Al-Qaida Versus The Islamic Army: Insurgents in Iraq Turn on Each Other
The Sunni insurgency in Iraq is splitting, with loyalists to the old Baathist regime now fighting al-Qaida-backed Islamists. Could it be a turning point in the country’s civil war?
Iraqis inspect the area surrounding Abdul-Qadir al-Gailani mosque in Baghdad, the biggest Sunni mosque in Iraq, after a suicide car bomber blew himself up on May 28.
The Islamic Army tells a different story. “We went to the Maluki mosque to take al-Qaida to task," they say. "It is no longer acceptable what these people are doing to our Sunni neighborhoods: They’re ghost towns where nobody can live. That’s why it came to a fight.”
The battle in Amiriyah, currently Baghdad’s most dangerous district, lasted two days. Afterwards, the dead littered the streets and even the last inhabitants of the Maluki mosque had fled. No one counted the actual number of casualties, since the Iraqi police, army and US military no longer come to this part of Amiriyah. Here terror, insurgency, murder and violence are left to fester undisturbed.
Still, the carnage in Amiriyah is a cause of hope for some. Until recently, the Iraqi branch of the global terrorist network al-Qaida had good ties to the Islamic Army, a homegrown radical Sunni outfit taking part in the country’s insurgency. The two groups used to congratulate each other on their respective Web sites whenever they managed to blow up a US Humvee or a group of Iraqi police recruits.
But that has all changed. Now the two sides are locked in a bitter battle in the cities and villages of Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. Instead of offering mutual congratulations, they use the Internet as a platform to condemn each other over the battle for the Maluki mosque.
Al-Qaida now calls the members of the Islamic Army “dogs,” while they in return warn the al-Qaida leadership to prepare for Qiyamah -- the Last Judgment -- and the wrath of Allah.
The Iraqi government and the US military have both acknowledged the new internal Sunni conflict with cautious optimism. They consider al-Qaida to be the worst of the problems plaguing the war-torn country. The terrorist offspring of the late Islamist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- who was killed last year -- aren’t interested in Iraq as a nation, nor do they care about the plight of the Iraqi people. What they want is the civil war that they’ve successfully fueled through a series of attacks and suicide bombings.
For some, groups like the Islamic Army, 1920 Revolution Brigade, or the Mujahideen Army are a lesser evil. They too murder, kidnap and execute with abandon, but what differentiates them from al-Qaida is that they are Iraqi outfits. Many of their fighters are former military officers and secret police from Saddam Hussein’s deposed Baathist regime. Western Iraq experts have designated them as part of the “national insurgency.” They have high-level contacts with Sunni political leaders and they are even more dependent on the goodwill of the Iraqi population than al-Qaida is.
The former US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, worked tirelessly until he left his post earlier this year to drive a wedge between the Sunni insurgency and the al-Qaida jihadists, meeting with figures from the gray area between terrorism and politics -- but ultimately to no avail. Only last December, the US terror expert Evan Kohlmann said a type of terrorism umbrella organization was forming in Iraq, led by al-Qaida but including nationalist insurgent groups.
However, fundamental disagreements between the groups, which had been papered over in common cause against the US occupation, are now surfacing again. And, according to a report in the New York Times, American commanders are now arming Sunni groups to help them fight al-Qaida.
“We have three enemies,” says Sheikh Khalaf al-Ilyan, an Iraqi parliamentarian with close ties to the Sunni insurgency. “Enemy number one is al-Qaida, enemy number two is Iran, number three is the Americans.”
Sitting in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in the Jordanian capital Amman, Ilyan groans as he stretches out his legs. Six months ago, he had a knee operation in Dubai, and he hasn’t been seen in Baghdad for a long time. But he’s still considered the leader of the Islamic Army. Government authorities found explosives at his residence in the Baghdad neighborhood Yarmouk -- supposedly the same type used to bomb the Iraqi parliament in April. The Iraqi government can likely be considered his enemy number four, even though his party technically remains a part of it. But Ilyan says it’s only a mater of time before it withdraws from the ruling coalition.
How can al-Qaida suddenly be the enemy, considering people like Ilyan used to call the leaders of the terrorist group “the lions of resistance” in Iraq? The sheikh now feels al-Qaida is fundamentally un-Iraqi: “They kill Iraqi civilians, they kill our imams, they slay honored war veterans. They are a global organization that exists only to destroy Islam’s reputation.”
One of Ilyan’s followers quickly adds that, more than anything, al-Qaida allows for no gods other than themselves. Whoever refuses to join their umbrella organization “Islamic State of Iraq” can be executed simply on suspicion, without trial or evidence, he says. Saddam Hussein’s old loyalists apparently have a problem with al-Qaida’s totalitarianism.
- Part 1: Insurgents in Iraq Turn on Each Other
- Part 2: A Common Enemy?
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