There is increasing evidence that the fault lines between local Sunni Iraqi insurgents and the mostly foreign fighters of Abu Musaab al Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq are deepening, according to a number of press reports.
If the trend continues, it could help to complete the integration of the Sunni minority into the political process, weaken the violent insurgency, and reduce attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces. ABC News consultant Fawaz Gerges, author of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global," said "the Sunnis are chasing the al Zarqawi men from all over the al Anbar Province. The implications are tremendous for Iraq, the American military presence in Iraq, and the war against al Qaeda. The tide has seemed to turn against the al Zarqawi network in Iraq."
Reports over the last week suggest that local tribes in Iraq's troubled western province of al Anbar have turned against al Zarqawi and his foreign militants and appear determined to expel them. The pan-Arab al Hayat newspaper reported on Friday that the campaign against the group had so far resulted in the arrest of 270 Arab and foreign "infiltrators" and a number of Iraqis, according to the leader of Al Karabla tribes in al Qa'em. An army officer told the paper that most of those arrested were Jordanians, Saudis and Syrians.
Al Hayat also reported on a series of armed clashes between local groups and al Qaeda in al Ramadi and other Sunni areas last week. "Security committees" were formed in coordination with the Iraqi defense minister to stop the militants who had killed a number of moderate religious and tribal figures. The paper also reported that six groups that had decided to stop all forms of cooperation with al Qaeda in Iraq had formed what they called "The People's Cells" in al Anbar to overlook security in the area.
While both al Zarqawi and the Iraqi militant groups were fighting a common enemy -- the U.S. and coalition forces -- Iraqi opposition to al Zarqawi and his brutal tactics had been building with the increasing death toll of civilians killed in al Qaeda's suicide attacks. Zarqawi's assassination of local tribal leaders also contributed to the building resentment. A split began to appear before the Dec. 15 elections. Many Sunni militants and tribes participated in the political process and voted in the elections, while al Qaeda in Iraq strongly opposed any form of political participation and threatened to kill those who did.
The Mujaheddin Consultative Council -- Al Zarqawi Tries to Salvage the Situation
In a clear attempt to regain the lost support, al Qaeda in Iraq posted a statement on the Internet announcing the formation of what it had called the "Mujaheddin Consultative Council," uniting the group with five other insurgent groups believed to be relatively small in size. The leadership of the council was given to an Iraqi -- a move clearly designed to deflect attention from al Zarqawi, who is Jordanian. Since then, al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for attacks through the new council. Over the weekend, another group, called the Army of Ahl al Sunna Wal Jama'a, joined the council, according to an Internet statement.
Two insurgent groups believed to be the biggest in Iraq have declined to join the council however. The Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of Ansar al Sunna are still operating independently. The Islamic Army in Iraq has long had its differences with al Zarqawi. They oppose suicide attacks and the targeting of civilians. Four Iraqi insurgents who claimed to be part of the Islamic Army in Iraq told The New York Times about a battle between the two groups in October. U.S. and Iraqi intelligence officials also confirmed to the paper that there were clashes between al Qaeda in Iraq and Iraqi insurgent groups like the Islamic Army in Ramadi, Husayba, Yusifiya, Dhuluiya and Karmah.
The other group, the Army of Ansar al Sunna, has cooperated with al Qaeda in Iraq in the past. It's still unclear why the group did not agree to be part of the new council, but it could represent yet another effort to marginalize al Qaeda in Iraq.
Target of Opportunity?
The growing split between Iraqi militant groups and tribes on one side and al Qaeda in Iraq on the other may provide an important window of opportunity for the U.S. diplomats and the Iraqi government. The Sunni campaign against al Zarqawi may represent the only way to eject al Zarqawi and his violent jihadists from Iraq since combat operations against the group by U.S. forces have failed to stop the terrorist attacks. Al Hayat reported that tribal leaders in al Anbar were already preparing for a dialogue with the government and the multicoalition forces this week. The paper had also reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari had agreed to replace the U.S. forces in Ramadi with local Iraqi forces as part of a deal in which the tribes promised to tighten the noose on foreign fighters. The deal was reached during a meeting between the prime minister, tribal leaders, and U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, according to the newspaper. The pressure on al Zarqawi occurs at a time of delicate negotiations between Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties to form a new government and underline the importance of fully including the Sunni minority in the political process.