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Deadly Rift Grows Among Insurgents

U.S. hopes to exploit violence between Iraqi militants and foreign fighters, officials say.

January 29, 2006|Louise Roug and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

RAMADI, Iraq — Deadly fighting has erupted within Iraq's insurgency as home-grown guerrilla groups, increasingly resentful of foreign-led extremists, try to assert control over the fragmented anti-American campaign, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Yet there is no evidence that the split here in the Sunni Arab heartland has weakened the uprising, diminished Iraqis' sense of insecurity, or brought any relief to U.S. forces, the officials say.

Tit-for-tat killings among locals and followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi have been reported across western Iraq in recent months, and some U.S. officials see the strife as a positive sign. They have been working to drive a wedge between Zarqawi's foreign Arab volunteers and Iraqi-led militant groups, and to bring Sunnis who have backed the uprising into Iraq's political process.

"There's an opportunity to divide the ... insurgency, and we're starting to see breaks in that now," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mowaffak Rubaie, the Iraqi government's national security advisor, said a growing body of intelligence indicated that Iraqi-led groups were turning against Zarqawi's faction, Al Qaeda in Iraq, over a divergence of basic aims.

He believes the shift reflects Iraqis' growing resentment of a foreign-led force whose fundamentalist religious goals and calls for sectarian war against Iraq's Shiite majority run counter to Iraqi nationalist traditions.

But U.S. military officials concede that the guerrillas' ability to strike anywhere at any time is largely undiminished. They say the insurgency remains a stubborn, elusive and deadly collection of fighting groups that share the aim of ousting American forces.

Their attacks across Iraq averaged 75 per day in December, up from 52 a year earlier, driving the country's sectarian violence and contributing to a decline in its oil production. U.S. troops died at the same rate last year as in 2004, and most estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties rose.

Reports of clashes among the anti-American fighters began surfacing several months ago.

One outbreak of violence came in mid-January after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey, the top military commander in Iraq, visited this provincial capital to solidify a pact with tribal sheiks. Under the deal, young men from their tribes had been signing up for a municipal police force to replace the one the insurgents had destroyed.

A day after the meeting, one of the sheiks, Nasr Abdul Kareem, a 49-year-old physics professor thought to be an insurgent strategist, was shot dead in an ambush after dropping his sons off at school. Two other sheiks cooperating with U.S. forces here in Al Anbar province were slain the same week.

Outraged by the slayings, insurgents from their tribes have retaliated by killing at least a dozen Zarqawi followers, an Iraqi intelligence official said.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said six "major leaders" of Zarqawi's network had been killed since September by Iraq-led insurgent groups -- "people saying, 'Get outta here, we've had enough!' "

"The local insurgents have become part of the solution," Lynch said.

The severity of the rift among insurgents is hard to gauge, security specialists say, because the movement has long been fragmented into dozens of loosely coordinated factions, a feature that makes it hard to understand, much less defeat. Estimates of their numbers range from 4,000 to 20,000, a significant minority of them commanded by Zarqawi.

"Because we still lack a clear picture of the insurgency, we can't assess the full import of this development," said Bruce Hoffman, a leading specialist on terrorism and director of the Rand Corp.'s Washington office. Hoffman said he was skeptical that the clashes point to deep differences among guerrilla groups, suggesting that the killings might simply be examples of traditional Iraqi tribal justice.

Rubaie disagreed. "Al Qaeda in Iraq is at loggerheads with the Islamic Army and the Mujahedin Army," he said, mentioning two home-grown insurgent factions. "This is not infighting and retaliation and revenge between tribes. We are talking about two ideologies."

Working to exploit the division, U.S. diplomats helped persuade the main Sunni political groups, which had boycotted the polls last January, to compete in Iraq's Dec. 15 election and seek a share of power in Baghdad.

Ignoring threats by Al Qaeda to sabotage the election, Sunni clerics and many insurgent groups mobilized a heavy Sunni voter turnout. The returns gave Sunni parties about one-fifth of the seats in parliament and a chance to bargain for a minority role in a government now dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

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