Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq Report: September 19, 2005

19 September 2005, Volume 8, Number 32

RFE/RL has launched a special page on the Referendum for the Constitution: The next "Iraq Report" will appear on 7 October. For breaking news on Iraq, please go to:

By Kathleen Ridolfo

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 rejectionists 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, or 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."

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 bombs and twice as 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 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 mujahidin 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 two and a half years. If that support dries up, al-Zarqawi's ability to operate in the Sunni stronghold areas will be radically affected.

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 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 view's 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 Sheikh 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 wrong-doers. 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; and 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.

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 opposed 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" – a reference to the U.S. and multinational force for 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 U.S. 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.


By Kathleen Ridolfo

An Al-Qaeda-affiliated group has threatened to attack Iraqi and coalition forces with chemical weapons "within 24 hours" if they do not withdraw their troops from Tal Afar. The so-called Victorious Sect Army posted the statement to an Internet site on 11 September, and it appears aimed at inflicting psychological terror on the Iraqi population as well as on joint forces currently engaged in fierce fighting against the insurgents.

"The military bureau of the Victorious Sect Army has decided to respond and to attack strategic and sensitive targets for the occupation, the infidels, and the insurgents [referring to the Iraqi government] in Baghdad with unconventional and chemical weapons that were developed by the mujahedin...if the armed attack on the valiant city of jihad -- Tal Afar -- is not stopped within 24 hours," the statement warned.

The timing of this threat coincides with the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States by Al-Qaeda, and the group appears to be trying to build on the memory of those attacks in the minds of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq.

It might also be construed as an attempt to incite fear among Iraqi civilians; its choice of language -- particularly the reference to "chemical weapons" -- is arguably reminiscent of the kind of terror perpetrated during 30 years of Ba'athist rule.

Mustafa Alani, director of the Security and Terror Affairs Department at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, told Al-Arabiyah television in an 11 September interview that the threat of chemical attack is real and should not be discounted. "I believe that the [Al-Qaeda] group acting in Iraq possesses or has produced chemical weapons. The problem lies in how these weapons are used and the targets they are used for. If chemical weapons are used in the open, they must be quite extensive to bring about any effect; but they can be used in closed [spaces] too," Alani said, adding: "We must take the threat seriously."

Alani noted that conventional weapons are often more destructive than chemical weapons. But he said the "psychological effect" of chemical weapons is far greater. Asked about the strength of Al-Qaeda today as compared to four years ago, Alani said that "the organization has reorganized itself completely." He added that Al-Qaeda has widened its geographical scope of attacks and is capable of carrying out "multi-target operations" such as the London bomb attacks in July.

But the 11 September threat is not the first of its kind from the Victorious Sect Army. In March 2004, the group threatened U.S. and coalition forces, claiming it had planted "chemical and poisonous" bombs in locations frequented by the coalition, such as hotels and palaces belonging to the former regime. The group claimed at the time that individuals occupying those buildings would soon begin to "drop dead suddenly and mysteriously."

Little is known about the Victorious Sect Army, but it is believed to be an offshoot or "brigade" of the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army; it also has links to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group, Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn. It was formed in May 2003 by al-Haj Uthman al-Iraqi and claims to comprise Iraqi fighters. Since its inception, it has regularly claimed responsibility for weapons attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as for kidnappings and assassinations of civilians and Iraqi leaders both in and out of government. On 31 August, it claimed responsibility for an attack in the Al-Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad as Shi'ites commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Musa al-Kadhim. That attack was followed by a stampede that left nearly 1,000 Iraqis dead and 500 wounded.

Only two major Iraqi dailies -- "Al-Zaman" and "Al-Mashriq" -- appeared to cover the threat in their 12 September editions, suggesting that insurgent threats might gradually be losing effect. The media and the public alike have endured 2 1/2 years of life under siege -- including terrorist attack, kidnapping, and assassination.

The fact that insurgent groups are resorting to what must be viewed as empty threats -- at least in some cases -- is perhaps indicative of their current position in Iraq. While the insurgency rages on, there are growing signs that many once-passive Iraqis are turning on insurgents (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 August 2005). Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told reporters at a 10 September press briefing in Baghdad that the current operation to drive insurgents from Tal Afar was launched following a written request from the people of that town.

Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi meanwhile told the same briefing that the situation in Tal Afar is much the same as in other parts of Iraq, and that residents of a number of cities have pleaded with the government for help. Addressing the citizens of Al-Ramadi, Al-Rawah, Al-Qa'im, and Samarra, al-Dulaymi said: "We are coming.... There will be no hideout for the terrorists, killers, and bloodsuckers," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

The warning by the Victorious Sect Army came just days after another armed group threatened a chemical attack on the Green Zone that houses senior Iraqi and international officials in Baghdad. The National Islamic Resistance Group-the 1920 Revolution Brigades warned in an e-mail last week to Al-Arabiyah television that it was planning to use a chemical bomb against the Green Zone within a week, the station reported on 8 September. Al-Qaeda-Europe also issued a threat on 11 September, saying it would avenge the jailing, torture, and killing of Muslims through attacks similar to those it claimed to have carried out in London in July.

Another jihadist website on 8 September noted that leaflets had been distributed in Baghdad, Diyala, Al-Fallujah, Mosul, and Samarra warning Iraqis to stay away from U.S. bases and vehicles in the coming days, as "deadly attacks" were planned. The leaflets were reportedly signed by six groups: the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army; Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn; the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaysh Muhammad; the Mujahedin Army; and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

An audiotape statement attributed to Al-Qaeda associate al-Zarqawi was posted to the Internet on 11 September in which the speaker accuses U.S. forces of using chemical weapons against Iraqis in Al-Qa'im and Tal Afar. The speaker claims that the mujahedin nevertheless drove U.S. forces from Al-Qa'im, and will soon drive them from Tal Afar.

The speaker, purportedly Al-Zarqawi, also accuses the al-Ja'fari government of denying Sunni Arabs their rights. Claiming that "the final battle is near," al-Zarqawi called on mujahedin to fight in Iraq, telling those outside Iraq to support the mujahedin as much as they can. "Victory belongs to this religion, no matter how long the night of the unjust is," the speaker says. "Night is about to end and dawn is about to break. The banner of monotheism will be raised and the banner of infidelity will be humiliated."

Meanwhile, the Islamic Army in Iraq announced a reward for any fighter who assassinates Prime Minister al-Ja'fari, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, or Defense Minister al-Dulaymi in revenge for the operation in Tal Afar, Al-Manar television announced on 12 September.

Taken as a whole, these threats appear to point to a weakness in the insurgency. Al-Zarqawi's purported statement is yet another attempt to incite sectarian violence by prodding Sunni Arabs to defend their kinsmen in Tal Afar (who he claims are under chemical attack) and to fight for their rights under a Shi'ite-led government.

The speaker claims that the "final battle is near," and seeks to elicit a push by insurgents fighting in Iraq and to prompt those considering jihad to join quickly if they want to be a part of the "final battle." It might also indicate that the insurgency is tired, weak, and fractured -- and perhaps desperate for new recruits.

By calling for the assassination of the prime minister and key members of his cabinet, the insurgency presumably hopes to bring about a complete breakdown of the central government, which would throw Iraq into chaos, thereby refocusing the attention of the government and multinational force on Baghdad and, at least temporarily, away from the insurgents' strongholds -- such as the border towns of Tal Afar and Al-Qa'im.