Widening schism in Iraq between Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda

As some Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups report growing disaffection – and in some cases direct fighting – with Al Qaeda in Iraq, US and Iraqi officials are reaching out to former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in an effort to turn them away from militantism and toward reconciliation.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the insurgent leaders said they disagreed with the tactics used by Al Qaeda in Iraq as well as its command structure, and that these divisions have led to skirmishes. The leader of a Baath Party insurgent group, the Iraqi Armed Forces, told the Times that the group had cut ties with Al Qaeda in September.

"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."

The New York Times reported Sunday that outgoing US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad held talks last year with representatives of "less radical" Iraqi insurgent groups in an effort to get them more involved in Iraqi politics and less aligned with "true militants" such as Al Qaeda. Although there had been reports in the past of such attempts to reach out to Sunni insurgents, the Times said Mr. Khalilzad is the first US official to publicly acknowledge them.

The meetings began in early 2006 and were quite possibly the first attempts at sustained contact between senior American officials here and the Sunni Arab insurgency. Mr. Khalilzad flew to Jordan for some of the talks, which included self-identified representatives of the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, two leading nationalist factions, American and Iraqi officials said. Mr. Khalilzad declined to give details on the meetings, but other officials said the efforts had foundered by the summer, after the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra set off waves of sectarian violence.

Mr. Khalilzad's willingness even to approach rebel groups seemed at odds with the public position of some Bush administration officials that the United States does not negotiate with insurgents. It was not clear whether he had to seek permission from Washington before engaging in these talks. In general, Mr. Khalilzad was given great flexibility in making diplomatic decisions to try to rein in the spiraling violence, and his talks with insurgents reflected the practical view of Iraqi politics that the ambassador adopted throughout his nearly two-year tenure here.

A US official cited in the Times report said that it was unclear whether the people who met with Khalilzad were actually "influential" in the insurgent groups they claimed to represent, and because the Sunni insugency doesn't have a unified command they were "never able to find people who could reduce the violence." An Iraqi politician, former deputy prime minister Ahmad Chalabi, said the talks fizzled when insurgent representatives made "untenable demands" that included the reinstatement of the old Iraqi Army and the establishment of a new government.

Reuters reports that the purpose of such meetings was to "build an alliance against al Qaeda in Iraq." The Christian Science Monitor reported last December that US and Iraqi officials were meeting privately with insurgent representatives in Jordan, Baghdad, and Cyprus, although at the time no US officials would confirm those meetings. Even then, there was skepticism that the groups being courted were influential enough to make a difference.

"Maybe they are talking to small entities, and the reason for that is that the active resistance won't negotiate, because they want America to withdraw from Iraq," [Bashar al-Faili, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a Sunni political group] argues. "This is a huge mistake - Americans have to be logical. They have to be realistic and to know one thing - that they are not going to stay in Iraq. That they are not going to have bases in Iraq."

However, Iraqi officials are still trying to reach out to disaffected Sunnis. The Los Angeles Times report says that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has proposed a trial cease-fire period with Sunni insurgent groups in western Baghdad in return for "a major reconstruction drive in battle-scarred Sunni areas." As early as 2005, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani had called for amnesty for insurgents who had fought US and Iraqi troops. And in what The Washington Post reports is another move intended to placate former Baath Party members, Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Talabani on Monday announced new legislation to overturn some of the "de-Baathification" laws that had stripped former party members from their government jobs and led many to fight in the insurgency against the Iraqi government and US forces.

The draft, which was released by the U.S. Embassy early Tuesday, would let all but the three highest levels of Baathists return to their jobs, provided they had not been involved in criminal activity. All those who lost their jobs would collect a pension. It was unclear how many former Baathists would benefit from the legislation.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, Maliki's political adviser, said that the draft would probably go before parliament this week and that top officials would pressure lawmakers to pass it quickly.

Alaa Makki, a Sunni lawmaker who said he had not seen the draft, said he expected it to generate debate in parliament. But he said an agreement could "reactivate" a political process that has often been paralyzed by sectarian divisions.

"A lot of people really were wrongly punished," he said. "It will be a positive sign of political success if this law is passed and accepted. And many people will get to reconciliation."

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