If the U.S. military had just one "wanted" poster to hang in this northern city, the current insurgent hotspot, the picture would be of Mohammed Sharkawa. Sharkawa is described as...

Share story


MOSUL, Iraq — If the U.S. military had just one “wanted” poster to hang in this northern city, the current insurgent hotspot, the picture would be of Mohammed Sharkawa.

Sharkawa is described as a former member of the Ansar al-Sunna organization who now directs several hundred insurgents in Mosul. As one commander, who said Sharkawa had killed several of his own cousins, put it, he is “a brutally ruthless criminal, almost like a mob wiseguy who started whacking dudes.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“Right now, if we could get one guy off the street in northern Iraq, he would be the guy,” Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the top American commander in Mosul, said. “He is the organizer for a number of operations up here.”

Yet Sharkawa represents only one face of the insurgency. He works for jihadist goals, but the other major movement is secular, the Americans say. However, both have a common goal: disrupting the Jan. 30 national parliamentary elections and intimidating prospective voters.

In Mosul, the insurgents’ main focus has been terrorizing Iraqi residents and killing in brutal fashion those believed to work with Americans.

More than 100 people — many in the Iraqi national guard or Iraqi army — have been shot in the head execution style, or decapitated, burned, dismembered or otherwise killed in the last month. The killers order that the bodies not be moved, to spread word of the deaths — and the people obey, until American troops arrive with body bags.

Insurgents also burned three-quarters of the city’s election registration materials, sending officials scrambling to sign people up.

Sharkawa, the commanders say, is a leader of the Salafists, or extremist Islamists who want a government so weak that the vacuum allows a Taliban-style theocracy to develop locally. That happened in Fallujah, which was ruled by an ad hoc fundamentalist government from summer until the Marines invaded in November. The Salafists are working with a quite different group, commanders say, made up of Saddam Hussein loyalists and others from his Baathist party who want to regain power by promising a return to the “stability” of Baathist rule. Saddam loyalists “differ significantly from the religious extremists, who don’t want any strong government,” Ham said. “What they both want now is instability and insecurity.”

Other insurgents here identify with the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida. According to American military statistics compiled after the invasion of Fallujah, nearly 500 of roughly 700 fighters in Iraq aligned or connected with al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida live in or around Mosul, a city of 2 million.

In the assessment, the most detailed picture of the Iraqi insurgency to be made public, military officials estimate that 11,000 to 20,000 insurgents were spread throughout Iraq. Of that number, 700 to 1,200 fled Fallujah in November just before the invasion, the assessment says.

The largest group remains loyal to Saddam: Some 2,200 or more insurgents are classified as “hard core” supporters of the former ruler. Another 6,100 or more are “part-time” supporters, a designation one military official said included those paid to carry out rocket-propelled grenade and other attacks on American troops.

In addition, as many as 2,900 “Shia extremists” — including rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia — operate mostly in Baghdad and southern Iraq, while 1,200 or more “extremists” who do not identify themselves with al-Zarqawi or al-Qaida are also part of the estimates.

The figures were compiled from data from each of the seven military commands in Iraq using observations by troops, interrogations and other intelligence, said one military official, who emphasized the data were rough calculations and that the estimates are ever-changing.

“We continue to learn each day that these guys are smart, they’re tough and they are committed,” said Col. Tom Knight, the deputy commander of American troops in northern Iraq. “When we deal them a tactical military defeat, they come back and counter with something like a diffused intimidation campaign. I can’t sit here and tell you that we’ve overcome their best efforts yet.”

Yet commanders also say there are more hopeful signs: Commerce is returning, and the markets of Mosul are busy, while American and Iraqi forces are getting better tips about insurgent activities. Important captures have been made recently, including a top al-Zarqawi lieutenant, Abu Saeed. More than 200 insurgents have been killed in Mosul in the past month.

Equally significant is that fewer anti-American Iraqis exist or appear willing to do battle. It used to cost just $50 to hire an Iraqi youth to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at American troops; it now costs $100 to $200, Ham said.

But the increase is small compared with the amount of money that insurgents have at their disposal — mostly cash that is driven by car or truck into the country from Syria, Ham said, where scores of senior Baath party officials and Saddam apparatchiks fled after the American invasion last year.

“They’re not hurting for cash,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

With so much money flowing in past easily bribed or intimidated border guards, the insurgents have been able to keep refilling their ranks of low-level or part-time mercenaries while their leaders hide in the dusty warrens of Old Mosul district or the Yarmouk neighborhood.

The secular and jihadi wings each have a few hundred core operators in Mosul, but “the fighters who can be rented out probably number in the thousands,” Ham said.

Each group operates with sophisticated leaders careful to stay in the background while relying on part-timers to carry out attacks and killings on a pay-by-assault basis, according to American officials.

“The hard core group is quite smart; they get others to do their work for them,” Ham said. “All the dumb guys are dead or in jail. The surviving leaders are very competent.”