Bush administration officials have drawn a consistent picture of the
insurgents they have been fighting in the past 17 months of occupation:
religious extremists, "dead-enders" associated with Saddam Hussein and foreign
terrorists slipping across the country's porous borders.
But a wide range of interviews with Iraqis and U.S. officials here paints
a starkly different portrait -- a growing, intensely nationalist resistance
determined to remove U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.
"Rather than vilifying those who don't like us and rather than simplistic
rhetoric, shouldn't we be trying to understand what's going on, what many
Iraqis are thinking and try to address their concerns?" said an American
adviser in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Of course there are some terrible elements -- there are, clearly, some
al Qaeda adherents and some who use terrorist methods as well as some garden-
variety criminal elements -- but I just don't think it's good to categorize
them all as 'terrorists.' "
Iraqi critics say U.S. failure to distinguish between different elements
of the resistance has hampered its ability to secure the peace.
"One of the basic mistakes the coalition made was misdescribing those who
had decided to take up arms against the coalition and now the current interim
Iraqi government," says Sharif Ali bin Hussein, heir to Iraq's deposed king
and head of Iraq's main monarchist party.
"The resistance is basically from groups that were marginalized and
disenfranchised by the political process in Iraq when the United States
decided to impose its exile friends from abroad without giving a role to
ordinary Iraqis after liberation," he said.
Publicly, U.S. officials reject the notion that the resistance is being
nourished primarily by Iraqi nationalism, or that it is growing.
"I don't think the resistance is spreading," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen.
John DeFreitas. "There are a lot of places in Iraq that have bought into the
political process. And they're participating. That's a form of nationalism
also. I don't buy the idea that the resistance is nationalistic. Someone may
jump up and attack and say that this is for Iraq. That doesn't make it so."
One counterinsurgency specialist based in Baghdad suggested there was "a
marriage of convenience" between followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-
Zarqawi, criminals and some armed fighters.
In private conversations, however, some U.S. diplomats and military
officials say they have begun to distinguish between fighters such as the
Shiite Mahdi Army, loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and groups like
Zarqawi's, which have no interest in Iraq's future stability.
"We look at them all as forces from a simple perspective," one U.S.
general said at a recent background briefing. "From my perspective, they're
all threat forces. The motivation is different; the attacks are very similar."
Iraqi politicians say that the occupation authorities' focus on foreign
terrorists as the main element in the insurgency leads to dangerous
miscalculations. They cite an attack last month on the northern Iraqi city of
Tal Afar, a mostly ethnic Turkoman town crushed by the U.S. military in a
battle that left at least 120 people dead and 200 injured.
U.S. forces, saying they were barraged by attacks from the area, blamed
foreign fighters who had infiltrated a once-peaceful city. But Iraqis say the
residents themselves had taken up arms, angered by months of U.S. raids on
houses, arrests of innocent people and collective punishment.
"The situation was escalating," said Talat al-Wazan, an Iraqi nationalist
politician based in Baghdad. "The people would go to police stations and ask
for their relatives and hear nothing."
Tribal leaders telephoned Songul Shapouk, a Turkoman who serves on the
National Assembly, and promised to turn over any foreign fighters to coalition
forces, she said. Shapouk pleaded with Iraqi ministers and U.S. officials to
halt the attack.
"We told (the Americans), there are not foreign fighters there," said
Shapouk. "Don't attack this city. They are farmers. They are simple people."
Mohammad Qasoob Younis al-Jabouri, a leader of the Iraq Coalition Party,
and a delegation of several other Iraqis traveled to the city, hoping to
persuade the people to turn over any foreign extremists and stave off an
attack, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Mosul.
But instead of encountering foreign religious fundamentalists, he found
only his fellow countrymen -- about 70 fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and
rocket-propelled grenades. Though he could not see all the insurgents, he knew
the ones he met were locals because they all spoke Afriya, a Turkoman dialect
infused with Kurdish and Arab words that is unique to the people of Tal Afar.
The Turkoman are the third-largest ethnic group in Iraq after the Kurds and
"There were no Syrians or Jordanians or foreigners," Jabouri said in a
telephone conversation. "I saw only Iraqi citizens from Tal Afar."
The U.S. military, unmoved by the politicians' pleas, went ahead with the
attack, inflicting heavy damage on Tal Afar. In a press release after the
attack, the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry's Stryker Brigade declared a victory over
foreign fighters who they said had turned Tal Afar into "a suspected haven for
terrorists crossing into Iraq from Syria."
But U.S. officials privately conceded recently that no conclusive
evidence of foreign fighters was found in Tal Afar, or later in Samarra, which
was reportedly cleared of resistance fighters later in September.
Iraqi politicians do not dispute that foreign fighters are in their
country. Posho Ibrahim, Iraq's deputy justice minister, said in an interview
this month that the U.S. military has about 100 accused foreign fighters in
But they do not see the foreigners as the driving force behind the
Sharif, who was among the exiled Iraqi opposition figures who initially
supported the U.S. invasion, said the typical resistance fighter is a young
man with a military background who opposes the occupation but -- unlike the
foreign fighters motivated by religious extremism -- is not necessarily anti-
American or anti-Western.
Wazan said the resistance is led by 20 to 30 armed groups across the
"This (insurgency) is a justified action for any people whose country is
under occupation," he said.
© Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle