In a year of combat, the Baath Party has demonstrated skill, resourcefulness and tenacity in its attempt to regain power. A year ago, tribal and religious leaders in Sunni Arab areas attempted to persuade Baath Party leaders to give up the fight and join a democratic Iraq. The Baath leadership responded by forming an alliance with al Qaeda to "expel the foreigners." To Western observers, this alliance seemed incredible. Baath and al Qaeda have very different goals. Baath is a secular, nationalist, socialist party. Al Qaeda is religious, and dedicated to establishing a world wide Islamic dictatorship. If the Baath/al Qaeda coalition succeeded in driving all the foreigners out, the two "victors" would then have to fight each other to determine whose vision of Iraq's future would prevail. The level of unreality among these two groups is difficult for Americans to comprehend.
The Baath/al Qaeda coalition did manage to increase the level of violence, with the number of attacks on American forces doubling from about 900 a month in late 2003 to 2,000 a month in late 2004. That has led to increased American casualties, with 348 American troops killed in the last four months of 2004. But the toll of Baath and al Qaeda fighters was even higher, some twenty times higher. Moreover, the real enemy of Baath and al Qaeda was the growing government security forces (police and army). While these forces grew rapidly in Kurdish and Shia Arab areas, the Sunni Arab minority (20 percent of the population) was attacked relentlessly by Baath Party and al Qaeda terrorists. Nearly all the attacks on American troops took place in Sunni Arab areas (mostly central Iraq.) This was a war that was wildly misreported by the media. It was fashionable to play down the Sunni Arab/Baath Party/al Qaeda angle and play up the idea of the mythical "Iraqi resistance." There was no Iraqi resistance, as the majority of Iraqis were at peace, behind their new government, and not very happy with the continued resistance in Sunni Arab areas.
Reality trumps mythology, and the continued Sunni Arab fighting is seen as a futile and foolish effort to revive past glories. That's the Western view. Arabs have a different reality. Captured Baath Party documents, and interrogations, reveal a strategy that really believes in the eventual return of the Baath Party to power. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has made itself very unpopular, especially in Sunni Arab areas, because most of the terrorist attack victims were Iraqis. Kurds and Shia Arabs would prefer a more aggressive, and bloody, approach to Baath and al Qaeda resistance. That may happen in 2005, as Iraqi security forces become competent enough to deal with the experienced (these are Saddam's old enforcers) Baath Party fighters. At that point, Iraqis will take care of their own problems. But in the meantime, American troops, while not taking most of the casualties, have to inflict the bulk of the damage on Baath Party and al Qaeda forces.
How long will this last? Not much longer. Areas of Baath Party control continue to shrink. Baath Party control was allowed to expand in 2004 as the government attempted negotiations with Sunni Arab leadership. This didn't work, as the Sunni Arab leaders were terrified by Baath and al Qaeda terror. The battle of Fallujah, and offensive operations throughout Baath strongholds in central Iraq, sharply reduced the extent of "safe areas" for terrorists. The government has not given up on negotiations with Sunni Arab leaders, but has ordered a military offensive in the meantime. The Iraqis are determined to hold elections at the end of January, 2005, with, or without, Sunni Arab participation. The attitude seems to be, if the Sunni Arabs would rather fight, or cower in their homes, than vote, then so be it. Sunni Arabs have tyrannized Iraq for too long, and most Iraqis are ready for a change.