Our Iraq Mystery

A late night Iraq thought: One of the strangest things about the war is that we know virtually nothing about the people we’re fighting. Over the past couple of weeks, someone’s been slaughtering dozens of police officers, members of the Iraqi national guard, and other, near the city of Mosul. On Friday and Saturday, someone launched a wave of attacks that killed more than 50 and wounded scores more in Baghdad and Mosul. Someone attacked U.S. troops Friday and Saturday, too, killing at least half a dozen. Last month, we sent thousands of troops against someone we wanted out of Fallujah. Dozens of our troops died there along with hundreds of enemy fighters.

But just who’s carrying out all these attacks? How are they keeping this thing up after 20 months of fighting? Where do they get the fighters? The weapons? The money? Honestly, after reading the accounts of fighting for the past few months, it’s mostly a mystery. The labels attached to our enemies vary and have evolved: They used to be thugs, gunmen, and noncompliant elements; or sometimes Saddam loyalists or dead-enders. Now they are insurgents, rebels or anti-Iraqi forces (as well as the catch-all label, terrorists and murderers); sometimes guerrillas or even “resistors” as I saw on one web site. But those are all just labels. Some try to be neutral. Others are loaded with political or emotional spin. None really gets us to the nature of the people we’re trying to deal with.

Based on a story The New York Times ran the other day on intelligence our military says it gathered in Fallujah, here’s what we know about who’s responsible for all the above: Overwhelmingly, the fighters are Iraqis, with a sprinkling of foreigners mixed in. There are 8,000 to 12,000 “hard-core” insurgents, with another 8,000 closet insurgents rendering aid, for a total of 20,000. They are said to be a mix of ” former Baathists, radical Sunnis and Shiites, foreign fighters and criminals.” They get money from former Baathists and Saddam’s relatives; “Islamic charities” (the term the story uses) and donors in Saudi Arabia also move cash to the fighters through Syria. The story makes this unqualified and unattributed assertion: “The insurgency also has had no trouble recruiting new foot soldiers.” The article closes by saying that Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to speculate on the size of the insurgency. He did say that former Iraqi army and Republican Guard officers (cashiered en masse by the U.S. authorities soon after “mission accomplished”) pose the biggest security threat in Iraq now.

Does all that add up when you look at the continuing or growing ferocity of the insurgent attacks? That a group of guys who show up to fight in masks and tennis shoes, like a street gang that likes to pray a lot, a group of guys about half the size of the New York Police Department, is thwarting the will of the World’s Only Superpower and spreading mayhem over thousands of square miles on a daily basis?

At this point, you stop expecting anyone in the president’s group to talk straight to the public about what’s going on in Iraq. But you also start to wonder whether they talk straight among themselves about it, or whether they have any better idea of what they’re up against than The New York Times does.