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."
Zarqawi's group ordered the assassination of the Sulaiman sheik after the tribal leader invited Marines for lunch to show goodwill between his people and the Americans, said Salman Reesha Sulaiman, the tribal member. He said Zarqawi's group asserted responsibility for the killing in a statement.
That killing touched off the clashes between foreign and tribal fighters, with Husaybah as the battleground.
Now, only residents too poor to escape remain in Husaybah.
"The people fled because they are afraid to have the same fate of Fallujah," the educator said, referring to a U.S. assault that leveled much of that insurgent-occupied city in November.
For a Zarqawi fighter in Husaybah, the comparison was something to brag about.
"Husaybah now is considered a new Fallujah in everything, and we are proud of that," said an Iraqi follower of Zarqawi who identified himself as Abu Obaida Kubaisi. If Americans make a move on Husaybah, he said, 250 Arab fighters are ready for suicide attacks.
"We are like Tom and Jerry with the Americans, because whenever we go to an area, they follow us," he said. "Eventually, the mouse wins."
Two large-scale Marine offensives in Anbar province, the large western region that borders Syria and includes Husaybah, have forced the insurgents to scatter, military officials say. The second offensive continued Saturday in another alleged Zarqawi stronghold, Haditha.
As that offensive played out this week, Zarqawi's fighters and lieutenants announced in interviews and on the Internet that he had been injured in earlier fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Zarqawi's aides described him as gravely wounded and said he was helping pick a successor from among his foreign and Iraqi followers.
There was widespread skepticism about the insurgents' announcements. For one thing, many in the U.S. military cite insurgent reports that Zarqawi has instructed his aides to kill him in any clash that risks letting him fall into American hands.
Iraqi government officials also say the fact that Zarqawi's lieutenants announced that he was incapacitated suggested a power struggle within the insurgency -- among foreign fighters, and between foreign fighters and allied Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgents.
Foreign fighters and Iraq's Sunni insurgents are believed to have worked together at times, joined by the shared goals of compelling the United States to withdraw its forces and undermining the post-Saddam Hussein government.
But U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed or captured about two dozen of Zarqawi's top associates since Jan. 30 elections, according to the U.S. military. Hundreds of other rank-and-file foreign fighters have also been killed since then, U.S. officials say.
Anger among foreign fighters over those losses might have helped erode Zarqawi's support among his followers.
The new government's efforts to include Sunnis in the political process also has helped shrink support for foreign fighters in Sunni Arab communities, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari said this week. As that continues, "they are exposed," Jafari said.
Some officials say Zarqawi's network -- his means for funneling weapons, fighters and funds for attacks -- is more crucial to the insurgency than the man himself.
"They let Zarqawi become just a symbol," Humam Hammoudi, a member of parliament and one of the leaders of the country's now-dominant Supreme Religious Council of the Islamic Revolution, said this week. "And when a symbol is gone, there will be confusion and instability -- psychologically, there is no stability among them."
"They will need some time . . . to regroup," Hammoudi said. "There are serious efforts not to give them the chance to do that.''