

  • Ba’athists

Primarily Sunni Muslims who were loyal political followers of Saddam Hussein, Ba’athists were well educated and had held senior positions in the military and Iraqi society. During Hussein’s rule, the Sunni Ba’athist minority suppressed the Shia Muslim majority. Decrees later issued by Ambassador Bremer in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) stripped most Ba’athists of their former status and barred them from serving in the new military or government. They also lost control of Iraq’s major oil fields in Basrah and Kirkuk.

When the Iraqi Army was disbanded, many Ba’athists started the insurgency in the “Sunni Triangle”. They had everything to gain by pushing the Americans out of Iraq. They wanted to return to power and the former good life. Having the United States as a common enemy, they formed an alliance with Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI), providing the foreign terrorists with a safe haven to conduct their operations. As the military, political, academic and social elite, Ba’athists were tactically competent, smart and aggressive fighters. They often had nice cars; if a BMW raced up from behind you at 100 mph and someone sprayed your vehicle with 30 rounds from an AK-47, you can bet it was Ba’athists. They were also masterful at making car bombs and hitting Shia targets. 

  • Shia Militias

Many of these groups were loyal to the cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Although the Shia were the majority in Iraq, they were often denied education, electricity, and social services, and sometimes brutally suppressed by Saddam. While the Shia were initially thrilled when the US overthrew Saddam, they had mixed loyalties and many wanted to exact revenge on the Sunnis. Many felt aligned with predominantly Shia Iran. Some wanted Americans to leave immediately after Saddam fell, so they could control the country. But they lacked the technical competence to run the Iraqi government, military and critical industries.

Shia militias would often start uprisings in Sadr City, a slum in Baghdad with 2.5 million Shia and a stronghold for militiamen. The Shia had less tactical training and would take unnecessary risks, often believing their faith would protect them from harm, or their death would make them a martyr. If a fighter stood in the street – totally exposed with an AK-47 or an RPG pointed at you – it was probably a Shia militiaman. Their tactics and marksmanship were poor. Shia militiamen often died young, but they did so with style. For a few weeks, the Madhi Army militiamen wore white armbands as their “uniform” to distinguish them as an organized fighting force. That made targeting them much easier.

  • Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI)

Mostly foreign-born terrorists that came to Iraq to fight Americans, Al Qaeda probably numbered in the low thousands at their peak strength. But their effectiveness far exceeded their numbers. A stable and prosperous Iraq was not in the interests of AQI. Their strategy was to discredit the US and the Interim Iraqi Government by all means possible, including disrupting our reconstruction progress. They were not constrained by the Geneva Convention or held accountable for their actions by the UN, world public opinion or the news media. AQI teamed with and paid other Iraqi groups to attack Americans.

The core Al Qaeda members were ruthless and evil, totally committed and willing to die. Many volunteered to be suicide bombers. They slaughtered many innocent Iraqis who got in their way. They bombed markets, schools and mosques to inflict widespread fear. Their strategy was to create a civil war between Sunnis and Shia to completely destabilize Iraq and force the Americans to withdraw. That would leave Iraq open to be another terrorist safe haven. They had a propaganda arm and posted videos on the internet of beheadings and executions. They were unbelievably inhumane, and proud of it. Their senseless cruelty was later rejected by the Sunni Ba’athists who eventually turned on AQI.

We knew we were up against Al Qaeda if a car bomb drove up next to a convoy and detonated, or if all the teachers were murdered in front of their students soon after we completed the construction of a school. Drivers of reconstruction convoys were kidnapped by AQI and beheaded. If the owner of an Iraqi construction company, under contract to the United States, was followed home and murdered along with his family, it was probably at the hands of Al Qaeda.

This was the multi-faction war we saw every day in our struggle to rebuild Iraq, but few in America were aware of what was really happening. I hope this provides a better understanding of the Iraqi violence and the players when the next “breaking news” report is filed from Baghdad.


Kerry C. Kachejian is a combat veteran of Stability and Reconstruction Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of SUVs Suck in Combat: Rebuilding Iraq during a Raging Insurgency (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble)


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