Zarqawi Followers Clash With Local Sunnis

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, May 28 -- For four days this month, U.S. Marines were onlookers at just the kind of fight they had hoped to see: a battle between suspected followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a foreign-born insurgent, and Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters at the western frontier town of Husaybah.

In clashes sparked by the assassination of a tribal sheik, which was commissioned by Zarqawi, the foreign insurgents and the Iraqi tribal fighters pounded one another with small weapons and mortars in the town's streets as the U.S. military watched from a distance, tribal members and the U.S. military said.

When a stray mortar round accidentally hit near the Marines, Lt. Col. Tim Mundy recalled, "they'd adjust their fire, and not shoot at us" for fear of drawing Americans into the fight. "They shot at each other," he said.

The only reported damage to the U.S. side occurred when small-arms rounds struck a helicopter as the curious American crew drew too close to the fighting below.

The Sunni Arab tribe involved in the clashes, the Sulaiman, lost four men, Salman Reesha Sulaiman, a member of the tribe, said in an interview after the fighting, which occurred during the first week of May.

On the Zarqawi side, 11 foreign fighters were killed outright, plus an unknown number of other foreign fighters and their Iraqi allies in U.S. bombing runs after local tribes tipped off their location to the Americans.

The fighting at Husaybah was a dramatic sign of the fractures in support and allegiance the foreign fighters are experiencing, several Iraqi political leaders and other Iraqis said. The battles also revealed what appeared to be fissures within the network's top leadership, they said.

At week's end, contradictory statements about Zarqawi's health posted on Web sites left in doubt whether he was even alive after his lieutenants announced that he had been wounded in battle with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The experiences of Husaybah's residents illustrate why tension has emerged between local Iraqis and the foreign fighters.

Families who had the means to escape the town began to flee in April, as Zarqawi's followers started building up their operations there, a Husaybah educator said. His name was withheld because of the threat of retaliation.

Zarqawi's fighters squatted in the newly abandoned homes, eating the food that the families left behind, the educator said. He said foreign Arabs had ordered women in the town to wear all-enveloping scarves and robes and forbidden young men to wear Western clothes. The outsiders closed music stores and satellite-dish vendors, he said.

"I am convinced and confident that the Americans will be able to get rid of these paupers without shedding blood of innocent people," said Alaa Muhammed, a resident of Husaybah. "We have become prisoners and slaves here."

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