Meanwhile, there are indications that al-Zarqawi is attempting to diffuse public anger by remaking his movement, at least in name. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other insurgent groups announced on 15 January the establishment of a Mujahedin Shura Council, which purportedly aims to unify the ranks of the Islamist jihad movement in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). The other groups are the Victorious Sect Army, the Islamic Jihad Brigades, and three previously unknown groups: the Monotheism Supporters Brigades, the Foreigners Brigades, and the Fear Brigades.
Since the announcement of the Mujahedin Shura Council, al-Zarqawi has virtually ceased independent claims of responsibility for attacks in Iraq; all claims of attacks are now issued in the name of the council.
The new group's name is telling: Al-Zarqawi, now feeling the wrath of national resistance groups, appears to be purporting an ongoing affiliation with nationalist resistance groups in an attempt to downplay increasing opposition to his movement. He may also be attempting to invoke some sort of religious legitimacy by using the name Shura, which is an Islamic principle that calls for the community to administer its affairs through mutual consultation.
Several Mujahedin Shura Councils have operated in Iraq at a local level since 2004 (Al-Fallujah, Samarra, Baghdad). Such councils were self-described nationalist-Islamist groups, comprised of Sunni clerics, tribal leaders, former Ba'athist fighters, and Islamist groups, including al-Zarqawi's Tawhid wa Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Monotheism and Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers), the precursor to the Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers.
In another indication of Al-Qaeda's increasing weakness in Iraq, the group called on Muslim clerics to support its movement. In a videotaped message posted to the Internet (http://www.almeer.net) on 17 January, the group asked Muslim clerics why they have failed to support the mujahedin in Iraq. "Isn't our jihad in Iraq a legitimate jihad?" the unidentified speaker asked. "If the answer is yes, why did you leave us in Al-Qa'im, Al-Rawah, and Hasibah the way you left us in Al-Fallujah, Samarra, and Tal Afar," referring to the sites of intense fighting between Al-Qaeda insurgents and multinational forces over the past two years.
Tribal, Nationalist Resistance Leaders Tire Of Al-Zarqawi...
Al-Zarqawi has fallen out of favor in recent months with tribal leaders in the Al-Anbar Governorate, presumably because of divergent views as to how to conduct the resistance. Local and tribal leaders in the governorate have objected to attacks by insurgents that inflict harm on the civilian population, while al-Zarqawi's group has sought to justify such attacks in the name of jihad.
Tension between the two sides escalated last year after some insurgent groups expressed a willingness to enter into talks with the United States over ending the insurgency. The Al-Qaeda leader also denounced the decision of some resistance groups to participate in November's Arab League-sponsored conference on national reconciliation.
Moreover, tribal leaders have expressed growing frustration over Al-Qaeda's attempts to stir sectarian division amongst Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs. Many tribes living in the Anbar-Baghdad-Samarra zone are mixed tribes, with both Sunni and Shi'ite members.
Insurgents attacked a line of Sunni Arabs waiting to enlist as police recruits in Al-Ramadi on 5 January, killing dozens of Iraqis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). The registration day had been organized by local tribal leaders; many were on hand at the time of the attack, and some were reportedly killed.
Other tribal leaders have been killed in recent weeks in Al-Ramadi and Samarra, purportedly at the hands of Al-Qaeda, prompting tribal and local leaders to mount an all-out drive against al-Zarqawi and his sympathizers.
At a meeting following the Al-Ramadi attack, tribal leaders decided to form armed groups to force Al-Qaeda from the governorate. Media reports indicate that many Al-Qaeda fighters relocated to Samarra, while other al-Zarqawi supporters remain engaged in intense fighting with locals in Al-Ramadi.
When armed gunmen ambushed a bus carrying some 35 Sunni Arab police recruits between Baghdad and Samarra on 16 January -- among them many former officers planning on reenlisting in the Iraqi army -- and killed them execution-style, Samarra residents were quick to blame Al-Qaeda for the attack.
...And Vow To Fight Al-Qaeda
On 23 January, tribal and nationalist insurgent leaders in Samarra announced that they would send armed groups to hunt down Al-Qaeda members in the city in a campaign similar to one launched last month following the assassination of Albu-Baz tribal leader Hikmat Mumtaz, London's "Al-Hayat" reported on 24 January. Hundreds of Iraqis demonstrated in Samarra against Al-Qaeda on 24 January, and reports indicated that many Al-Qaeda loyalists had fled to nearby Diyala Governorate.
"Al-Hayat" also reported on 25 January that six insurgent groups have reached a tentative agreement with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani for their participation in national reconciliation talks. The report indicated that Talabani and his National Security Adviser Wafiq al-Samarra'i have issued guarantees for the security of the groups to participate in the talks. The Albu-Baz tribe, along with the Al-Dulaym, Al-Janabi and Al-Jubur tribes have reportedly supported the agreement.
The daily reported that the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedin Army in Iraq, and the Al-Anbar Revolutionaries are among those groups party to the agreement. In return for their participation, the groups would publicly renounce al-Zarqawi and his movement.
Ayham al-Samarra'i told London's "Quds Press" in August that the above groups, although tied to the former Ba'athist regime, have accepted that the Ba'athist era is over. "Even the Muhammad's Army, which claims to be the striking force of the Ba'ath Party, has been far-sighted in its political thinking, structure, and vision.... They try to be more democratic today. They have presented themselves as believing in a peaceful transformation and accession to power," he claimed in an interview published on 14 August.
Former senior members of the Ba'ath Party are now planning to convene a conference to evaluate the period of Hussein's rule, "Al-Hayat" reported on 24 January. The conference, which would meet ahead of the national reconciliation conference, would include party members who defected in the 1960s and 1970s, and would seek to hold Hussein responsible for the spread of sectarianism in Iraq under his rule. The conference would presumably also seek to redefine and resurrect Ba'athist ideology in the form of a new party.
Meanwhile, it appears that the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army remains aligned with al-Zarqawi's organization. A 23 January statement posted to the Internet (http://www.shamela.net) claimed the two groups took part in a joint operation against Shi'ite members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. However, there have been no other statements from Ansar Al-Sunnah commenting on the Mujahedin Shura Council.