Does the Resistance Target Civilians? According to US Intel, Not Really

April 21st, 2005 - by admin

M. Junaid Alam / Left Hook – 2005-04-21 09:59:09

The ceaseless demonization of Iraqis committed to ending foreign control of their country is a key ideological crutch for maintaining the American occupation. Smearing the armed resistance as a band of murderous thugs is well understood by American war planners to be a crucial part of effective counter-insurgency work. (1)

Obviously, brutal and horrific attacks on Iraqi civilians have been carried out by some forces claiming to be a part of the resistance. But there is strong evidence from US government and independent intelligence data suggesting that this phenomenon has been wildly exaggerated and torn out of context, creating a false public perception that serves to prop up domestic support for the occupation.

Consider the intelligence report produced on December 22, 2004, by the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies, headed by Anthony Cordesman, titled “The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at end-2004.” (2)

Cordesman issues a blunt critique of US government blindness about the scope and nature of the insurgency: “[The U.S.] was slow to react to the growth of the Iraqi insurgency in Iraq, to admit it was largely domestic in character, and to admit it had significant popular support.”

The most intriguing portion of the report, though, is a set of statistics compiled about attacks carried out by the resistance from September 2003 to October 2004, organized by type of target, number of attacks, and number of people killed and wounded. The data, described as having been collected by an “NGO coordinating committee” is organized into a table in the report. I have culled the data specifically concerning “number of attacks/incidents” and presented it as a chart graphic contained in the clickable link below:

(Click here for graph)

One can clearly see that the number of attacks on “Coalition Forces” far exceeds that of any other category on the list. Indeed, attacks on military occupying forces, and by extension mostly US military forces, accounts for 75% of all attacks. Meanwhile, civilian targets comprise a mere 4.1% of attacks. This reality is at striking odds with the general picture painted in the press of a narcissistic, mindless and sinister insurgency simply bent on chaos and destruction.

It should also be noted here that while the CSIS is widely recognized and Anthony Cordesman regularly appears in the mainstream press, not a single one of the usual liberal outlets has picked up on the report, mentioned this statistic in particular, or discussed its political implications. This is probably because it poses a threat to their pro-occupation line and White Man’s Burden philosophy which posits Iraqis as too helpless to save themselves. The only publication to have examined this now more than three-month-old document is the Marxist monthly International Socialist Review. (3)

It is not possible to dismiss the statistics as a fluke. An April 11th New York Times article titled “US Commanders See Possible Troop Cuts in Iraq” is accompanied by a graph representing resistance attacks by number and by proportion for the period of March 2003 to March 2005, broken down into the following categories: attacks on US and allied forces, civilians, Iraqi forces, and other targets. The source of the data is the Defense Intelligence Agency. Because there is no direct link for the graph and because the Times’ online graphic is somewhat blurry, I have sharpened the image and posted it here for reference, again as a clickable link:

(Click here for graph)

Once more it is manifestly clear that attacks on civilians make up only a small fraction of overall attacks, on a consistent basis and over a sustained period of time. Notice also that even though the past few months has seen a massive effort to train new Iraqi security forces to fight the insurgency, the proportion of attacks aimed at the nascent US-trained Iraqi forces has hardly increased, if at all. Given that the formation of these new forces is largely composed along ethnic lines, the graph belies the notion that there has been some kind of massive outburst of sectarian attacks by the resistance.

Why have these developments gone largely unnoticed? One reason – or rather, excuse – is that even though military forces are the focus of an overwhelming majority of attacks, civilian casualties predominate. Looking at deaths and injures in the period examined by the CSIS report, we see that 451 “Coalition Forces” were killed and 1,002 injured, whereas 1,981 civilians were killed and 3,467 injured. The most obvious reason for this discrepancy is that bombing a group of Iraqi civilians in a marketplace will yield far more casualties than assaulting professionally trained soldiers backed by sophisticated military armor.

Cynical observers would insist that the discrepancy between distribution of attacks and casualties explains that distribution, as if there is some sort of overarching plot by the resistance to focus attacks on the military precisely because less resources are needed to kill civilians.

What Lies Behind the Discrepancy?
Such a view assumes, first and foremost, a central, unified command structure, and that does not exist. It also assumes that insurgents who are motivated to carry out careful, coordinated attacks in ways specifically designed to minimize their chances of death would gladly blow themselves up in the suicide attacks which have characterized the most deadly assaults on civilians: a ridiculous proposition unless we assume the insurgents are also schizophrenics.

Far more likely is that nationalist currents within the resistance confront and attack US forces and other symbols of the occupation whereas fanatical, opportunistic elements on the margins conduct spectacular, sectarian attacks which invariably garner sensationalistic media coverage.

US Paid Iraqis to Provide False Propaganda to Media
Indeed, Patrick Cockburn’s recent April 11, 2005 report from Iraq bears out precisely this assessment. He writes: “The split is between Islamic fanatics, willing to kill anybody remotely connected with the government, and Iraqi nationalists who want to concentrate on attacking the 130,000 US troops in Iraq.” Noting that “Posters threatening extreme resistance fighters have appeared on walls in Ramadi,” Cockburn quotes a Ramadi Sunni imam as saying, “[The fanatics] have tarnished our image and used the jihad to make personal gains.” (4)

And these fanatics are generously aided in their endeavor by an American government all too eager to characterize the entire resistance as beyond the pale. US intelligence agents in Iraq have admitted, for instance, to paying people off to make up stories about the fanatically anti-Shiite sectarian Zarqawi:

“We were basically paying up to $US10,000 ($A13,700) a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq,” one agent said.

“Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one.” (5)

The assessment that most resistance forces are not engaging in sectarian and brutal attacks on civilians is further supported by a major political event. On April 9th, a group of mostly Shiite demonstrators numbering perhaps 300,000, according estimates cited by the LA Times, flowed into Firdos Square where Saddam’s statue was removed two years ago and vociferously demanded an end to the American presence in Iraq.

In what Juan Cole describes as “the largest popular demonstrations in Iraq since 1958” (6) (assuming only 150,000 demonstrated), protesters burned Bush, Blair, and Saddam in effigy, chanting, “No, no to America! No, no to occupation!” One demonstrator captured the popular mood succinctly, declaring: “America is the mother of terrorism. All the explosions are happening because they are here.” (7)

Would such a massive number of Shiites have shown up to protest the occupation if they thought that most of the Sunni-based armed resistance, also opposed to the occupation, was trying to kill them? Indeed, a number of Sunnis joined the demonstrations, as some Sunni imams exhorted their followers to do so during Friday prayers. (8)

Ultimately, the combination of intelligence data, political realities on the ground, and some basic common sense point to the fact that the resistance is not the stereotypical horde of incompetent, crazed brown barbarians so often conjured up in the Western imagination. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can end the barbarism of the war itself.

M. Junaid Alam, 22, is co-editor of Left Hook (, and attends Northeastern University in Boston. He can be reached at


• 1. See the quote prefacing Mark Danner’s excellent article/report on Iraq, here:

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050409200742.iw5ba5fq.asp (French)

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