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Iraq: Al-Qaeda Tactics Lead To Splits Among Insurgents

(RFE/RL) April 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq spoke for several armed groups when it criticized the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq last week for recent operations against homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups.

The Islamic Army claimed Islamic State assassinated more than 30 of its members after the Islamic Army refused to join the Islamic State -- a "super group" that includes the Mujahedin Shura Council, formerly led by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and other smaller armed jihadist groups.

The Islamic State appears to have begun its campaign for dominance among armed groups in Iraq more than two months ago. Perhaps motivated by the need to establish dominance on the ground after losing support from locals in Al-Anbar Governorate in recent months, the Islamic State attempted to seize control over areas of Diyala Governorate, including Ba'qubah and surrounding villages. According to some reports by insurgent leaders, the Islamic State sought to drive out insurgent groups that refused to come under its umbrella through a campaign of murder and intimidation. It unleashed a similar wrath on the local population.

One lesson of the past four years is that time is of the essence if one is to deal effectively in matters pertaining to the insurgency.

Struggle For Dominance

The situation unnerved Iraqi insurgent groups. Whereas they had once been united in a common cause with Al-Qaeda -- to drive coalition forces from Iraq-- now they were forced to take a stand against it. Echoing the position of other armed Iraqi groups, the Islamic Army appealed to Islamic leaders, members of the Iraqi resistance, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq to address transgressions carried out by the Islamic State, which it said violate Islamic law.

U.S. forces conducting an operation in Ba'qubah late in 2006 (epa)

The Islamic Army's April 5 statement accused the Islamic State of attacking citizens, pillaging homes, and stealing civilians' money. It also said the group has banned satellite television and requires women to wear a full face veil, which the army argues makes them vulnerable to harassment and possible assault by Iraqi police and National Guard.

The statement claimed that the Islamic State has also attacked members of the Al-Mujahedin Army in Iraq, the Iraqi Resistance Movement-1920 Revolution Brigades, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, and the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance.

The transgressions of the Islamic State are not new. Under al-Zarqawi, its predecessor organization -- Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) --routinely violated the so-called rules of jihad, and flagrantly ignored warnings by Sunni clerics that it had crossed the line.

Leaders from several insurgent groups have acknowledged in the Arab press that although they disagreed with the Islamic State's tactics for months, they withheld criticizing the Al-Qaeda organization in order not to present a divided front to the world. Their common goal of driving multinational forces from Iraq was enough to silence their opposition to the group's rogue tactics.

Its targeting of their members was enough to break their silence. It may also be enough to drive Islamic State from Iraq once and for all. "As for fighting to kick [multinational forces] and those collaborating with them out of the country, we support [Islamic State] in this regard," Mahmud al-Zubaydi, spokesman for the 1920 Revolution Brigades, told Al-Arabiyah television in an April 9 interview. "However, we are against [their policy] of killing civilians, bombings, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks on the mujahedin groups in the country."

A 'Bitter' Choice

Iraqi insurgent groups opposed to the Islamic State have struggled over the decision to fight the Al-Qaeda affiliated group. Abu Hudhayfah, a leader from the 1920 Revolution Brigades told London-based "Al-Hayat" in a March 31 interview that the Islamic State's assassination of a prominent Brigades leader last month "left the resistance groups with two options: either fight Al-Qaeda and negotiate with the Americans, or fight the Americans and join the Islamic State of Iraq, which divides Iraq." He called both options "bitter."

"Al-Hayat" cited "gunmen disloyal to Al-Qaeda" as saying that "the leaders of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq have left the resistance with limited options and have changed the conflict map and turned it into a sectarian conflict," thereby embarrassing the resistance.

In this circumstance one can find reason for optimism. Iraqi insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army in Iraq, though they claim to be Islamist in nature, are also nationalist. Unlike Al-Qaeda, their goals do not traverse Iraq's borders, and they would be loath to allow any group, whether they identified with their goals or not, to destroy the state.

Moreover, the Islamic State, unlike the other groups, is primarily comprised of foreign fighters. And, whereas other insurgent groups set their primary goal as driving multinational forces from Iraq, al-Zarqawi set his organization's goals as dual: driving out foreign forces and declaring war on the Shi'a, which he claimed were propped up by Iran. Several Iraqi insurgent leaders have stated clearly in recent weeks that they stand opposed to Iran, but hold no agenda against Iraq's Shi'ite community.

The dilemma of whether to negotiate with the United States or not has already led to a split between factions within the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Those that opposed negotiations left the Brigades to form The Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq-Hamas.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (right) meeting with local leaders in Al-Anbar Governorate last month (epa)

Ordinary citizens need little prompting to oppose the violence that the Islamic State has unleashed on Iraq, and their active opposition would be key to driving the Al-Qaeda organization from the country. Just as the leaders in Al-Anbar did, Iraqis in Diyala, where it appears the Islamic State has now headquartered itself, would need to take action. Should they choose to do so, it is clear the Iraqi government would support the initiative as it did in Al-Anbar. Should local leaders be joined by Iraqi insurgent groups, their chances of success would be even greater. Moreover, driving Al-Qaeda from Iraq could be the starting point for reconciliation between the Iraqi government and armed Sunnis.

No Time Like the Present

It is likely the rationale of armed groups operating in Iraq over the past four years has been that once their own conflict with U.S. and Iraqi forces was resolved, they could easily drive Al-Qaeda out of Iraq. It's clear that there is little love for Al-Qaeda among Iraq's Sunni Arab population. The reason Iraqis support the Islamic State and give it shelter is because it fights the coalition. The lesson the Islamic State should have taken from their experience in Al-Anbar Governorate was that their safe haven should not be misinterpreted as allegiance.

One lesson of the past four years is that time is of the essence if one is to deal effectively in matters pertaining to the insurgency. The Islamic State's presence in Diyala Governorate poses a threat not only to the governorate's inhabitants, but to Kurds and Baghdadis living in the areas that flank Diyala. Recent reports indicate that the Islamic State is massing militants in and around Mosul, close to the border with the Kurdish region.

Meanwhile, members of Ansar Al-Islam are apparently regrouping and waging attacks on the Iran-Iraq border in the Kurdish city of Penjwin, northeast of Al-Sulaymaniyah. Should they be aligned with the Islamic State -- and they likely are based on reports of al-Zarqawi's ties to Ansar -- the consequences could prove disastrous for the Kurds, who have seen relative peace and prosperity in recent years.

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Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi(undated AFP file photo)

COMMITTED TO TERROR: Jordan-born Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi has been among the most visible and ruthless leaders of Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein insurgency. In a tape released earlier this month, al-Zaqawi called on Iraqi Sunnis to fight against Shi'a and labeled Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani an "atheist."
Insurgents loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization have regained control over much of Al-Anbar Governorate, and are posing a major challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces. A local security force established by tribesmen under an agreement with the U.S. military has all but ceased operating, after nearly a dozen tribal leaders were assassinated in revenge attacks by insurgents loyal to al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council since January. Local tribal leaders now say they are afraid to be seen associating with U.S. forces, lest they be targeted by insurgents....(more)


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

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