By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Forces allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed yesterday to have broadened their base of support among Iraqi Sunnis, saying that 70 percent of tribal sheiks and a number of previously independent insurgent groups have pledged allegiance to what has been called the Islamic State of Iraq under its emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
An 18-minute audiotape attributed to Baghdadi and released on the Internet invited officers in ousted president Saddam Hussein's disbanded army to join the insurgents. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a similar invitation last week to all former soldiers and officers to join the government's military.
The Sunni-dominated army was dissolved by L. Paul Bremer, then the U.S. administrator in Iraq, after American-led forces toppled Hussein's government in the spring of 2003. Many of its members are believed to have already joined the insurgency.
Maliki's invitation, issued last weekend, was part of the latest reconciliation effort aimed at ending the sectarian violence that has swept Iraq this year. Even as it has appealed to Sunnis, Maliki's Shiite-majority government has been unable to rein in its own side, including radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is believed to be driving much of the violence.
Baghdadi's statement called on Sunnis to shun the faltering efforts to maintain a multiethnic unity government in Iraq, which it said were being negotiated by Saudi Arabia at the behest of the United States.
Since the death last summer of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, once-disparate Sunni insurgent groups have portrayed themselves as increasingly unified, with political as well as military goals. They declared the formation of an Islamic state in October, and yesterday's statement said that governors have been appointed in Sunni-dominated areas and Islamic law is being imposed at "the request of the people themselves." Judges have been appointed "to finish the disputes and stop the standing disagreements" among Sunni tribal leaders, and punishments are being meted out for crimes such as adultery, the statement said.
Baghdadi's invitation to Hussein's disbanded army is open to officers holding the rank of major and below, provided they can "recite at least three chapters" of the Koran and pass an exam on Islamic law. It added: "This is to make sure that he is free from his unbelief with Baath," Hussein's secular political party. In return, "we will provide him with travel, salary, food and lodging."
The statement, translated by the Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors extremist Web sites, noted that President Bush has warned of the establishment of an "Islamic state from China to Spain" and added: "This liar is right."
The insurgents appear well aware of the Bush administration's current policy review, saying that U.S. military forces in Iraq are staggering and "starting to look for flight." Baghdadi offered Bush two weeks to decide to withdraw all U.S. forces, adding that they would be given one month to leave without interference, provided they left behind all equipment and heavy weapons.