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Iraqi schism targeted by U.S.

Combat between Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in some areas is seen as a chance to isolate terrorists.

March 27, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Insurgent leaders and Sunni Arab politicians say divisions between insurgent groups and Al Qaeda in Iraq have widened and have led to combat in some areas of the country, a schism that U.S. officials hope to exploit.

The Sunni Arab insurgent leaders said they disagreed with the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq over tactics, including attacks on civilians, as well as over command of the movement.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, on his last day in Iraq, said Monday that American officials were actively pursuing negotiations with the Sunni factions in an effort to further isolate Al Qaeda.

"Iraqis are uniting against Al Qaeda," Khalilzad said. "Coalition commanders have been able to engage some insurgents to explore ways to collaborate in fighting the terrorists."

Insurgent leaders from two of the prominent groups fighting U.S. troops said the divisions between their forces and Al Qaeda were serious. They have led to skirmishes in Al Anbar province, in western Iraq, and have stopped short of combat in Diyala, east of Baghdad, they said in interviews with the Los Angeles Times.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has taken responsibility for many of the most brutal attacks on civilians here, is made up primarily of foreign fighters. Although it shares a name with Osama bin Laden's group, it is unclear how much the two coordinate their activities.

The General Command of the Iraqi Armed Forces, a small Baath Party insurgent faction, told the Los Angeles Times it had split with Al Qaeda in Iraq in September, after the assassination of two of its members in Al Anbar.

"Al Qaeda killed two of our best members, the Gen. Mohammed and Gen. Saab, in Ramadi, so we took revenge and now we fight Al Qaeda," said the group's spokesman, who called himself Abu Marwan.

In Diyala, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a coalition of Islamists and former Baath Party military officers, is on the verge of cutting ties with Al Qaeda.

"In the past, we agreed in terms of the goal of resisting the occupation and expelling the occupation. We have some disagreements with Qaeda, especially about targeting civilians, places of worship, state civilian institutions and services," said a fighter with the brigade who identified himself with a nom de guerre, Haj Mahmoud abu Bakr.

"Now we reached a dead end and we disavow what Qaeda is doing. But until now, we haven't thought about fighting with them," he added. "We are counseling them, and in case they continue, we will cut off the aid and the logistical and intelligence support."

Shiite Muslim government officials said the Iraqi government was talking to insurgents both about fighting the radical movement and reaching a truce.

The government has proposed a trial cease-fire period to the 1920 Revolution Brigade, the Islamic Army in Iraq and other factions in western Baghdad. In return, the Iraqi government would mount a major reconstruction drive in battle-scarred Sunni areas, a senior member of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party said.

A rupture between Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents could prove a significant break for the Iraqi government and the Americans. But there are many potential drawbacks. Sunni politicians describe the fighting against Al Qaeda in Iraq as localized and emphasize that in some areas the various movements exist in harmony.

The Iraqi factions are also believed to engage in turf wars that could sabotage any concerted effort against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni politicians said.

The insurgents prefer to negotiate with the Americans and to bypass the Shiite-led government, which Sunni Arabs deeply distrust.

Khalilzad heralded the developing rift between insurgent groups and Al Qaeda in Iraq as "the key issue of the current period."

He said insurgents were "in touch with the government seeking reconciliation and cooperation" in both the conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq and reconciliation with Maliki's government.

Khalilzad acknowledged that he had met with insurgent groups last spring to try to draw them into the political process, but had barred followers of Al Qaeda in Iraq from his plans.

Three Sunni politicians, most of them with contacts in the Sunni insurgency, said insurgent groups were struggling over domestic issues, even as Al Qaeda in Iraq pursued an international agenda.

"All Iraqi resistance groups are in real dissension with Al Qaeda network in Iraq," said Khalaf Ayan, a member of the Sunni Tawafiq bloc in parliament.

"Al Qaeda is pursuing a different agenda -- an international one and not an Iraqi" agenda, he said. "Al Qaeda should join Iraqis and not the opposite. What happened is that Al Qaeda had targeted leaders of many Iraqi groups. That is why the resistance is in big conflict with Al Qaeda and is fighting against it."

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