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Iraq: Al-Zarqawi Tactics Could Be Alienating Supporters

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (file photo) Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's agenda may be proving too ambitious these days. In recent weeks, the terrorist's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn declared war on the Shi'a and formed an assassination brigade to hunt and kill members of a Shi'ite political organization; threatened Sunnis on the constitution drafting committee; vowed to kill Sunnis who vote for the constitutional referendum this fall; and verbally attacked al-Zarqawi's onetime spiritual mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, when the latter "advised" al-Zarqawi against targeting Shi'a and civilians in his attacks.

Al-Zarqawi has always been clear in his hatred for the Shi'a, but the announcement of his intention to target Sunnis who support the constitution and elections appears to be eliciting an adverse reaction from what he considers his "core constituency." Sunnis in the Al-Anbar Governorate this week rose up and drove out Al-Qaeda fighters who had threatened to kill some 3,000 Shi'a living in Al-Ramadi unless they left the city. The Sunni rebellion against al-Zarqawi, as detailed on on 14 August, appears to be the first move by Sunnis to attempt to drive out Al-Qaeda forces from the city.

"We have had enough of his nonsense," Sheikh Ahmad Khanjar said of al-Zarqawi. "We don't accept that a non-Iraqi should try to enforce his control over Iraqis, regardless of their sect -- whether Sunnis, Shi'ites, Arabs or Kurds." The Sunni uprising, organized by four Sunni tribes in Al-Ramadi, forced al-Zarqawi loyalists from two neighborhoods on 13 August, reported the following day.

Targeting The Shi'a

An audiotape message attributed to al-Zarqawi was posted on several Internet sites in early July announcing the establishment of his group's Umar Brigade. The brigade is named after Umar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph in Islam, who is known for his role in expanding the Islamic conquest and making Islam a world religion. Umar bin al-Khattab was killed by a Persian slave, a fact that probably holds significance for al-Zarqawi, who despises the Shi'a in Iraq, who are closely connected to Iran by virtue of their shared religious beliefs.

The sole duty of the Umar Brigade is to assassinate members of the Shi'ite party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Corps (now known as the Badr Organization). According to al-Zarqawi, the brigade would free his fighters from the burden of fighting Badr forces, giving Al-Qaeda fighters more time to fight multinational forces.

The group claims to have assassinated dozens of Badr members since the announcement was made, and other groups affiliated with al-Zarqawi, including the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, have followed suit, claiming assassinations as well. On 17 August, the Umar Brigade claimed it also killed two members of the Shi'ite Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, which is the party of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari.

Rallying Against The Referendum

Statements attributed to al-Zarqawi or his group this month voiced the group's willingness to fight all those who follow laws other than God's law (Shari'a). One statement posted on 13 July, warned Sunni imams against calling on Iraqi people to participate in a referendum on the constitution.

The statement said that jihadist fighters expect Sunni imams to be "war advocates" who help guide youth to jihad, and are disappointed to find that some imams fail to "recognize the value of their position." The statement also accused these imams of disrupting the march of jihad either knowingly or unknowingly "through their enthusiastic call for participation in drafting the constitution and joining the ranks of the infidels" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2005).

On 14 August, the same website carried elaborate posters produced by al-Zarqawi's group that warns Muslims against participating in the referendum on the constitution.

Al-Zarqawi's public battle with his onetime mentor Isam Tahir al-Utaybi al-Barqawi, better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, came after al-Maqdisi offered up advice to al-Zarqawi regarding the tactics used by his group in Iraq. Al-Maqdisi is considered a prominent theoretician of the Salafi jihadist trend, to which al-Zarqawi subscribes. He first met al-Zarqawi in prison in Jordan in the late 1990s. Al-Maqdisi's last stint in prison was on charges of conspiring to commit terrorist acts -- planning to blow up U.S. bases in Jordan -- of which he was exonerated. Jordanian authorities released al-Maqdisi in early July, but rearrested him days later.

A Mentor's Advice

The cleric told "Al-Hayat" in an interview published on 10 July that his "advice" to al-Zarqawi was that the latter should consider suicide bombings "exceptional" acts, as they are not considered a traditional means of jihadist action. "I also expressed reservations over the issue of killing civilians and striking at churches and Shi'ite mosques," he told the daily. His theory is that if al-Zarqawi properly guided Iraqis on the path to resisting the occupation and avoiding using means that might repel some would-be fighters, his movement would be far more successful.

Al-Zarqawi apparently didn't appreciate the advice, and lashed out at al-Maqdisi in a 12 July Internet statement, saying that he now relies on scholars more established than al-Maqdisi. He also accused al-Maqdisi of helping the multinational forces with his statement. Al-Zarqawi contended that he has not changed his stance on suicide bombings, adding that he supported them as far back as the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He denied that he targets Christians, Yazidis, or other sects, but justified the targeting of Shi'a by saying: "They were the ones who started liquidating the Sunnis, driving them away, and usurping their mosques and their roles. The crimes of the Badr Corps stand witness, not to mention that they operated disguised as members of the police and atheist National Guard and pledged loyalty to the crusaders before all this."

The fight between al-Zarqawi and al-Maqdisi portends a Sunni split over the doctrine of jihad. Al-Maqdisi carries sufficient weight in the Muslim world and his commentaries on jihad are widely followed. Al-Zarqawi is not a cleric and must therefore rely on clerics to issue fatwas and provide justification for his group's actions. However, it is likely he will always find clerics to support him.

As for al-Maqdisi, it should be noted that he is not against jihad; in fact, he is a strong supporter of it. However, his objections to the tactics employed by al-Zarqawi and his followers in Iraq do discredit al-Zarqawi's program there and might serve to discourage would-be Arab fighters from traveling to Iraq.

A Mood Shift?

The growing tide among Sunnis against foreign fighters in Iraq has been seen with increasing frequency on a number of Iraqi television call-in programs, where viewers have voiced their disgust over terrorist attacks that target Iraqi civilians -- including this week's coordinated attacks against a bus terminal used by Shi'a traveling from Baghdad to the south (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2005).

While Iraqis appear to be turning more and more against foreign fighters in Iraq, there appears to less resistance to fellow Iraqis taking part in the so-called resistance to multinational forces. Nevertheless, the growing calls to oust foreign fighters from Iraq can be seen as a sign that Iraqis are beginning to challenge the presence of al-Zarqawi and his loyalists. For al-Zarqawi, this trend should be worrisome, as his group has relied on sympathetic locals for cover and assistance in carrying out its attacks.

See also:

"Blurred Line Between Terrorism And Honorable Resistance"

"Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda, And The New Islamist Front"

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