At least two major insurgent groups are battling al-Qaida in provinces outside Baghdad, American military commanders said Friday, an indication of a deepening rift between Sunni guerrilla groups in Iraq.
U.S. officers say a growing number of Sunni tribes are turning against al-Qaida, repelled by the terror group's sheer brutality and austere religious extremism. The tribes are competing with al-Qaida for influence and control over diminishing territory in the face of U.S. assaults, the officers say. The influx of Sunni fighters to areas outside the capital in advance of the security crackdown in Baghdad may have further unsettled the region.
"This is a big turning point," U.S. Maj. David Baker said Friday in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba. "If they are fighting against each other, it's better than them fighting against us."
Even Sunnis who want to cooperate with the Shiite-led government are becoming more emboldened to speak out against al-Qaida. In Anbar province, more than 200 Sunni sheiks have decided to form a political party to oppose the terror group, participants said Friday.
The clashes have erupted over the last two to three months, pitting al-Qaida in Iraq against the nationalist 1920 Revolution Brigades in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces north of Baghdad as well as Anbar to the west, U.S. officers said. In Diyala, another hard-line militant Sunni group, the Ansar al-Sunna Army, is also fighting al-Qaida, they said.
'Goals ... at odds'
"It's happening daily," Lt. Col. Keith Gogas said Thursday in an interview at an Army base in Muqdadiyah, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. "Our read on it is that that the more moderate, if you will, Sunni insurgents, are finding that their goals and al-Qaida's goals are at odds."
American commanders cite al-Qaida's severe brand of Islam, which is so extreme that in Baqouba, al-Qaida has warned street vendors not to place tomatoes beside cucumbers because the vegetables are different genders, Col. David Sutherland said.
Such radicalism has fueled sectarian violence in Iraq and redrawn the demographics of many mixed Sunni-Shiite towns in Diyala, where tens of thousands of Shiites have been forced to flee large population centers.
Previously 55 percent Sunni, 45 percent Shiite, Baqouba — where rival insurgents also have clashed — is today 80 percent Sunni and 20 percent Shiite, Sutherland said.
The rift among insurgents has also been sparked by reports that some militants have been negotiating with the government and U.S. officials, who are trying to draw Sunni groups away from al-Qaida.
Iraqi police and security forces — not Americans — have been negotiating with 1920 Revolution Brigades fighters, who have said "they want some help against al-Qaida," Baker said.
"That's a plus for this place, and we're going to try to exploit that," he said. "We're not making allies with anybody ... but we are monitoring what's going on."
American officers say the clashes have weakened the insurgency. In the last month in Diyala, 1920 Revolution Brigades fighters eased up attacks on Americans, largely turning their guns on al-Qaida, Baker said.
On Tuesday, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who heads al-Qaida's umbrella group Islamic State in Iraq, urged militants in an audiotape to stop spilling each other's blood and unite against American forces and the government. He told rival groups he wanted to end their disagreements and vowed to punish any of his fighters who kill other militants.
Then, in a Web video aired Thursday, the Islamic State in Iraq named a 10-member shadow government "Cabinet" in an apparent bid to present the coalition as an alternative to the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In a recent interview on Al-Jazeera TV, Ibrahim al-Shimmari, a spokesman for a rival group, Islamic Army in Iraq, said he did not recognize al-Qaida's claim to constitute a state. He said there could be no state "under crusader occupation" and vowed resistance against both American forces and Iran, which has close ties to the Shiite majority in Iraq.
The Islamic Army accuses al-Qaida of killing 30 of its members. Al-Shimmari also accuses al-Qaida of assassinating the leader of the 1920s Revolution Brigades, Harith Dhaher al-Dhari, who died March 27 when gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades on his car outside Baghdad.
The Islamic State in Iraq groups eight Sunni insurgent factions, including al-Qaida. Key Sunni insurgent groups are not part of the coalition, including the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Ansar al-Sunna Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.
Al-Qaida is believed to be mostly made up of non-Iraqi Arab Islamic extremists, and is thought to have formed the umbrella group to build support among the homegrown Iraqi insurgents, who include Islamists and former members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime and military.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, who commands coalition troops north of the capital, said insurgents in Diyala were mostly Iraqis and "very few foreigners" were among them. He said most al-Qaida members in the province were Iraqis.
The U.S. officers were unable to say how extensive the clashes have been or how many fighters were killed.
First reports 2-3 months ago
Rival insurgent groups have clashed in the southern portions of Salahuddin province and Diyala, where U.S. forces are stepping up operations against insurgents who've gone there in recent months to flee the security crackdown in Baghdad, according to Mixon.
Gogas said he first began getting intelligence reports of insurgent infighting in the deserts and farmlands around Muqdadiyah two to three months ago.
"We get reports all the time there was a big firefight in this town," said Gogas, adding that the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Ansar al-Sunna Army were fighting al-Qaida separately in villages around Muqdadiyah.
In Anbar province, tradition epicenter of the Sunni insurgency, military officials have reported similar clashes. There, as in parts of Diyala, sheiks and tribal leaders have begun turning against Sunni extremists.
Last fall, they formed a group called the Anbar Salvation Council, which has grown in recent months and helped reduce violence tremendously in cities like Ramadi, Anbar's capital.
In Ramadi on Thursday, more than 200 Sunni sheiks agreed to form a party called Iraq Awakening, said Sheik Jubeir Rashid, a participant at the meeting and an aide to the leader of the Anbar Salvation Council. The group would be a national party, with a platform of opposition to al-Qaida and cooperation with the government, organizers said.
"As tribe after tribe begins to reject al-Qaida, we are witnessing an escalation in violence by AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) against the tribes," said Maj. Jeff Pool, military spokesman for Anbar. "East of Fallujah in the Zaidon and Zoba'a districts ... 1920 Revolution Brigades are fighting large-scale battles with AQI across their tribal areas."
Speaking in Baqouba, Mixon said that "less and less of the population, by way of the tribes, is willing to be dominated by these groups because if they are, then the tribe loses its influence in the area." And, "because of pressure we have put on them in certain areas, they have begun vying for control of space and the population," he said.
Gogas said some people are tired of fighting.
"I think what's changed is, time has gone by and it has not gotten better for the normal folks in Iraq," he said. "They have seen what al-Qaida is all about and what al-Qaida brings and they don't like it because they don't see their future getting better."