Some three months after US and Iraqi forces launched their much-trumpeted security plan, code-named “Operation Imposing Law” (Fardh al-Qanun), designed primarily to secure the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and the restive al-Anbar province, the Iraqi insurgency has shown no significant sign of waning. But a recent sudden increase in violent attacks against Sunni Arab politicians, tribal leaders and civilian targets, as well as reported skirmishes between various armed groups in predominantly Sunni Arab areas, has drawn attention to strains between the insurgency’s various components, especially those tensions pitting local tribal members and Iraqi Islamist and nationalist insurgents against the al-Qa’ida in Iraq Organization and non-Iraqi volunteer jihadis.
On April 6 a truck-bomb loaded with explosives and toxic chlorine gas that targeted a police patrol in Ramadi, capital of the Anbar province, killed at least ten people and wounded 24. The patrol was mainly manned by members of local tribes, who have recently taken to joining security forces. This bombing was the ninth in a series of attacks that have spewed poisonous chlorine gas into the air in the sprawling, mainly-desert Anbar province, which has been the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq. It followed the triple suicide-bomb attacks in Fallujah and Ramadi on March 16, in which vehicles loaded with chlorine-gas canisters not only poisoned hundreds but also sent shockwaves around Iraq.
The use of chemical agents in insurgent attacks is a new development in Iraq: the first such incident took place when a suicide-bomber driving a dump-truck filled with explosives and chlorine gas struck a contingent of the Iraqi police and Rapid Reaction Force (which are local units funded by the Iraqi interior ministry and loyal to local tribal shaykhs) in Ramadi on January 28, killing 16 people. This was followed by two similar attacks using a noxious mix of explosives and chlorine gas on February 20 and 21 in a village to the north of the Iraqi capital and in Baghdad itself, respectively. These attacks are significant not only because they suggest that insurgents are resorting to new tactics to stage more spectacular mass-casualty attacks, but also because most of them carried the hallmarks of an increasingly bloody struggle in which al-Qa’ida is escalating attacks against its traditional Sunni Arab supporters, who have turned their backs on the group.
Geographically, the recent instances of inter-factional fighting between various groups have not been confined to Anbar. On April 5 and 6 violent clashes broke out between Iraqi armed factions and al-Qa’ida in the city of Ba’aquba in Diyala province, another insurgent hotbed northeast of Baghdad. The clashes erupted after al-Qa’ida operatives killed members of the 1920 Revolution Brigades (Kata’ib Thawrat al-‘Ishrin), the Islamic Army in Iraq (al-Jaysh al-Islami fil-‘Iraq) and the al-Mujahidin Army (Jaysh al-Mujahidin). Tensions have been running high between the various insurgent groups in Diyala since February as al-Qa’ida has been trying to exert its control over insurgent-controlled areas in the province by intimidating tribal leaders and other factions into pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq, which was declared unilaterally last October by a host of salafist insurgent organizations that includes al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
Incidents of insurgent infighting are not new in Iraq. Such instances have been increasing for the last couple of years. Throughout 2005, growing signs of hostility between various insurgent groups were discernible in many areas of active insurgency. In April 2005 there were reports of fliers pasted on walls and handed out in mosques in Ramadi, in which homegrown insurgents threatened and denounced the tactics of al-Qa’ida and foreign insurgents, especially the targeting of civilians and kidnapping local Iraqis who join the army and the police, an act considered by al-Qa’ida as sufficient to declare them as apostates and deserving to be killed. Afterwards, several cities across the so-called Sunni Triangle, including Ramadi, Taji, Qa’im, and Yusifiyyah, were engulfed in armed clashes between local Iraqi insurgents and al-Qa’ida fighters. In one of these incidents, one local al-Qa’ida commander, known by the nom de guerre of Abu Khattab, was forced out of Ramadi by insurgents loyal to a local tribe. There was also a series of clashes near the Syrian border around al-Qa’im, in which members of local tribes involved in attacks on US forces, such as the Al-Bu Mahal tribe, fought against al-Qa’ida. In the autumn of 2005, at least six ranking al-Qa’ida operatives were assassinated by Iraqi insurgents or tribal gunmen in separate incidents that seem to have been retaliatory attacks for al-Qa’ida’s role in the execution of police officers who belonged to local tribes.
The widening rift stems partly from some structural features of Iraq’s multifaceted insurgency. The insurgency is waged by a wide variety of local and regional groups and networks lacking a unifying ideology, centralized leadership and cohesive hierarchical organisation. These loosely organised groups and networks have been swimming in a sympathetic sea, benefiting from deeply ingrained notions of political entitlement, honor and revenge prevalent in the predominantly Sunni Arab areas in central and western Iraq. They have also been shaped by longstanding social relationships, solidarities, structures and configurations revolving around tribes, religious institutions, amorphous underground Islamist and nationalist organisations, criminal elements, the deposed Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein’s security services. The fluid nature of the insurgency has allowed it to gather momentum quickly and enabled it to survive the numerous counter-insurgency campaigns launched by the US-led coalition and Iraqi government troops. But in such an environment, characterised by coordination failure and few, if any, limits on the use of violence, political bickering and internal differences can easily boil over into inter-factional fighting among the components of the insurgency.
Signs of this rift were visible during the early days of the insurgency, when internal debates raged over, and public statements issued by various insurgent groups touched on, what constitutes legitimate resistance. Soon differences developed between the homegrown Iraqi insurgents and al-Qa’ida over both goals and tactics. While the homegrown insurgents’ primary goal is to force the American army to withdraw from Iraq, al-Qa’ida adheres to a much broader set of objectives which include using Iraq as a springboard for future global expansion in its conflict with the West and other regional governments. Since the early days of the insurgency, many homegrown factions have expressed strong revulsion towards the use of car-bombs and suicide-attacks to target Iraqi civilians. Large, mass-casualty car-bombings are often carried out by al-Qa’ida. Killings of local police and government officials by foreign fighters and al-Qa’ida operatives have also triggered a response from the victims’ fellow tribesmen. Despite their participation in attacks against the American forces and Iraqi security forces, loyalty to tribe and family takes precedence over ideology and political considerations among tribal elements in the insurgency. As far back as July 2004, a group of masked men claiming to belong to a previously unheard of group called the Salvation Movement appeared in a videotape, threatening to kill Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who founded al-Qa’ida in Iraq and was killed on June 6, 2006, in an air strike on a safe-house to the north of Ba’aquba. Another group released a similar message threatening Zarqawi shortly afterwards.
The rift has been further complicated by the varied composition of the insurgent groups. Although al-Qa’ida in Iraq has undergone a steady tranformation from an organisation whose rank and file was originally swollen by an influx of foreign fighters into an group whose membership consists mainly of Iraqis, its leadership is believed to still contain numerous foreigners. Al-Qa’ida’s efforts to assert more control over the insurgency, which culminated in the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq, have angered Iraqi insurgents, who fear that the fruits of their efforts will be hijacked by an outside group that is bent on imposing its own exclusivist polity on the country.
The strict, Taliban-like code of conduct imposed by al-Qa’ida in areas under its control has gained the group the ire of the local population. Al-Qa’ida’s rules not only order women to don the hijab and ban the sale of goods proscribed by the Shari’ah, such as alcoholic beverages, but also prohibit such mundane activities as playing chess, smoking, visiting internet cafes, and selling newspapers and magazines. Hairdressers have been threatened and attacked, and barber-shops and beauty-salons have been bombed for shaving the beards of their customers and giving them western-style haircuts respectively. Women in these areas have also had to give up driving.
The rift has also been affected by Iraqi government and US efforts to persuade the insurgents to lay down their weapons and join the political process. For instance, in his effort to contain the mounting insurgency, former prime minister Iyad Allawi held meetings in 2004 with Ba’ath party figures and other nationalist and Islamist members in the insurgency, as well as Sunni Arab tribal leaders, to persuade them to reject the foreign fighters. These efforts met with only limited success. While they prompted many Sunni Arabs to channel their sense of disenfranchisement into political action by taking part in two legislative elections in 2005, there is little evidence that the process instilled in them a belief in the legitimacy of the post-Saddam order that is strong enough to rule out the option of armed opposition to the political system. Yet US and Iraqi efforts to open face-to-face discussions with insurgents continue both inside and outside Iraq. These talks intensified when General David H Petraeus became the top US commander in Iraq earlier this year. Petraeus, who supervised the preparation of the new US military counter-insurgency manual, believes that 80 percent of any counter-insurgency campaign is political rather than military. So persuading the Sunni Arabs to take part in the political process is a large part of the current counter-insurgency drive in Iraq. Since insurgencies are primarily contained politically rather than militarily, that effort is in no way any less significant than the ongoing security plan.
Some local tribal shaykhs have responded positively to the US and Iraqi government’s overtures. Their cooperation went as far as encouraging their tribesmen to join local police forces in their areas. Al-Qa’ida has responded with assassinations targeting local shaykhs, refusing in some cases to let their families bury their bodies, as well as mass-casualty car-bombings. Enraged tribal shaykhs have come together to form the Anbar Salvation Council (Majlis Inqadh al-Anbar), led by Shaykh Abd al-Sattar al-Rishawi, whose father and three brothers were killed by al-Qa’ida assassins. In March the Council’s gunmen, aided by units of the Iraqi Rapid Reaction Force, managed to expel al-Qa’ida fighters from Ramadi and large swathes of Anbar territory.
But despite these developments the insurgency continues to rage unabated. This indicates that the US’s efforts to reverse the trend on the battlefield in Iraq by adopting a new counter-insurgency strategy that combines military and political dimensions have so far failed. Although they cannot stem the insurgency, the new “divide and rule” tactics might well open new wounds in Iraq’s social fabric. With no negotiated internal settlement pending in the foreseeable future, these cracks could ultimately plunge Iraq not into the just one civil war but rather into the throes of many civil wars.