Tension is growing between Al-Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni groups, reports Salah Hemeid
A key Sunni Arab insurgency group in Iraq has called on Osama Bin Laden to step in and discipline his Al-Qaeda associates in the war-torn nation in what is being seen as evidence of a growing rift between Iraqi insurgents and the mostly foreign fighters of the "Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia Organisation", a group loyal to Bin Laden. The Islamic Army in Iraq said it had dealt with Al-Qaeda militants with "patience and wisdom" in an attempt to maintain a united "resistance front". It was an approach, though, that had not borne fruit. "Killing Sunnis has become a legitimate target for them, especially rich ones. Either they pay them what they want or they kill them," said the statement.
Iraqi experts say other Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Rashideen Army and the Mujahideen Army have privately expressed similar concerns about Al-Qaeda's behaviour, warning it they will sever links with the group if it doesn't halt its attacks against Sunnis. Like the Islamic Army, these groups have provided intelligence and expertise to Al-Qaeda.
The first public criticism from the Islamic Army, believed to be the largest group of former Baathists and army officers fighting Iraqi and US forces, came as the terror group stepped up its attacks against Sunnis. A suspected Al-Qaeda suicide bomber smashed a truck loaded with TNT and chlorine gas into a police checkpoint in Ramadi two weeks ago killing at least 27 people. The bombing was the latest of Al-Qaeda attacks in Ramadi which have so far killed dozens of Sunni Arabs.
The growing tension was triggered by a power struggle between Al-Qaeda and powerful Sunni tribal leaders angered by the terror group's indiscriminate killing of civilians and radical interpretation of Islam. Sunni tribesmen have been increasingly keen to expel foreign fighters from areas under their control and Internet postings by Iraqi groups disclose a deep rift among even the most radical Sunni groups, linked under the umbrella organisation the Islamic State of Iraq.
On Saturday nine Sunni groups issued a joint statement blasting Al-Qaeda's strategy as "reneging on the principle of Jihad". The groups, including Ansar Al-Sunna, a mostly Kurdish Islamic faction and a former Al-Qaeda ally, vowed to "reject the methods and course taken" by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Fighting between the two groups escalated after US and the Iraqi forces launched a security clampdown that has forced Al-Qaeda fighters to seek refuge in the vast desert of Anbar province.
Tensions between Al-Qaeda and Sunni groups first emerged in December 2005 when Al-Qaeda warned Sunnis against voting in the parliamentary elections. Later the group launched a series of attacks against Sunni politicians and activists who supported the political process, including last week's assassination of Harith Dhahir Al-Dhari, a tribal leader and military commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Al-Qaeda is also though to be behind Thursday's car bomb attack against a television station belonging to the Islamic Party, led by Tariq Al-Hashimi, the Iraqi Sunni vice-president.
The split comes amid reports that Al-Qaeda has become self-sufficient inside Iraq. American officials have pointed out that the terrorist group is successfully targeting truck stops and other points along roadways leading east from the border area, hijacking commercial vehicles and intimidating traders. A hijacked truck carrying fuel oil, for example, can yield up to $64,000, funds used to help the group step up its attacks.
Many observers thought the group's ability to act would have been compromised by the death last summer of its Jordanian founder Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi. But Al-Zarqawi's successor, the Egyptian Abu Hamza El-Muhagir, has been effective at encouraging not just sectarian but also Sunni-versus- Sunni violence. Since he assumed leadership Al-Muhagir's goal has been to eliminate resistance in the Sunni community to his group.
Even with Baghdad's security plan underway suicide attacks against civilians are up, frustrating US-led stabilisation efforts in the beleaguered capital. The attacks, many of which were carried out by Al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, have been timed to undermine the US-led surge of additional forces. The organisation is now adopting more aggressive tactics, including attacks using multiple bombs and kidnapping government employees and journalists in Baghdad. Some analysts believe that Al-Qaeda in Iraq's membership has increased to as many as 60,000 fighters from 5,000 two years ago.
While Iraqi Sunni groups say their goal is to force the Americans to withdraw from Iraq, Al-Qaeda's aim is to topple the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Its preferred tactic is to attack Shias, whether they are government officials, civilians, army soldiers or police officers. The group was responsible for the February 2006 attack against the Golden Mosque in Samaraa, a shrine sacred to Shias.
The growing rifts in the insurgency could be a good sign for the Iraqi government which has repeatedly said it wants to hold talks with Sunni Arab groups to see if they are ready to join the political process. Iraqi officials hope that negotiations could build a front against Al-Qaeda. Sunni Arab officials have also urged what they call "the real resistance" to disavow Al-Qaeda-linked attacks and engage in talks with the government to end the sectarian violence that has driven the country close to all-out civil war.
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, remains defiant and has vowed to escalate its "jihad" against the Americans, the Shias and what it calls secular Sunnis. In a statement on Saturday the Islamic State of Iraq warned Sunnis who take part in the government to quit and join its campaign to establish a broader Islamic state in Iraq. The warning came a day after it claimed responsibility for a suicide attack against the Iraqi parliament that killed and wounded several Sunnis lawmakers. Al-Qaeda's capabilities may not be ebbing but its support among Iraqi Sunni Arabs is certainly waning.