In Iraq, Sunni insurgents still aim to oust U.S., Shiites

In an interview, a member of the Islamic Army of Iraq speaks of his group's long-term goals.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Check: US Army Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell searched an Iraqi after a recent attack. General Petraeus cited Mosul as a city where Sunni insurgents are strong.
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Abu Abdullah had slipped into the capital to pick up a stash of weapons, most likely smuggled here via Iran or Syria by an ever-multiplying number of dealers.

He arrived on March 27, just before a three-day curfew cleared city streets during fighting with the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. His aim, he said over a recent lunch of mazgouf, or grilled fish, was to make it out alive and return to western Anbar Province to rearm his compatriots in the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), a powerful Sunni insurgent group formed shortly after the US invasion.

This week, Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told Congress of two main threats to Iraq's stability: Iran-backed Shiite militias and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Little was said about the broader state of the Sunni insurgency, other than a fleeting mention by General Petraeus of the IAI in the northern city of Mosul and Mr. Crocker's reference to Syria "harboring individuals who finance and support the Iraqi insurgency." .

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But homegrown Sunni insurgent groups not directly tied to AQI remain committed to fighting US forces and driving Iraq's Shiite led-government from power. While they have assumed a lower profile, they benefit from the support of former regime figures and militant Sunnis abroad as well as the proliferation of weapons and ammunition flowing from Iran and Syria.

They have also made significant inroads into the Sunni militias, dubbed "Sons of Iraq," created by the US military to fight AQI. While Petraeus said again Wednesday that these US-backed militias had "some former insurgents," the IAI's Abu Abdullah, who goes by a nickname, says he would not dream of moving around if it were not for help from these militias and Sunni elements inside government security forces.

Echoing concerns about the true allegiance of these US-funded militias, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware raised the prospect in his remarks Tuesday that these groups may one day "turn their guns on us."

Requests to the US military in Iraq for comment on the activities of non-AQI insurgent groups have gone unanswered.

Insurgent's view of US presence

In an interview, Abu Abdullah revealed a complex picture of a Sunni insurgency that appears to support US efforts to diminish AQI's reign, yet is deeply opposed to the American-led effort here.

Abu Abdullah says that most attacks by his group, the IAI, focus on the US military. The IAI's website features an up-to-date list of all its purported attacks – most involving rocket or mortar fire and roadside bombings against US troops. Some attacks are also against Shiite militias and government forces. "We are fighting a battle for our existence," says Abu Abdullah.

He also maintains that while the US has succeeded in driving a wedge between AQI and Sunnis in Anbar Province, many of the tribesmen there who are now on the American payroll are still aiding IAI and other insurgent groups.

"Chasing out Al Qaeda has benefited us a lot," he says, explaining that AQI militants have largely been driven out of Anbar and Baghdad and are now concentrated in parts of Diyala, Nineveh, and Salaheddin provinces to the north. He says AQI used indiscriminate violence to subdue other Sunni insurgent groups. Petraeus has offered a similar assessment.

Abu Abdullah, a former Iraqi military officer who was briefly jailed during Saddam Hussein's rule for his Islamic sympathies, says he first joined the insurgency shortly after the US-led invasion in 2003 and belonged at the time to a group known as the 1920 Revolution Brigades. He left that group to join the IAI in May 2004 after he realized the Brigades were being swayed by the secular ideology of Hussein's Baath Party. One IAI goal is to turn Iraq into a state similar to Saudi Arabia, which adheres to a puritanical form of Sunni Islam.

He says most Sunni Arab insurgent groups, including IAI, sympathized and in some cases cooperated with AQI when it was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who was killed in a US airstrike in June 2006.

Abu Abdullah says clashes with AQI began when its new leader, Egyptian-born Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also known as Abu Ayub al-Masri, along with the Islamic State of Iraq, started targeting Iraqi insurgents. He blames Iran for infiltrating AQI after Zarqawi's death.

He says the situation pushed Sunnis to the brink of a protracted internal battle, so siding with the US military to root out AQI and preserve Sunni unity made sense.

"Some people joined ... while others are still in the resistance.… We wanted to prevent fitna [discord] among Sunnis, and to unite our front," he says.

Members of these US-backed militias now number almost 91,000 and are paid a total of $16 million a month in salaries by the US. They are often lauded by President Bush in his speeches on Iraq.

The US military now calls these Sunni militias "Sons of Iraq." Iraqis simply refer to all these groups as sahwas. But the Shiite-led government is resisting US pressure to fold these groups, especially the ones in Baghdad and Diyala provinces, into the Army and police. "Trust me, the sahwas are ultimately with the resistance, heart and mind," says Abu Abdullah.

He says IAI continues to have a loose affiliation with other factions that share its outlook, such as Muhammad's Army, the Rashideen Army, and Mujahedeen Army. The IAI's website also mentions a strand of Ansar al-Sunna, which has been linked to Al Qaeda in the past, as an additional ally.

Adding to the complexity is the role of former regime figures. Abu Abdullah says Rashideen is strongly backed by Ahmed al-Douri, the son of a top former Hussein lieutenant believed to be living in Yemen.

Even Sunni Arab parties at the core of the US-backed political process, such as the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, are ambivalent toward the Sunni insurgency, distinguishing between "noble" and "non-noble" fighters. The IIP's website refers to the US military in Iraq as "occupation forces" and describes Hussein's fall as a "black day."

Cross-purposes among insurgents

Abu Abdullah admits that some of the IAI's goals remain at cross-purposes with groups that have a more nationalist bent.

The 1920 Revolution Brigades split a year ago into "Islamic Jihad" and "Islamic Conquest" factions, the latter becoming the armed wing of a larger movement called "The Islamic Resistance Movement: Hamas, Iraq."

Abu Abdullah says these factions are all closely linked to the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), led by hard-line Sunni clerics who are wanted by the government, and in some cases to the IIP. In a November interview with the Monitor, Mr. Hashemi denied ties to Sunni insurgent groups but admitted knowing and meeting some top leaders, saying he was trying to convince them to join the political process.

"The resistance is in a much better shape now than it was seven months ago; many young men who have never fought in the past have just joined the resistance. They are fighting under numerous labels to evade infiltration," AMSI's chief, Hareth al-Dhari, who is now outside Iraq, told the London-based Quds al-Arabi newspaper last week.

The Internet also continues to be a prime platform for Sunni insurgents. In a March 21 statement posted on the IAI's website, the group's purported leader mocks the visit by President Bush and senior US officials to Anbar last fall and their meeting with Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, one of the first sahwa leaders. He was killed shortly thereafter.

""Prolonging the war in Iraq will be like walking through a V-shaped land or swimming in a swamp infested with alligators," it reads. "To the American people, the true salvation to your economy and security can be achieved by pulling out of Iraq."

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