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Iraq Report: August 19, 2005

19 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 28
AL-ZARQAWI MAY BE ALIENATING WOULD-BE SUPPORTERS. 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 his 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 on the following day.

Targeting The Shi'a

An audiotaped message attributed to al-Zarqawi was posted to 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, which made Islam a world religion. Umar bin al-Khattab was killed by a Persian slave, a fact which probably holds much 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 the Iraqi people to participate in holding 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 the 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 warn 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 that al-Zarqawi subscribes to; 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 -- for 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 did not change 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. And, indeed, it is likely he will always find a cleric to support him.

As for al-Maqdisi, it should be noted that he is not against jihad and in fact 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 may 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 be less progress in slowing recruitment of fellow Iraqis to take part in the so-called resistance to multinational forces. Nevertheless, the growing calls to oust foreign fighters from Iraq can be seen as an optimistic 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. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

NATIONAL ASSEMBLY AMENDS TRANSITIONAL LAW, EXTENDING DRAFTING PERIOD. Just before midnight on 15 August, Iraq's National Assembly voted unanimously to amend the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), Iraq's interim constitution, to allow the committee charged with drafting a permanent constitution seven more days to draft the document.

The TAL, written by the Coalition Provisional Authority, originally called for a draft to be written by 15 August, stipulating that if this is not done, the National Assembly must be dissolved. Iraqi officials said that despite intense meetings between Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish members of the drafting committee, agreement could not be reached on some issues.

"I can summarize them in the following points," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari said in response to a question posed by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) during a 16 August press briefing: "Details of federalism; details of [the question of sharing natural] resources; a detailed formulation on the balance of authority and the distribution of power [between the center and federal regions]; details of the representation of [federal] regions abroad [in Iraq's diplomatic mission]; and details of defining the electoral system." He added that the remaining obstacles were "very minute details."

With Or Without The Sunnis?

Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders avoided blaming Sunni Arabs outright for the delay, but contended that the draft was ready on 15 August, and only postponed to allow more time to satisfy "some" drafters opposed to certain provisions in the document.

The two groups now stand poised to submit the draft to parliament on 22 August, with or without the Sunnis onboard. The two parties together form a majority in the assembly and could easily send it to referendum without the Sunnis. Such a move would prove disastrous for Sunni Arabs who were politically sidelined after boycotting January's elections. It would also be seen as a setback in the progress made between Sunnis, Kurds, and the majority Shi'ites.

"We were at the very verge of arriving at an agreement," Shi'ite leader Husayn Shahristani told RFI on 15 August. "There are only some [Sunni Arab] brothers who did not participate in the elections [of January 2005] and later were invited to join the political process. They have had some objections against some paragraphs on the federal system."

Sunni negotiators had expressed disappointment after Kurdish and Shi'ite drafters this week rejected their proposal to postpone the details of the outstanding issues -- particularly federalism -- until a new National Assembly convenes in December. The next assembly, Sunnis argue, will be more balanced in terms of representation, placing them in a better position to have their demands met.

Federalism And Fragmentation

Sunnis believe that Kurdish and Shi'ite proposals for federalism will lead to a fragmentation of the country along sectarian lines, with a Shi'ite region in the south and a Kurdish region to the north. Some Sunnis do recognize the "special" status of Iraq's Kurds and even point to earlier Iraqi governments' recognition of the Kurdish situation. However, the Sunnis strongly reject Shi'ite attempts to establish a regional government.

On the issue of the distribution of resources, Sunnis would prefer that all resources be distributed equally through the central government to the governorates. Shi'ites, who hold the majority in government, have said they support the Sunni proposal, but Kurds would prefer to retain control over their resources, particularly if the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk is incorporated into the Kurdistan region.

"Regarding the natural resources of Iraq, there is a stance taken by the [United Iraqi] Alliance, the [Sunni Arab] brothers invited to join the political process, and others in general," Shahristani said. "It is: The natural resources are the common property of all Iraqi people, [which have] to be administrated by the central federal government." In addition, he said, income generated from these resources must be "distributed to all regions of Iraq in a just way, depending on the population density and the needs of the respective region."

Even if the outstanding issues are resolved and the Sunni drafters satisfied, they will still need to sell it to their constituencies. Some Sunni leaders outside the drafting process have already said that they will consider any document drafted under occupation illegitimate. Muthanna Harith al-Dari, spokesman for the influential Muslim Scholars Association, hinted in a 15 August interview with Al-Jazeera television that the group will not support the referendum.

Transparent Process

Prime Minister al-Ja'fari praised the transparency of the drafting process, telling reporters on 16 August: "I am very happy about the transparency of the dialogue conducted and of the way in which everyone voted. I strongly hope that other brothers have felt the same mood and the same determination so that we successfully complete this task and present the Iraqi constitution to the whole world watching us."

Al-Ja'fari said that all sides were required to make concessions during the drafting process, adding that those concessions could only benefit the entire constitutional process.

He told reporters that the document will reflect the common points of interest among Iraqis. "I would say they are the freedom of the individual, the freedom of belief, unity of Iraq, sovereignty of Iraq, adopting democratic principles, the separation of three powers [i.e., legislative, executive, and judicial], women's rights, and human rights," RFI reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)