Saddamists at Core of Iraqi Insurgency

The Baathist “dead enders” that Don Rumsfeld often talked about in the early days of the Iraq counterinsurgency effort comprise half the leadership and 40-50 percent of the membership of the insurgency even today.

Iraq's Most Wanted Poster The partial list of the Iraq government's new 'Most Wanted List' is displayed at a press conference, Sunday, July 2, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi National Security Advisor Dr. Muafaq al-Rubai announced the government's new 'Most Wanted List' of people who have been involved in crimes against the Iraqi people. The most-wanted list of 41 names includes Saddam Hussein's wife and eldest daughter, as well as the new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and one of the ousted president's closest allies. (AP Photo/Samir Mizban) The Iraqi government’s list of the 41 most wanted fugitives suggests that former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime form the backbone of the insurgency despite attention paid to the role of religious extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq. The list, released last weekend, includes at least 21 former regime figures, among them Saddam’s chief lieutenant, his wife, eldest daughter, two nephews and a cousin — allegedly financiers of the insurgency. Only five of the 41 names are clearly identified as members of al-Qaida’s local branch.

That reinforces the impression shared by a number of analysts that ex-Baath party members and former regime figures still play a key role in the insurgency. “I believe that former regime members form 40 to 50 percent of the insurgency,” said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups. “Operations by al-Qaida and the Mujahedeen Shura Council make between five to 10 percent only, a maximum of 10 percent.” Rashwan said there was “no doubt” that veterans of Saddam’s intelligence and security network form “an important part of the Iraqi resistance at the command level.”

U.S. officials have also said that the percentage of insurgents belonging to al-Qaida in Iraq was relatively small, although the organization has drawn more attention because of its worldwide image and its tactic of spectacular suicide attacks against civilians.

Brig. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, who leads Iraqi forces in western Iraq, said the large number of ex-regime figures on the list may be due in part to the fact that U.S. and Iraqi officials have more intelligence on them than on shadowy religious extremists.

Some insurgents could be part of both camps — ex-Republican Guard fighters and Saddam militiamen who gravitated to al-Qaida under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed June 7 in a U.S. airstrike.

Many former intelligence and security officials are believed to have joined the insurgency after former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer disbanded Iraq’s 350,000-member military on May 23, 2003, a month after the regime collapsed. “Saddamists are the largest group of insurgents and they give protection and shelter to other terrorists,” deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah said. “They finance them and supply them with weapons. They are the most dangerous.”

It remains clear that disbanding the Iraqi army–or, at least, failing to ensure that the soldiers had incomes while we sorted the wheat from the chaff–was the biggest mistake made since invading Iraq.

We’ve long known that the foreign terrorists comprise a tiny fraction of the “insurgency.” It doesn’t follow, however, that they’re irrelevant. From a morale and public relations standpoint–which is to say, the key elements in counterinsurgency–they are the most important faction. I’m quite sure that Saddam’s former soldiers aren’t a significant part of the cadre of suicide bombers.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    It remains clear that disbanding the Iraqi armyâ??or, at least, failing to ensure that the soldiers had incomes while we sorted the wheat from the chaffâ??was the biggest mistake made since invading Iraq.

    Yeah, whose idea was that, anyway?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Paul Bremer’s, apparently.

  3. Anderson says:

    WaPo, 11/20/03:

    The demobilization decision appears to have originated largely with Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense appointed to oversee Iraqi security forces. He believed strongly in the need to disband the army and felt that vanquished soldiers should not expect to be paid a continuing salary. He said he developed the policy in discussions with Bremer, Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

    “This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute and done at the insistence of the people in Baghdad. It was discussed,” Slocombe said. “The critical point was that nobody argued that we shouldn’t do this.” [Well, if you discuss a dumb idea with idiots, don’t be surprised if they all agree.–A.]

    Slocombe recalled discussing the issue with Wolfowitz on May 8 and with Feith several times, including on May 22, the night before Bremer issued the formal order. Trying to put the army back together at that point, he said, “would’ve been a practical disaster.”

    Beyond the practical difficulties of outfitting destroyed military bases, Slocombe said, an announcement that Hussein’s Sunni Muslim-dominated army would retain considerable power would have produced “huge problems immediately” among the country’s Shiite majority. Some at the Pentagon feared that the army could become an organized opposition to the U.S. military.

    Senior U.S. military officers in the Persian Gulf region said they had advised Slocombe that the dissolution of the army — recognized as an institution more loyal to Iraq than to Hussein — would harm U.S. strategy. Demobilization was “a very basic mistake,” said W. Patrick Lang, a retired chief analyst for Middle Eastern affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

    “In fact, most of the Iraqi army officers were nationalists, and they don’t want to see the country break up,” Lang said. He said carefully screened Iraqi units under U.S. control “would do much better against this enemy than we can.”

    Seems unlikely that “Some at the Pentagon” included any actual military officers.

    The WaPo account fits Bremer’s own insistence that Wolfowitz and Feith okayed the dissolution.

    Slocombe is quoted, though not credited as mastermind, on the subject in Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, p. 194.

    Of course, any notion that anything of this moment happened w/out Rumsfeld’s signing off on it would be silly. Packer comments (195) that the order “had [its] origins in the Pentagon, and, probably, the vice president’s office.” Interesting if true; given Rummy & Cheney’s close cooperation, it’s plausible, though I would like a source.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: Yeah, that article was the first one I pulled up Googling, too. But the lede emphasized Bremer’s role:

    Before the war, President Bush approved a plan that would have put several hundred thousand Iraqi soldiers on the U.S. payroll and kept them available to provide security, repair roads and prepare for unforeseen postwar tasks. But that project was stopped abruptly in late May by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, who ordered the demobilization of Iraq’s entire army, including largely apolitical conscripts.

    Bremer reversed himself a month later, but by then the occupation had lost not merely time and momentum but also credibility among former soldiers and their families, an important segment of Iraq’s population.

    No doubt Rummy had at least some say in the matter, though.

    Christopher Hitchens points out, too, that this was not a slam dunk:

    Can you imagine what the antiwar critics, and many Iraqis, would now be saying if the Baathists had been kept on? This point extends to Paul Bremer�s decision to dissolve the Baathist armed forces. That could perhaps have been carried out with more tact, and in easier stages. But it was surely right to say that a) Iraq was the victim of a huge and parasitic military, which invaded externally and repressed internally; and b) that young Iraqi men need no longer waste years of their lives on nasty and stultifying conscription. Moreover, by making it impossible for any big-mouth brigadier or general to declare himself the savior of Iraq in a military coup, the United States also signaled that it would not wish to rule through military proxies (incidentally, this is yet another gross failure of any analogy to Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, and all the rest of it).

    As I noted at the time, though,

    As a theoretical matter, I�d have preferred to have kept as much of the rank-and-file Iraqi army and police force as possible around for the manpower and to have an Iraqi face on the security operation. But there were some practical (most ripped off their uniforms and headed for the proverbial hills before our forces actually had control) and political (as Hitch notes) obstacles in that course.

    Given the post-WWII occupation experience, we should certainly have anticipated the consequences of trying to run a government without the locals with expertise, too.

  5. Anderson says:

    Given the post-WWII occupation experience, we should certainly have anticipated the consequences of trying to run a government without the locals with expertise, too.

    You would think. On the whole, it seems this was another brilliant brainwave from the Feith-Wolfowitz wing of the Pentagon, with Rumsfeld & maybe Cheney not really giving a damn either way, and of course no input from both the relevant civilian (at State) and military personnel who might have brought “reality” into the picture.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    So what you are suggesting was that keeping a large armed military force intact, one that was loyal to Saddam was supposed to be a good idea? Considering how well we understand Arabic, that would seem as wise as keeping the Waffen SS intact because they were an effective military force and would have prevented insurgencies. As long as Saddam is alive, those troops could not be fully trusted.

  7. James Joyner says:


    As opposed to the 100% trustworthy forces we’ve since recruited?

    And, while I understand not taking the equivalent of the Waffen SS, we wound up inviting back the equivalent of the Wehrmacht within weeks.

  8. Anderson says:

    So what you are suggesting was that keeping a large armed military force intact, one that was loyal to Saddam was supposed to be a good idea?

    The bolded assumption marks the flaw in the argument.