TIME: The New Rules of Engagement

As the insurgency rages on, a TIME investigation reveals a new U.S. push to exploit splits in its ranks. Can that help lead to an exit?

The secret meeting took place earlier this year on the outskirts of Baghdad, in a safe house known only to the insurgents in attendance. One of them, an Iraqi known by the nom de guerre Abu Marwan, is a senior commander of the leading Baathist guerrilla group called the Army of Mohammed. Together with a representative of an alliance of Iraqi Islamist insurgent groups, Abu Marwan met aides to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The purpose was to discuss the idea of uniting under a joint command the disparate networks fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. When the conversation turned to leadership issues, Abu Marwan's companion suggested that al-Qaeda replace al-Zarqawi with an Iraqi, "as it would have an enormous impact on the other groups." But an al-Zarqawi aide rebuffed the notion. "Who started our organization?" he asked rhetorically. No one was prepared to ask al-Zarqawi to step aside.

That episode might seem inconsequential in a long and bloody war that's growing deadlier on the ground--20 service members died last week, including 10 Marines killed by a bombing in Fallujah on Thursday--and increasingly unpopular at home. Yet it reflects a critical new dimension to the war, a shifting tide within al-Qaeda and the broader insurgency. The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi and his network of hard-line jihadis have long been the driving force of the insurgency, transforming it from a nationalist struggle to one fueled by religious zealotry and infused with foreign recruits. But a TIME investigation, based on dozens of interviews with military and intelligence officials as well as Iraqi leaders inside and outside the insurgency, reveals that Iraqis are reclaiming the upper hand, forcing al-Zarqawi to adjust. Differences between Baathist insurgent groups and al-Qaeda are driven by discomfort with al-Zarqawi's extreme tactics and willingness among some Iraqi commanders to join the political process. U.S. officials in Baghdad confirm to TIME that they have stepped up their efforts to negotiate with nationalist insurgents and the Sunnis they represent. "We want to deal with their legitimate concerns," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad tells TIME. "We will intensify the engagement, interaction and discussion with them."

That doesn't mean the U.S. is any closer to getting out of Iraq. In a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., last week, President George W. Bush responded to mounting doubts about the war by offering a glowing assessment of the mettle and readiness of fledgling Iraqi troops, which the Administration hopes will steadily assume security duties, beginning with next week's national elections. At the same time, Bush refused to set a timetable for a pullout, pledging to "settle for nothing less than complete victory." Yet if that means staying until the insurgency is defeated by arms, U.S. troops should expect to remain in Iraq for a long time, no matter how well the Iraqis perform. "This insurgency has got roots, it's got money, and it's got motivation," says a U.S. intelligence official, in an assessment echoed by military officers and insurgent leaders alike. "And the life span of this insurgency could be years."

But it's becoming increasingly doubtful that Americans are willing to wait that long. In a TIME poll taken last week, 47% said they supported withdrawing most troops in a year or so, regardless of conditions in Iraq, while only 40% said the U.S. should stay until Iraq has a stable, democratic government. Half of those surveyed said the U.S. was wrong to go to war in Iraq, a figure largely unchanged for the past year. The U.S. doesn't have many options. Despite White House hopes that local security forces can relieve U.S. troops, intelligence officials are not nearly so optimistic that Iraqification will bring stability. "Will we ever see Iraqi security forces capable of crushing this insurgency? Probably not. No," says a high-ranking military-intelligence officer in Iraq. The dilemma is that the longer U.S. forces stay, the more the insurgency is sustained by new recruits, yet withdrawing now could allow al-Qaeda and Iran to consolidate their influence in Iraq, dealing a body blow to U.S. regional interests. Even Washington's staunchest political ally, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, says the U.S. is not winning and must have the courage to seek new solutions.

That's why U.S. officials in Iraq are reaching out to the Sunnis, the insurgents and former Baath Party members as part of a program to quell the violence by peeling them away from al-Zarqawi. "The fault line between al-Qaeda and the nationalists seems to have increased," says Ambassador Khalilzad. Here's an inside look at how those splits have started to emerge, how they are redefining the shape of the insurgency in Iraq--and why the U.S. is now turning to some of its old enemies.


After 31 months of fighting in Iraq, the U.S. still can't say for sure whom it is up against. Each week coalition forces kill hundreds of insurgents, but there is no end of replacements. U.S. commanders believe that as many as 20,000 fighters are in the field on any given day, a figure that has remained constant for almost two years. Many insurgent groups have become more tactically sophisticated and more lethal, and around 2,000 attacks are launched each month. Training facilities are dotted across Iraq; videos obtained by TIME show classes in infantry techniques and handling weapons. Abu Baqr, a former emir, or commander, of a nationalist militia in Baghdad who was recently released from a U.S. military prison and is rebuilding his team, tells TIME that "in the beginning, even I didn't know how to use most of the weapons, but I learned. We give out weapons from the old army, and the money that funds us comes from wealthy individuals."

Part of the insurgents' resilience comes from their fluidity. "The U.S. is not fighting an army," says Abu Mohammed, a strategist for a prominent Islamic nationalist group. "We hit and move. We're more like groups of gangs that can't be pinned down and can't be stamped out." The vast majority of those groups fall into a category the military dubiously refers to as Sunni "rejectionists." Mostly Baathists, nationalists and Iraqi Islamists, they oppose the occupation and any Baghdad government dominated by Iraqis sheltered from Saddam by foreign-intelligence agencies, such as Iran's or the U.S.'s. But they don't oppose democracy in Iraq. Many voted in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and have plans to participate in the Dec. 15 election. Few see a contradiction between voting and continuing to battle U.S. forces. "I voted in the referendum, and I'm still fighting, and everybody in my organization did the same," says Abu Marwan, the Army of Mohammed commander. "This is two-track war--bullets and the ballot. They are not mutually exclusive."

U.S. military intelligence believes that were it not for al-Zarqawi, the nationalists would have developed a political identity by now. Differences in means and ends have long caused friction among the odd bedfellows of the resistance. From the beginning there have been two wars fought in Iraq, one of liberation and one of global holy war. "Insurgency and terror are two different things," says Khalilzad. The divide was evident in Fallujah last year, when al-Zarqawi's foreign fighters dominated the city and the insurgency at large. They took over local militias' checkpoints and neighborhoods, even "arresting" leading Sunni insurgent figures. When the local clerical body, the Association of Muslim Scholars, refused to endorse his suicide bombings and beheadings of Western hostages, al-Zarqawi branded the association's leader, Harith al-Dhari, a coward. "In Fallujah [al-Zarqawi's] leaders were foreigners who'd come to be martyred," says Abu Marwan. "What did they care about the political process? Nothing."

Though al-Zarqawi's shadow still looms over the broader insurgency, the battle of Fallujah last November forced him to give his organization an Iraqi face. "Among the foreign fighters some dispersed, some were killed, some were captured," says Abu Marwan. And over the past year, U.S. operations against al-Zarqawi's organization have chipped away at its leadership structure and squeezed its sanctuaries. As a result, Iraqis who joined as low-level cell members have risen up the leadership chain. Abu Marwan says al-Zarqawi's aides told him their boss's three top lieutenants are all Iraqis. Another Iraqi operative is Abu Abdullah, who had worked on the security detail for one of Saddam's inner circle and joined an insurgent group formed from the Republican Guard following the U.S. invasion in 2003. After he was captured by the U.S. and sent to Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Abdullah enrolled in a prison-yard madrasah, or religious school; by the time he was released, he identified himself as a holy warrior for Islam. Today he is what the military calls a tier-two al-Qaeda leader, commanding cells in and around Baghdad.

It's through midlevel al-Qaeda operatives like Abu Abdullah, who retains ties to some of his former Baathist comrades, that nationalist groups have newfound influence with al-Zarqawi. "What he's now having to do is balance the hard-line ideology with the softer line of the Iraqis within his group," says Abu Marwan. Sunni insurgent leaders say it was their insistence on voting in the October referendum that discouraged al-Zarqawi from disrupting the poll. For now, the nationalists say they will be voting again on Dec. 15, and they expect al-Qaeda to once more hold its fire. But so far no announcements have been made, and nationalist commanders are worried that al-Zarqawi may decide to go for broke this time. "The debate is being had," says Abu Baqr, the Baghdad insurgent commander. "But soon the orders have to be given."


What does that mean for the U.S.? Ambassador Khalilzad says, "There is a reaching out to noncriminal Baathists." Evidence of shifts within the insurgency in some ways presents the U.S. with its best opportunity since the occupation began to counter parts of the Sunni resistance. Adopting the long-standing attitudes of secular Baathists, some Sunni leaders tell TIME they have lost patience with al-Zarqawi and would consider cutting a political deal with the U.S. to isolate the jihadis. "If the Americans evidenced good intent and a timetable for withdrawal we feel is genuine, we will stand up against al-Zarqawi," says Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars. "We already stood up against him on the Shi'ite issue, and if he doesn't follow us, it will be a bad path for him." Baathist insurgent leader Abu Yousif, who has met with U.S. intelligence officers, says, "The insurgency is looking for a political outlet--once we have that, we could control al-Qaeda."

U.S. officials are actively exploring political bargains that might induce nationalists to split with al-Qaeda, including an easing of restrictions on former Baathists' involvement in the new government. Khalilzad says it's time for the "excesses" in the de-Baathification process to be reversed, a call echoed by military-intelligence officials. According to Khalilzad, the U.S. believes that Baathists who committed crimes under the former regime should be tried and senior regime members barred from political office. "As far as the rest are concerned, the time has come to reintegrate them into the political process," he says. Moves have already begun to bring back the guts of Saddam's army, disbanded in the first months of the occupation. "We're reaching out to officers and noncommissioned officers that we're going to put in place in the new Iraqi army," says a U.S. military-intelligence officer, although he adds that the new army will be more "reflective" of Iraqi society than Saddam's was. Having the men they are fighting enter the government will be hard for some U.S. battle commanders to accept, the officer says. "But we're trying to shape an end state."

That's still a long way off. The willingness of moderate Sunnis to pursue a political solution could easily crumble if the next government in Baghdad fails to improve conditions in Sunni areas and clamp down on sectarian excesses by Shi'ite militias. And even if the U.S. can lure some guerrillas to the negotiating table, it still faces a seemingly inescapable quandary: so long as U.S. troops are involved in combat in Iraq, there's every reason to believe the insurgency will be able to recruit sufficient numbers of motivated new fighters to do battle with them. Rhode Island Democratic Senator Jack Reed, a former Army paratrooper who was briefed privately by military officials during a visit to Iraq in October, says U.S. commanders are striving for what some describe as "minimal compliance": establishing just enough stability so that "the country is not going to collapse [and] you're not going to have areas that are havens for terrorists" if U.S. troops begin to leave in large numbers. But merely getting to that point may require the sacrifice of more U.S. lives than most Americans are willing to bear. Says Reed: "One of the problems with an insurgency is that every time you turn a corner, there's another corner." The U.S. will have to turn a whole lot more enemies into friends before it begins to see the way out.