Sunni Factions Split With Al-Qaeda Group

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 14, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 13 -- Key Sunni militant groups are severing their association with al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni group that claims allegiance to the organization led by Osama bin Laden. The split could help isolate a primary foe of the United States in Iraq but could also further splinter the Sunni insurgency and make it even harder to control, according to insurgent leaders and Iraqi and U.S. officials.

In the Sunni heartland of Anbar and other provinces, Sunni groups are accusing al-Qaeda in Iraq of killing, kidnapping and torturing dozens of their fighters, clerics and followers. One leading Sunni extremist organization, the Islamic Army, says al-Qaeda has killed more than 30 fighters from different armed factions in recent weeks.

Last weekend, the Islamic Army posted on insurgent Web sites a nine-page letter urging bin Laden to stop those killing in his name. "He should rise up for his faith and assume religious and organizational responsibility for al-Qaeda and search for the truth," the letter said. "It is not enough to disown those actions, but it is imperative to correct the path."

The Sunni insurgency in Iraq has long been fractious, in part because secular nationalists, tribal leaders and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and army have rejected al-Qaeda's tactics, particularly beheadings. But the emerging rift represents the Sunni groups' most decisive effort since the 2003 invasion to distance themselves from al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"They have realized that those people are not working for Iraq's interests," said Alaa Makki, a Sunni member of parliament with close ties to the insurgents. "They realized that their operations might destroy Iraq altogether."

The emerging confrontation between the Sunni groups and al-Qaeda in Iraq is the latest addition to a dizzying mosaic of battle lines. U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces are fighting al-Qaeda fighters, Sunni groups and Shiite militias. Shiite militias are combating Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda. In the south, the Shiite militias fight each other for control. In the west, Sunni tribal leaders are suspicious of Sunni parties inside the government. And in the north, tensions are rising between the Kurds and neighboring Turkey. Oil-rich Kirkuk itself is a flash point as Arabs and Turkmens clash with the Kurds over the city's future.

Insurgent leaders, in interviews in person or by telephone, offered different explanations for their split. Many said their link to the al-Qaeda groups was tainting their image as a nationalist resistance force. Others said they no longer wanted to be tools of the foreign fighters who lead al-Qaeda. Their war, they insist, is against only the U.S. forces, to pressure them to depart Iraq.

"We do not want to kill the Sunni people nor displace the innocent Shia, and what the al-Qaeda organization is doing is contradictory to Islam," said Abu Marwan, a religious leader of the Mujaheddin Army in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. "We will strike whoever violates the boundaries of God, whether al-Qaeda or the Americans."

What the split means for the United States and its efforts to pacify Iraq remains unknown. On one hand, al-Qaeda in Iraq appears to be losing legitimacy and support. But it remains a potent, well-financed force, attracting fighters from Afghanistan to Morocco as well as growing numbers of Iraqis, say U.S. military officials and analysts. In some areas, Sunni insurgents are still partnering with al-Qaeda. And as long as the Sunni groups remain fragmented and politically alienated, the prospects for stability are slim.

In recent months, U.S. military commanders have sought to take advantage of the rift. Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar are now working with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaeda. Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the U.S. ambassador here until last month, and Iraqi government officials said they have had talks with some insurgent groups in an attempt to isolate al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni umbrella organization said to have been created by the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, has said it would kill any Sunni suspected of being an agent of the United States or the Iraqi government, according to Islamic State spokesman Abu Hasnah al-Dulaimi.

"Those armed groups have no choice," Dulaimi said in a telephone interview from Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi. "They have to either join us in forming the Islamic State project in the Sunni areas or hand over their weapons to us before we are forced to act against them forcefully. It will not save them that they have fought the Americans and resisted them in the last few years."

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