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."
He said his group would act against Sunnis "before they sit down at the negotiating table with the Americans, because we have warned them before."
"Al-Qaeda has killed more Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar province during the past month than the soldiers of the American occupation have killed within three months. People are tired of the torture," said Abu Mohammad al-Salmani, an Islamic Army commander, who said the group had written the letter to bin Laden. "We cannot keep silent anymore."
The letter accuses the al-Qaeda group of "killing innocent people with gases like chlorine," referring to recent chlorine bomb attacks in Baghdad and Anbar. It acknowledged that its leaders were killed because "they expressed their willingness to negotiate with the Americans for their exit from Iraq." In some areas, it said, the al-Qaeda fighters were imposing "Taliban-like" Islamic codes, referring to edicts by the strict former rulers of Afghanistan. By opening a front against the Shiites, the letter said, "the only losers will be the Sunnis who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda."
Khalid Awad, a commander of the Jamiat Brigades, another insurgent group in Anbar, said: "We must confess that if it was not for al-Qaeda, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan would have been occupied. For al-Qaeda has awakened the American ogre against the Islamic nation after the September 11th events, and it is still causing disasters."
About three months ago, al-Qaeda fighters began targeting insurgent leaders. Gunfights have taken place in Baghdad neighborhoods such as Abu Ghraib and northern cities such as Taji. In Diyala province, al-Qaeda killed or kidnapped several Sunni insurgent leaders and religious and academic figures, dumping at least one of the bodies into a river in recent weeks, police officials said.
Now, local insurgent groups have united to fight them, erecting checkpoints and patrolling Baqubah and nearby towns, said Abu Jasim, a leader of the Mujaheddin Army. More than 100 al-Qaeda fighters were captured in the towns of Buhriz and Tahrir, the core areas controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq in Diyala, he said.
"Frankly speaking, we don't want an inner Sunni-Sunni fight, and we do not want to have a military collision with al-Qaeda, like what the tribes did, although we have all the right to do so," said Salmani, the Islamic Army commander, referring to the decision of tribal leaders in Anbar to side with the Americans.
But the pressure from al-Qaeda fighters is growing. They have posted statements in mosques and on the Web warning that they will target any Sunni group that defies them. On March 27, they allegedly killed the nephew of Harith al-Dari, the most prominent Sunni cleric in Iraq. The nephew was a senior leader in the 1920 Revolution Brigades, police officials said.
On Monday, gunmen killed an Islamic Army leader south of Samarra, said Capt. Zuhair al-Badri in Samarra. The previous night, two other fighters were killed. Islamic Army leaders immediately blamed al-Qaeda, saying the attack was in retaliation for the letter to bin Laden.
Many of the insurgent groups, however, are reluctant to unite. Abu Aja Naemi, a commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigades based in Duluiyah, north of Baghdad, recalled a meeting among various groups to discuss forming an umbrella organization. The idea fell through, he said, over concerns about turf.
"Every commander of an organization said, 'I have my own method that I am following, and so I am going to follow it,' " said Naemi, who said his fighters have clashed with al-Qaeda in several cities, including Haditha and Husaybah. "If there is greater organization, they worry that in the future they will lose power in their areas. So they work separately."
His own group has splintered in recent weeks, leading to the emergence of a faction of mostly Palestinian fighters calling itself Hamas, after the radical Palestinian organization. Naemi said that for now, the new group was still allied with the 1920 Revolution Brigades and serving as part of its military wing.
The Sunni groups are also divided over entering the political process, said Makki, the member of parliament. His Iraqi Islamic Party is serving as a liaison between the Shiite-led government and the Sunni insurgents, including, he said, the Islamic Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and other main groups.
"But mind you, not all of the subgroups of those groups are willing to go in this direction. They are still not convinced about negotiations," Makki said.
Hasan Suneid, a Shiite member of parliament and close aide of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, described another major stumbling block. The insurgents, he said, are "trying to negotiate demands that are strategic to their interests." They want a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals, a revision of the Iraqi constitution and a balance of Shiites and Sunnis in government ministries.
"If they maintain their independence from each other and each one has its different strategy, there will be chaos on the ground and chaos at the [negotiating] table," said Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president and leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, another Sunni member of parliament with close links to the insurgent groups, said many were not serious about talking with the government. "They would prefer to talk directly to the Americans," he said. "They don't trust the government. They don't want to see that they are strengthening the government. That's why they want to redraw the political process from the beginning.
"If they do not unite, they will be weakened," Mutlaq said. "Then al-Qaeda will manage to make their Islamic state in Iraq, and it will be a sad day for the country and the world."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, Yasmin Mousa in Amman, Jordan, and other Washington Post staff in Iraq and Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.