Can the Guerrillas Win?

Even supporters of the Iraq war must be asking themselves: Do the insurgents have a chance of reversing the victory our troops won?

Two soldiers killed and their bodies mutilated, we hear one day. Not mutilated, just looted, we hear the next. Two helicopters shot down a few days earlier in Mosul, (search) a city we thought we’d secured. And one fact looms large in almost every report -- that more American soldiers have died since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1 than during the war.

Slowly, the questions accumulate. Are we in too deep? Should we pull out? If so, when? How many casualties are “acceptable” to the American public? Is this another Vietnam?

A clearer look at the evidence suggests we’re closer to victory than one might suspect. The latest intelligence puts the number of active Iraqi guerrillas at 5,000 and sympathizers at around 50,000. The insurgents have plenty of firepower, including assault rifles, explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and a number of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. And their funding appears sufficient to pay young men as much as $5,000 to risk an attack against American forces.

But an insurgency requires several other elements to succeed: popular support, money, weapons and a safe haven to hide, train and plan. The Baathist (search) insurgency has adequate arms but little else.

The Pentagon says most of the insurgents are former Baath Party officials and other Saddam loyalists (search) and nearly all are part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, which represents about a fifth of the population. Most don’t figure to fare well in a new, democratic Iraq. Under Saddam, himself a Sunni (search), this sect held sway over the Shia (search) in the south, who account for 65 percent of the population, and the Kurds (search) in the north, who make up most of the rest.

Even now, the Sunnis have little influence outside the Baathist/Sunni triangle (search), which extends just north and west of Baghdad. Little terror activity occurs outside this area, and American generals say their best intelligence on the insurgence comes from other Iraqis fed up with the resistance.

Beyond spurring opposition to foreign occupation, the Baathists lack a credible ideology to inspire new recruits. Returning Saddam to power generates little enthusiasm anywhere in Iraq, and, according to a recent study by Baghdad University, 71.5 percent of Iraqis favor the occupation, at least on a temporary basis.

The guerrillas' strategies indicate their lack of support. They use tactics common in the first phase of an urban-guerrilla campaign, such as sniping, attacking vehicles or buildings with rockets or mortars, and planting explosive devices. But they appear to lack the popular support for other tactical options, such as provocative political activity, widespread demonstrations to disrupt government services or massing crowds to lure occupation forces into traps.

Where the guerrillas get their money remains a mystery. The best guesses include the Saddam regime's hidden wealth, private donations and perhaps backing from Syria and Iran. Corruption among Saddam's cronies reached mythic proportions, and former leaders still may be supplying funds, as may Tehran and Damascus -- noted state sponsors of terrorism.

But these flows of cash are easily enough stopped -- exhausted in the case of private donors and ended with international pressure in the case of Syria and Iran.

And so far, these insurgents have not secured sufficient safe havens to treat their wounded, train and arm recruits, and plan future operations. After Afghanistan, no neighboring countries, even those hostile to us, want any part of harboring terrorists. And with Kurds controlling the mountainous north and American forces holding sway in the deserts, their only hope is to operate from urban areas. But that requires overwhelming public support, which they don’t enjoy.

The biggest problem remains insurgents’ access to weapons. Iraq under Saddam had strict gun-control laws, but they didn’t apply to government loyalists. Shortly before the war, Saddam issued thousands of small arms to militias in hopes they would mount a Somali-like resistance against Americans. Also, we made a tactical mistake by disbanding the Iraqi army before we had disarmed it or secured its weapons dumps. Captured insurgents continue to turn up with weapons from those dumps. Coalition forces seek to regain control of those weapons, but they probably won’t finish before the post-occupation government takes power.

The insurgents are riding high now thanks to a shaky transition, plenty of available weaponry and good intelligence. But they lack the popular support, compelling message or safe havens critical to maintaining their success. Americans need to maintain their resolve and work to maintain the support of the Iraqi people. As we gain experience and Iraqi forces become more involved in the battle, the weaknesses of the guerrillas will defeat their insurgency.

Dana R. Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institution.