The leader of al-Qaida’s umbrella group in Iraq tried to patch up rifts with other Sunni insurgent groups, urging militants in an audiotape released Tuesday to stop spilling each other’s blood and unite against the Americans and the Iraqi government.
The moderate tone from Abu Omar al-Baghdadi toward his rivals suggested the unusually public spat among factions of the insurgency was raising concern among top leaders.
A week earlier, a spokesman of the rival Islamic Army in Iraq appeared on Al-Jazeera television, accusing al-Qaida in Iraq of killing members of his group and trying to force others to join al-Qaida.
In Tuesday’s audiotape, al-Baghdadi — leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, a coalition in which al-Qaida is a leading member — told rival groups that he wanted to end their disagreements and vowed to punish any of his fighters who kill other militants.
“To my sons of the Islamic Army, please know that I will sacrifice my blood and honor for you,” said al-Baghdadi in the 42-minute tape, which was his longest to date, according to the Washington-based SITE institute that monitors statements by extremist groups.
Unity essential for 'victory'
“We swear to you we don’t shed the protected blood of Muslims intentionally. If I hear otherwise, I will set up a council of judges ... so even the weakest person in Iraq could take his rights, even if from my blood,” he said.
He called for unity, saying “one group is essential to accomplish victory.” The authenticity of the tape, posted on an Islamic militant Web forum where the group often issues statements, could not immediately be verified.
The Islamic State of Iraq groups eight Sunni insurgent factions, including al-Qaida in Iraq. But significant Sunni insurgent groups remain outside the coalition, including the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Ansar al-Sunna Army.
The Islamic Army of Iraq has claimed numerous attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as kidnap-slayings of foreigners, although it is not known for suicide bomb attacks on civilians, many of which have been carried out by al-Qaida and its allies.
Al-Qaida is believed to be mainly made up of non-Iraqi Arab Islamic extremists, and it is thought to have formed the coalition to build support among Iraqi insurgents, who include Islamists and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime and military.
Al-Baghdadi accused outside powers — particularly the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that is a member of the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — of fueling the divisions among insurgents. The government has been trying, with some success, to turn Sunnis against al-Qaida in such hotspots as Anbar province.
The rift among insurgents has been fueled in part by reports that some militants have been negotiating with the government and U.S. officials — though the contacts have failed to make any headway. The Islamic Army denied it had held any talks though it has said it is willing to do so under certain conditions.
Al-Qaida versus Islamic Army
The disputes became public this month when the Islamic Army charged in an Internet statement that al-Qaida was killing its fighters and those belonging to other militant Sunni groups if they did not pledge loyalty to it.
It said al-Qaida had killed Harith Dhaher al-Dhari, a field commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, another group not part of the coalition. Al-Dhari, the son of a tribal chief, was killed last month north of Baghdad.
Then, in an interview last week with Al-Jazeera television, the Islamic Army’s spokesman, Ibrahim al-Shimmari, accused al-Baghdadi’s organization of killing 30 members of the Islamic Army and said al-Baghdadi had broken Islamic law by forcing other groups to swear allegiance to his coalition.
Along with the conciliatory words for the other insurgents, al-Baghdadi added a tough message to Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere, some of whom have reportedly started backing the government against the insurgency. “You must know that violating our agreements is a major sin,” he said. “Don’t dare follow the occupiers and their criminal cohorts.”
Al-Baghdadi also claimed his group had started manufacturing its own rockets, called al-Quds-1, or Jerusalem-1. The claim was impossible to verify.
Insurgents’ production abilities are largely unknown. They have used a range of Soviet-era rockets like Katyushas, and shoulder-fired ground-to-air Sam-7 missiles — most looted from Saddam’s depots. Weapons are also believed to be smuggled in from Iran and Syria.