In a development experts call a significant shift, Iraqi insurgent groups are speaking out against al-Qaida and its brutally violent tactics.
Last week, two groups, Asaeb al-Iraq al-Jihadiya (aka "the Iraqi Jihad Union") and a splinter faction of the 1920 Revolution Brigades called "Hamas in Iraq" issued statements accusing al-Qaida's Iraq wing, al-Qaida in Iraq, of brutally killing their fighters and commanders, as well as women and children.
"They have killed them and mutilated their bodies," reads an English translation of the Iraq Jihad Union's statement prepared for the NEFA Foundation, a non-profit terrorism research organization. "They dug up their bodies from the graves, further mutilated them, beheaded them, and showed them off from their vehicles.… They committed all of these acts despite the fact that these brothers were faithful to their religion...."
"The general public suffered a great deal," reads a similar translation of the Hamas in Iraq statement, describing alleged incidents in the Iraqi town of Ramadi, "because of [al-Qaida fighters'] actions. Every day they witnessed heads or headless bodies lying in the streets. Each one of these victims had been accused of a so-called 'crime' prohibited by al-Qaida fatwahs."
"The al-Qaida network," the second statement concludes, "has actually made people here think that the occupation forces are merciful and humane by comparison."
"We ask the leaders of the al-Qaida network," it continues, "to rethink their bitter journey in Iraq. Let them ask themselves why all the jihadi factions and the people [of Iraq] are standing against them?... They should be more concerned with upholding justice and obeying Allah instead of blindly obeying their organization."
NBC News terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann first reported the statements on counterterrorismblog.org. Kohlmann believes such strong public criticism of al-Qaida in Iraq by other insurgent groups in Iraq is a very significant development.
With these two new statements last week, Kohlmann says, "every single major insurgent group — with the exception of the Ansar al-Sunna Army — has now issued a statement condemning al-Qaida. These are hard-core jihadi groups saying this. These are former al-Qaida allies saying this."
Brian Fishman, a researcher and instructor at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., who analyzes jihadi communications, says all the statements suggest "the tide is turning" against al-Qaida in Iraq.
Fishman notes the complaints from all these groups have been similar — faulting al-Qaida in Iraq's indiscriminately violent tactics. The groups complain al-Qaida in Iraq is brutally attacking and killing their members — attacking and killing anyone who does not do their bidding.
With Iraqi Muslims believing al-Qaida in Iraq to be indiscriminately targeting and killing other Muslims, Fishman says, "Al-Qaida is failing in its effort to position itself as the sole vanguard of Muslims."
The statements suggest that opposition to al-Qaida's tactics in Iraq could be spreading among Sunni Muslim insurgent groups. In recent months, such opposition has been evident among Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province and has been credited with helping U.S. troops reduce the number of violent attacks there.
Kohlmann, who closely monitors jihadi Web sites, says the statements are causing an online ruckus in jihadi chat forums, with heated exchanges dividing nationalist Islamists who are increasingly critical of al-Qaida and al-Qaida believers who defend it.
"The reaction has been incredible," Kohlmann says. "There's a huge outpouring of resentment." He says there are many angry postings against the groups who have criticized al-Qaida. He says one of the groups just put out a second statement in response, arguing that al-Qaida's online defenders "don't know what's going on" in Iraq.
Are the statements authentic? Or could they be fakes, part of a covert U.S. intelligence strategy?
Kohlmann says he's convinced they're authentic. He says the statements are attributed to known, established groups and appeared on Arabic-language Web sites known to be affiliated with or managed directly by terrorism organizations. If the statements were fake, Kohlmann says, the groups would have rushed to publish disclaimers. They have not.
NBC News has not independently confirmed the specific statements.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida in Iraq recently issued a statement of its own, laying out parameters of what al-Qaida in Iraq militants should and should not do. Fishman sees it as an attempt by al-Qaida in Iraq's leadership to rein in some of the tactics of its fighters and re-assert its authority.
Although they acknowledge al-Qaida in Iraq is far from defeated and still has the means to continue its attacks in Iraq, both Fishman and Kohlmann see the public criticism of al-Qaida in Iraq by other insurgent groups there as a positive turn in the Iraq war, and a huge opportunity the U.S. should exploit.
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