By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 14, 2007
BAGHDAD -- He wore a pale yellow dress shirt and black-rimmed glasses that lost their tint when he entered the dark lobby of a Baghdad hotel. He drank orange soda and refused a cigarette. His face was tense, but he spoke in a calm, open way about the satisfaction of killing Shiites with his own hands.
Over the course of a 90-minute interview, a leader of an armed Sunni group in western Baghdad described his hatred for Iran and the current Iraqi government, while outlining the dimensions of an armed insurgency that extends well beyond al-Qaeda in Iraq, the organization that U.S. officials routinely identify as their central enemy.
Abu Sarhan, as the 37-year-old insurgent wished to be known, said Iraq's Sunnis are deep into an entrenched and irresolvable civil war against Iranian-backed Shiites. He said the premise of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy -- deploying thousands of soldiers in small outposts in violent neighborhoods -- only inflames the insurgency and prompts attacks against the Americans.
If U.S. forces release Sunni detainees, remove the concrete blast barriers that now cordon off several neighborhoods and improve services in areas neglected by the Shiite-led government, "the attacks will be reduced 95 percent within days," he said. He added that the Americans' insistence on striking Sunni areas "is generating an increasing resistance."
A balding, wiry man who associates said had been an officer in the Fedayeen, the black-clad paramilitary force of the ousted government of Saddam Hussein, Abu Sarhan refused to give his real name. He said he was the "general coordinator" between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Omar Brigade, an insurgent group founded in July 2005 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by U.S. forces in June 2006.
Zarqawi created the Omar Brigade to fight Shiite militias, particularly the Badr Organization, which is loyal to the country's largest Shiite political party, now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. In Amiriyah, the western Baghdad neighborhood where the Omar Brigade is active, the group is believed to have planted roadside bombs that have killed U.S. troops. Abu Sarhan said he had not personally taken part in those attacks. But he could not say the same for Shiite targets.
"Since the beginning of the occupation until now, I have participated in killing many of the militia members, I say it frankly," he said.
Asked how many, he looked down and paused for several seconds, his hands interlocked on the cafeteria table. "It's hard to count," he said.
An associate of Abu Sarhan's vouched for his leadership credentials. And a college student in Amiriyah, who said he is not an insurgent but that he had met Abu Sarhan briefly about two weeks earlier, said the Sunni insurgent is considered the leader of the Omar Brigade.
Abu Sarhan's views illustrate the deep animosity toward Shiites that fuels so much of the sectarian violence in Iraq. His comments also suggested a more restrained view of the United States, which he considers an occupier but one that should not leave immediately.
"I personally don't have a hatred of the American people, and I respect American civilization," he said. "They have participated in the progress of all the nations of the world. They invented computers. Such people should be respected. But people who are crying over someone who died 1,400 years ago" -- referring to Shiites and their veneration of a leader killed in the 7th century -- "these should be eliminated, to clear the society of them, because they are simply trash."
"The real enemy for the resistance is Iran and those working for Iran," he went on. "Because Iran has a feud which goes back thousands of years with the people of Iraq and the government of Iraq."
Abu Sarhan said that the leading Shiite parties in the government, including the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, along with the Supreme Council and prominent Shiite militias, are beholden to Iran. The Iranians appeared to be of such grave concern to him not just because of the bloody history of war between the two countries, but also because of Iran's perceived intolerance toward Sunnis in general. He said his long-term political goal was to recapture the prominence that Sunnis had enjoyed under Hussein's government.
"The problem is that the Americans have a relationship with the slaves: Dawa, Badr Organization, the Mahdi Army are slaves to Iran," he said.
Abu Sarhan described al-Qaeda in Iraq as an organized, predominantly Iraqi-run network with a strict hierarchy.
"There are multiple networks, and each network has its own command or leadership, but they're all under one command," he said. "Just like colleges and universities. Each university has several colleges, and each college has a dean, but the entire university has a president."
He did not condemn the actions of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but he said there were ideological differences among insurgent groups.
"Al-Qaeda is more strict than the others in their way of thinking, in terms of applying religious rituals and behavior, and also the way of working. Al-Qaeda, for example, kills every Shiite, while the other factions kill only the Iranian spies or those who are members of militias," he said.
U.S. military commanders have worked in recent weeks to exploit the divisions within the Sunni insurgency. The Americans have collaborated with members of such groups as the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq because of its indiscriminate killing.
A movement that started in the western province of Anbar with alliances among Sunni tribal leaders to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to emerge among local Sunnis in the town of Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, in the city of Baqubah to the northeast and in Amiriyah, where Abu Sarhan's group operates.
In May, at least 14 U.S. soldiers working in Amiriyah were killed, a sharp increase over previous months. After those losses, U.S. commanders began working with Sunni residents, including some members of the Islamic Army, to help capture or kill those from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Abu Sarhan, who lives in the nearby Khadra neighborhood, dismissed this cooperation with Americans, saying it represented temporary divisions rather than a widespread acceptance of U.S. forces.
"Right now I think that the Islamic Army has split into two factions. Some are cooperating with the Americans against the rest of the Sunnis, while some have remained as they are," he said.
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, recently described al-Qaeda in Iraq as "public enemy number one." And President Bush, during a speech July 4, cited the organization as the one group that attempts to "cause enough chaos and confusion so America would leave."
"We must defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq," Bush said.
But Abu Sarhan described al-Qaeda in Iraq as one of "hundreds" of insurgent groups, some aligned and others in some degree of conflict, ranging from cells of about 10 people to groups with scores or hundreds of members.
"The American president insisting on fighting al-Qaeda, or saying that al-Qaeda is the problem in Iraq, is just like someone who is insisting on taking diabetes medicine while he has a cardiac problem," he said, describing it as an "intentional" misdiagnosis. "Any person in the position of the American president, who has drawn himself a certain path, would be very embarrassed to change that track and confess that he has been wrong. Unless he loves his people more than he loves himself. Only then could he confess his wrongdoing for the sake of his people."
Abu Sarhan estimated that about half the attacks against American forces come as reprisals for U.S. raids or arrests. He cited the U.S. offensive in Diyala province, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, as the type of effort that engenders more enemies than friends. "You can imagine how many families were hurt because of this military campaign," he said.
Still, he did not advocate an immediate U.S. withdrawal, but rather a gradual drawdown of troops to coincide with a reconciliation with Sunni insurgents.
"Lift the barriers. Move the checkpoints. Build a hospital. And release the detainees from the area. And you will witness very quickly a tangible difference. The hatred and the strikes against the Americans will be wiped out or greatly reduced," he said. "The solution is political, not military. And then the American soldiers will be able to walk down the streets without their protective vests."
But when the Americans do eventually leave, he said, "the future will be dim."
"There will be a fierce civil war, a grinding civil war, because Iran will always be there," he said. "But the Sunnis are ready for such a day."
Abu Sarhan stood up from the table. He shook hands with an iron grip, then put his right hand over his heart, a common gesture of friendship. He left the hotel, heading into the glare of a Baghdad summer day. His glasses darkened over his eyes as he walked away.
Special correspondents Salih Dehema and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.