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Iraq: Al-Qaeda In Iraq Leader Struggles With Native Insurgents

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

This Iraqi government graphic shows the structure of al-Muhajir's organization (epa) May 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir -- also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri -- a leading figure in Al-Qaeda in Iraq has reportedly been killed in an internal struggle among militants, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry. A militant group connected with al-Muhajir posted a statement today denying the rumors.


Nonetheless, it is clear that Al-Qaeda, which currently operates under the name Islamic State of Iraq, has been increasingly at odds with homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups in recent months.


Al-Muhajir was named the successor to Mujahedin Shura Council leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi in June, following al-Zarqawi's death in a U.S. bombing near Ba'qubah.

In December, Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters intelligence indicated that Al-Qaeda was in the midst of a leadership crisis and al-Muhajir's men did not trust him.

'Seasoned Fighter'


The Eqyptian-born al-Muhajir was described in a June 12, 2006, Internet statement identifying him as al-Zarqawi's successor as a "seasoned fighter." U.S. officials have said he spent time in Afghanistan before his arrival in Iraq, where he headed up Al-Qaeda's first cell. A close aide of al-Zarqawi -- some accounts say he was No. 2 to al-Zarqawi -- al-Muhajir was reportedly a major recruiter for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. government has placed a $5 million bounty on his head.


In his first public statement after assuming control of the Mujahedin Shura Council, al-Muhajir addressed Osama bin Laden: "We are waiting for your directives and we are at your disposal. The good news is that the morale of your soldiers is very high. They are very proud to be serving under your banner as the beams of victory started to appear on the horizon by the permission of the Almighty."


In the months that followed, the Mujahedin Shura Council, which largely comprises foreign fighters, faltered in terms of legitimacy and support inside Iraq. This faltering was part of a downward spiral that began in 2005 under al-Zarqawi, under whose leadership foreign fighters terrorized civilians, seized their money and property, and killed clerics and community leaders that opposed him.


Al-Zarqawi ignored the warnings of Sunni Islamist thinkers that his group's actions were in violation of Islamic law and were alienating the Islamic and Iraqi communities.


The fact that al-Muhajir, like al-Zarqawi, was a foreigner who appeared willing to sacrifice Iraqi civilians in his quest to kill coalition forces, was a red line for many Iraqi insurgent groups. It was also a red line for Al-Anbar's Sunni Arab chieftains who had once given shelter to the Mujahedin Shura Council.


A Strategic Rebranding


In November, al-Muhajir pledged allegiance to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization purportedly established in October that now includes the Mujahedin Shura Council and several smaller jihadist groups In reality, the Islamic State is probably no more than a rebranding of the Mujahedin Shura Council, to make it more "Iraqi" in nature.


In December, Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters intelligence indicated that Al-Qaeda was in the midst of a leadership crisis and al-Muhajir's men did not trust him.


Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i (epa file photo)

In his November pledge to al-Baghdadi, al-Muhajir told his followers: "Forget about the statement of those who say that what counts is the unity of visions or ideas and not the unity of swords and the strings of bows.... If our religion and objectives are the same and if our enemy is the same, then what prevents us from being united?"


"I pledge allegiance to you," he said, addressing al-Baghdadi," to hear and obey during good and bad times.... I announce the integration of all the formations that we have established, including the Mujahedin Shura Council...under the authority of the Islamic State of Iraq, putting at your disposal and direct orders, 12,000 fighters who constitute the army of Al-Qaeda" as well as 10,000 fighters-in-training.


"As of today, we are your zealous soldiers and faithful men," he added. "We will obey all that you say and order."


He signed off by calling himself "the soldier," rather than Mujahedin Council leader.


Continued Divisions Within The Insurgency


Al-Muhajir pleaded with homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups to join the Islamic State [Al-Qaeda] in Iraq. However, the disdain in which Iraqi groups held the Islamic State was on the rise. If reports by the Islamic State are correct, then Iraqi insurgent groups lost some "brigades" to the Islamic State. The loss of their fighters to an organization that came late to the Iraqi scene and was comprised of foreign fighters, though now led by al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, had to be keenly felt.


Moreover, the insistence that homegrown insurgent groups bow down to the Islamic State was insulting to the Iraqi fighters defending their homeland. The fact that the Islamic State's end goal -- the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq -- was not the end goal for Iraqi insurgent groups, despite their rhetoric in support of an Islamic state, was another obvious source of contention.


The Islamic State's insistence that Iraqi groups subordinate themselves to its hierarchy and vision only increased after November, leading to a number of documented clashes between the Islamic State and homegrown insurgent groups. When the Islamic State began targeting Iraqi insurgent leaders with attacks and assassinations, the Iraqi groups responded with vigor.


The response of insurgent groups prompted al-Baghdadi to apologize to Iraqi insurgent groups and to caution his fighters to control their behavior. At least one insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, appeared unwilling to accept the apology. Islamic Army in Iraq spokesman Ibrahim al-Shammari told Al-Jazeera television in an April 17 interview that the Islamic State of Iraq should first prove they have changed their ways before an apology would be accepted.


Just days later, the Islamic State of Iraq announced the formation of its cabinet, with al-Muhajir -- apparently the only non-Iraqi -- named minister of war.

On The Verge Of Civil War

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)


HAS THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ BECOME A CIVIL WAR? Many observers have concluded that the tit-for-tat sectarian violence that emerged after the February 2006 bombing of a mosque in Samarra has become a full-blown civil war.... (more)

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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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