Saturday, January 28, 2006

From NY Times: Local Insurgents Tell of Clashes With Al Qaeda's Forces in Iraq

By Sabrina Tavernise and Dexter Filkins, NY Times Jan 12th

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 11 - The story told by two Iraqui guerrillas cut to the heart of the war that Iraqi and American officials now believe is raging inside the Iraqi insurgency.

In October, the two insurgents said in interviews, a group of local fighters from the Islamic Army gathered for an open-air meeting on a street corner in Taji, a city north of Baghdad.

Across from the Iraqis stood the men from Al Qaeda, mostly Arabs from outside Iraq. Some of them wore suicide belts. The men from the Islamic Army accused the Qaeda fighters of murdering their comrades.

"Al Qaeda killed two people from our group," said an Islamic Army fighter who uses the nom de guerre Abu Lil and who claimed that he attended the meeting. "They repeatedly kill our people."

The encounter ended angrily. A few days later, the insurgents said, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Islamic Army fought a bloody battle on the outskirts of town.

The battle, which the insurgents said was fought on Oct. 23, was one of several clashes between Al Qaeda and local Iraqi guerrilla groups that have broken out in recent months across the Sunni Triangle.

American and Iraqi officials believe that the conflicts present them with one of the biggest opportunities since the insurgency burst upon Iraq nearly three years ago. They have begun talking with local insurgents, hoping to enlist them to cooperate against Al Qaeda, said Western diplomats, Iraqi officials and an insurgent leader.

It is impossible to say just how far the split extends within the insurgency, which remains a lethal force with a shared goal of driving the Americans out of Iraq. Indeed, the best the Americans can hope for may be a grudging passivity from the Iraqi insurgents when the Americans zero in on Al Qaeda's forces.

But the split within the insurgency is coinciding with Sunni Arabs' new desire to participate in Iraq's political process, and a growing resentment of the militants. Iraqis are increasingly saying that they regard Al Qaeda as a foreign-led force, whose extreme religious goals and desires for sectarian war against Iraq's Shiite majority override Iraqi tribal and nationalist traditions.

While American and Iraqi officials have talked of a split for months, detailed accounts of clashes were provided by men claiming to be local insurgents.

Abu Lil was one of four Iraqi men interviewed for this article who said they were fighters for the Islamic Army, one of the main insurgent groups. Despite its name, its members have nationalist and largely secular motivations. While their membership in the insurgency could not be independently verified, the descriptions the four men offered of themselves and their exploits were lengthy, detailed and credible.

The four men interviewed are, by all accounts, ordinary Iraqis. One worked as a trash collector. Another was a part-time mechanic in an ice factory. All of them said they had children. While they claimed to be members of the same group, different members provided lengthy accounts of operations in an array of cities in the Sunni Triangle. The men gave Iraqi nicknames and noms de guerre. Some of their assertions, including specific examples about clashes with Al Qaeda's forces, were confirmed by American and Iraqi officials.

According to an American and an Iraqi intelligence official, as well as Iraqi insurgents, clashes between Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and Iraqi insurgent groups like the Islamic Army and Muhammad's Army have broken out in Ramadi, Husayba, Yusifiya, Dhuluiya and Karmah.

In town after town, Iraqis and Americans say, local Iraqi insurgents and tribal groups have begun trying to expel Al Qaeda's fighters, and, in some cases, kill them. It is unclear how deeply the split pervades Iraqi society. Iraqi leaders say that in some Iraqi cities, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and local insurgent groups continue to cooperate with one another.

American and Iraqi officials believe that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is largely made up of Iraqis, with its highest leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian. Even so, among Iraqis, the group is still perceived as a largely foreign force.

Evidence of the split is still largely anecdotal, and from most available evidence, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains the most virulent and well-financed group fighting in Iraq. But in most Sunni cities, Iraqis defied Al Qaeda's threats and turned out to vote in large numbers on Dec. 15.

"The tribes are fed up with Al Qaeda and they will not tolerate any more," said a senior Iraqi intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The intelligence official confirmed reports that a Sunni tribe in Samarra had tried and executed Qaeda members for their role in assassinating a local sheik.

"It was a beautiful mistake," the intelligence official said of the sheik's assassination by Al Qaeda. "Now the tribes will kill Al Qaeda. Now they have the courage."

An Attack's Repercussions

Samarra, north of Baghdad, had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda's fighters. In desperation, a local sheik, Hekmat Mumtaz al-Baz, traveled to Baghdad in September to meet with Iraq's defense minister and ask for help, said one of the sheik's aides, Waleed al-Samarrai. A few weeks after the visit, the sheik was shot dead by Qaeda gunmen in his yard.

The account was confirmed by a member of the tribe, and a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Baghdad. Mr. Samarrai spoke in an interview in Al Wasat Hospital in Baghdad, where his brother, Salim, the sheik's bodyguard, who was wounded in a fight with Al Qaeda, was convalescing.

The tribe was furious, and its members tracked down the three men who carried out the killing. Elders from the tribe held a trial in a local farmhouse and interrogated the men for days. They said they worked for a fighter from Saudi Arabia who bankrolled the attacks, Mr. Samarrai said.The Samarrai brothers said Al Qaeda's appeal was based less on religion than on money. The Iraqis who killed the sheik were believed to have received $500 to $1,000 for the job, and the same amount for dozens of other similar killings, Waleed al-Samarrai said. He said local insurgents had changed allegiances, lured away by Al Qaeda's money.

Members of the tribe swept the town and arrested 17 people they suspected were associated with the sheik's killing. In one house raid, the tribe found men from Sudan, Morocco, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, a member of the tribe said.

Al Qaeda's fighters struck back during the tribe's offensive. A foreign Arab believed to be a Saudi wearing in a suicide belt blew himself up at the sheik's funeral, killing one guest and wounding two, said Salim al-Samarrai, who said he witnessed the attack.

As a lesson to all those associated with the sheik's death, the tribe staged a public killing. While the sheik's father watched, men with machine guns shot the three men who carried out the assassination, the Samarrai brothers said.

"Someone from outside the tribe should not tell us what to do," said Waleed al-Samarrai, standing next to Salim's hospital bed. "It is unacceptable for us."

Tactical Disputes

Disagreements over Al Qaeda's bloody tactics between local insurgents and Al Qaeda's fighters are as old as the war. Abu Lil, who fought in Taji in October, for example, claimed to have met with Qaeda fighters in late 2003. The militant group had just claimed responsibility for a double car bombing in Baghdad, and insurgents from the 20th Revolutionary Brigade, a nationalist group that Abu Lil belonged to at that time, were angry about the high civilian death toll.

Abu Lil, an elfin man with a cotton scarf tied around his head, talked in detail about the meeting as he sat on a couch in a house in Baghdad. The meeting was held in a farmhouse in Mosul, he said. About 25 men from Al Qaeda attended. Several appeared to be from Pakistan. Some spoke Arabic so poorly that they had to speak through a translator.

The discussion dragged on for seven hours, he said, but did not go well. The local insurgents demanded that the foreigners from Al Qaeda leave Iraq.

"They said, 'Jihad needs its victims,' " Abu Lil said. " 'Iraqis should be willing to pay the price.' We said, 'It's very expensive'. "

The meeting ended abruptly, and Abu Lil and his associates walked out, feeling powerless and angry.

"I wished I had a nuclear bomb to attack them," he said. "We told them, 'You are not Iraqis. Who gave you the power to do this?' "

It took two more years for Sunni Arab sentiment to turn against the militants. As the Iraqi democratic political process began, including elections and the drafting of a new constitution, there was a widespread feeling among Sunnis that they were being left behind. Last January, Sunnis boycotted an election, giving them few seats in the new Parliament, and leaving them out of the drafting of a new constitution.

In the predominantly Sunni town of Dhuluiya, north of Baghdad, local residents blamed insurgents for their isolation. In the days leading up to a vote on the constitution, they went to the resistance and demanded they let people vote.

"All of the Sunnis were angry at the resistance," said a resident of Dhuluiya. "People realized, if we do not take part it, then we will lose the government. So the resistance agreed. They said, 'We will protect you from anyone who tries to attack you.' "

Emboldened by the promise of protection by the resistance, clerics from five local mosques encouraged their congregations to vote, even sending out people to put up posters about the election.

The excitement over the vote spurred Al Qaeda into action. At night, men put up their own posters threatening, "He who votes will be beheaded." Then, two days before the Oct. 15 referendum, a group of Qaeda fighters confronted an imam in one of the local Sunni mosques and lectured him about how voting contradicted the Koran. According to the imam, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety, two of the men appeared from their accents to be from Algeria and Syria. They vowed to kill anyone who removed their posters."Why are you driving the troubles into our town?" the Sunni cleric said he asked the men. "If you want jihad, the U.S. military is there."

Imams from five Sunni mosques tore down the Qaeda posters wherever they could find them."I myself tore those into pieces," the Sunni cleric said.

Al Qaeda got the message. On election day, Dhuluiya's voters streamed into polling places. The streets were quiet, with only a single attack on a polling center.

"All of them voted," the resident said. "All of Dhuluiya. There was no one sitting in his house."

Invisible Boundaries

Two and a half years into the American occupation, the towns and villages south of Baghdad are divided among the insurgent groups like gang territory in big American cities. The arrangement is largely invisible to American troops who patrol the towns, the insurgents said in interviews. But guerrillas themselves say they must seek permission to travel through towns their groups do not control.

Abu Marwa, a 32-year-old guerrilla leader from Yusifiya, a city south of Baghdad, told of a blood feud with Al Qaeda in a village the group controlled called Karagol, south of Baghdad.

Bookish and soft-spoken, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, Mr. Marwa told of life inside the insurgency during two days of interviews in Baghdad. He said he might never have clashed with Al Qaeda, but the group's sectarian war against Shiites clashed with his loyalty to a Shiite relative of his the group had kidnapped and tortured.

"It's more than crazy when you want to hit Al Qaeda," said Mr. Marwa, who said he was a fighter for a local cell called Thunder. "Even the network of the resistance couldn't think of doing such an act."

According to Mr. Marwa's story, the feud with Al Qaeda began on Oct. 13, when a car full of gunmen he said appeared to be Syrian kidnapped his relative and took him to Karagol, which is in territory he said was controlled by Al Qaeda.

"Karagol is the place where Al Qaeda is based in the region," said an Iraqi Army lieutenant based in the area. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

"There has not been a command to go into Karagol," he said. "There are no government forces there. Now it's fully under control of the terrorists."

For the next three days, Mr. Marwa searched through miles of lush farmland before he got to Karagol. When he was prevented from driving through the town by Qaeda gunmen, who shot at him on the road, he walked through orchards after dark.

He said a guide had led him to the house of a man who was known as a paid killer for Al Qaeda. The man consulted a notebook fat with names, but Mr. Marwa's relative's was not among them.

As he drew closer, a local insurgent warned him to stay away from Karagol, even if he was sure his relative was there.

" 'I advise you, if you know he's with Al Qaeda, don't go there,' " Mr. Marwa recalled the man saying.

Mr. Marwa finally found his relative in the local morgue. His legs bore drill holes revealing bone. His jaw had slid off to one side of his head, and his nose was broken. Burns marked his body. His knees were raw, as if he had been dragged.

"I was totally crazy," Mr. Marwa recalled. "A mad man was more rational than me."

Enlisting the most trusted members of his cell, Mr. Marwa set out to take revenge. They tracked down two Syrian members of Al Qaeda, and in late October laid out an intricate plan for an ambush. They killed them on a country road as they drove out of town, and took their kaffiyeh, or headdresses, to the dead relative's wife, Mr. Marwa said.

"After many meetings, we decided to terminate them," he said.

Despite such tensions, the Americans face significant challenges in trying to exploit the split. "It is against my beliefs to put my hand with the Americans," said an Iraqi member of the Islamic Army who uses the nom de guerre Abu Omar.

Still, he said in an interview in a house in Baghdad, he allowed himself a small celebration whenever a member of Al Qaeda fell to an American bullet. "I feel happy when the Americans kill them," he said.

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