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Iraq: A Nation Finds Itself At A Crossroads

Iraqis gather at the scene of this week's bloody bombing in Baghdad Fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi declared war on Iraq's Shi'a community in a 14 September statement posted to the Internet ( "Battles intensify and names change but the goal remains the same: a crusader, rejectionists' [Shi'a] war against the Sunnis," al-Zarqawi said of the Iraqi government and multinational force. "Now that the government...and the servant of the Cross, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, has declared an all-out war against the Sunnis in Tal Afar...under the pretexts of restoring law and eliminating the terrorists, the organization [Al-Qaeda] has decided to declare an all-out war against the rejectionist Shi'a everywhere in Iraq," al-Zarqawi said.

Addressing the Shi'a, he added: "You were the first to show hostility, so be warned: for by God, we will not have mercy on you, nor will we show you any sympathy."

Al-Zarqawi also issued a warning to all Iraqis, saying: "Any group that wants to be spared the blows of the mujahedin must quickly denounce the al-Ja'fari government and its crimes." He added that any police, army, national guardsman, or "spy for the Crusaders" will be killed by Al-Qaeda, "and his house will also be destroyed or burned down...for punishment for his treason to his religion and nation."

Tribes Are Turning on Al-Zarqawi
A closer look at al-Zarqawi's rhetoric shows that he is up against a wall. While he appears strong enough to wreak havoc on the population -- claiming more than a dozen car bombings and twice that many armed attacks on police and civilians this week -- he also made a point this week to chastise Iraqi tribesmen whose support for his movement has eroded considerably in recent weeks.

In his 14 September statement, al-Zarqawi shamed the Iraqi tribes for not taking up the sword against the government and multinational force in defense of Islam and Iraq. Calling the sons of the tribes "among the most important pillars of jihad," he said: "We warn all the tribes that any tribe, party, or association whose involvement and collaboration with the Crusaders and their apostate [followers] is proved, I swear by God, will be targeted exactly as we will target the Crusaders, and we will eliminate its members.... You must choose in which [camp] you want to be."

He later added: "Now is the time for [Sunni tribes] to rise up.... The wheels of war to annihilate the Sunni tribes have not and will not stop; they are coming your way...unless you take the initiative and join the mujahedin to defend your religion and protect your honor, you will most certainly regret" it.

The Al-Qaeda leader's statements come at a time when government officials have claimed that the Tal Afar operation was launched at the written request of local tribesmen. Other evidence points to a growing discontent among tribesmen. Last month, four Sunni tribes in Al-Ramadi forced al-Zarqawi loyalists from two neighborhoods after they tried to force long-time Shi'a residents from the city (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 August 2005).

Sunni tribesmen are thought to have provided al-Zarqawi and his supporters safe haven, transportation, and other assistance that aided their insurgency over the past 2 1/2 years. If that support dries up, al-Zarqawi's ability to operate in the Sunni stronghold areas will be radically affected.

The Al-Sadr Factor
Another key factor will be Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And here, the situation becomes more complex. Al-Sadr, as a Shi'ite, should seemingly stand opposed to the likes of al-Zarqawi, who has made it his goal to annihilate the Shi'a. However, should the cleric publicly align with al-Zarqawi, the two groups would pose a major threat to the stability of Iraq. If aligned, they could arguably control all of Iraq, with the exception of Kurdistan. Already, there are several points of convergence between the al-Sadr and al-Zarqawi movements.

Al-Sadr has increasingly aligned his view with Sunnis opposed to the transitional government, the U.S. "occupation," and the draft constitution. Like al-Zarqawi, al-Sadr loathes the Shi'ites aligned with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The cleric views SCIRI as his main rival for power, and SCIRI's armed wing, the Al-Badr Corps, as the main rival to his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Al-Sadr's militia has clashed with the Badr Corps on a number of occasions, and it was said that last year's standoff between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces in Al-Najaf was instigated by locals influenced by the Badr Corps (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 August 2004). Violence between the two groups flared again last month (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 26 August 2005) as al-Sadr attempted to reopen his Al-Najaf office, which was closed last September after the violence in Al-Najaf.

In July, al-Zarqawi announced the establishment of the Umar Brigade, whose sole duty is to assassinate members of the Badr Corps. 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 and the Victorious Sect Army, have followed suit, claiming assassinations as well.

Moreover, both al-Sadr and al-Zarqawi have been linked to Iran. Al-Sadr denies any relationship with the Iranian regime, but did visit Iran in June 2003. Since that time it appears the relations have deepened and, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, Iran appears to be funding al-Sadr's movement.

Al-Zarqawi was based in Iran after Arab fighters fled Afghanistan in 2001. Since that time, insurgents loyal to him have traversed the Iranian border into Iraq -- first basing themselves in Ansar Al-Islam [the precursor to Ansar Al-Sunnah Army] strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan and, after March 2003, to al-Zarqawi bases throughout the country.

Al-Sadr has also been linked to the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, al-Zarqawi's main ally in Iraq. Ansar leader Abu Abdallah al-Hassan bin Mahmud told Beirut political weekly "Al-Muharrir" last year that his group works with al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. This cooperation is based on a note from al-Sadr's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, that said if he is martyred his sons should "follow the fatwas of [Ayatollah] Al-Sayyid [Kazim] al-Ha'iri and Shaykh Dr. Ahmad al-Kubaysi. You must unite with the Sunnis." Subsequently, the Ansar al-Sunnah and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army exchanged personnel. "Therefore, the relationship can be described as intimate," Abu al-Hassan said (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 September 2004).

While al-Sadr's current position is unclear, his one-time mentor, Qom-based Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Husayni al-Ha'iri, has issued a fatwa ordering all physically able Iraqis to take security into their own hands, Beirut's Al-Manar television reported on 15 September.

"We know that it is the American occupiers who back and encourage the murderers. However, now that the security services have proven their incompetence, it is the religious and legal duty of all our physically able sons to take security into their own hands so that God may bring about the demise of the wrongdoers. The government, for its part, must back this step," al-Ha'iri said.

From al-Sadr's perspective, an alliance with al-Zarqawi would serve his goal of driving U.S. forces from Iraq, deposing the transitional government, and establishing an Islamic state in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi shares the same political goals -- although the two men differ on doctrinal grounds. In both men's quest for power, an alliance would bolster the insurgency. Most likely, both men assume that they could use the other, and should the insurgency triumph, each could overpower the other to become the supreme authority in Iraq.

Sunnis Take Differing Positions On Bombings

Al-Zarqawi also addressed the Sunni scholars in his 14 September statement, saying: "Your chaste and pure Sunni sisters in Tal Afar have been violated and their chastity has been slaughtered and their wombs have been filled with the bastards of the Crusaders and their malicious [Shi'a] brothers. Where is your religion?"

Sunni leaders have taken opposing positions on the attacks, however. Adnan Muhammad Salman al-Dulaymi, secretary-general of the Sunni group Mu'tamar Ahl Al-Sunnah [Sunni People's Conference], told reporters in Baghdad on 15 September that his group condemned the previous day's terrorist attacks, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. "We condemn these bombings that lead to the death of scores of Iraqi people. These bombings do not distinguish between Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Shi'ites, or Sunnis. They aim at spreading chaos in Iraq. We condemn all these acts. We do not support those who cause terrorism, violence, or killings in Iraq.... We call on everyone to beware of [attempts at] sedition and war. We call for national reconciliation and cooperation," al-Dulaymi said. He invited religious and political leaders to meet in a general conference to discuss what can be done to "guide us to the shore of safety and stability."

The Sunni Al-Waqf Office expressed regret that innocent people were killed in Al-Kadhimiyah and called on Iraqis to maintain unity, the news channel reported.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Scholars Association said that the 14 September Baghdad attacks violated Islamic laws "because the perpetrators are the ones who should be punished" -- an apparent reference to the tactic of targeting civilians instead of the U.S. and multinational force following their operation in Tal Afar, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 15 September.

Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi, spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, condemned al-Zarqawi's actions on the grounds that it sows sectarian sedition -- which he claimed benefits the United States in Iraq -- in a 14 September interview with Al-Arabiyah. "On what basis does this man allow himself to declare a war on millions and to turn this into vengeance?" he asked of al-Zarqawi. "This position sows sectarian and ethnic sedition and this is what the occupation wants. In fact, this position supports what President Bush said in his speech [on 14 September at the UN] when he called on the world to fight terrorism."

The association reportedly called on al-Zarqawi to retract his threats against Sunnis and Shi'ites engaged in the political process on the grounds that his tactics are wrong and threaten jihad, Al-Jazeera television reported on 15 September. The association, in a 15 September statement, described al-Zarqawi's threats as serious, adding that the threats would foment sectarian sedition. The association argued that Iraqi Shi'ites cannot be held accountable for the government's "sectarian policy," adding that al-Zarqawi's statements hurt jihad and will lead to the shedding of more innocent Iraqi blood.
See also:

Al-Sadr Reasserts Himself -- This Time Against Coreligionists

U.S. Charges Iran With Sending Arms Across Border

Is An Iranian Hand Stirring The Iraqi Pot?

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