Friday, April 27, 2007

On whose side is Al-Qaeda?

Tension between the national resistance in Iraq and Al-Qaeda mounts as the latter makes a bid for power monopoly, writes Lamis Andoni

Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq has signalled the beginning of an offensive that sets it apart from Iraqi resistance groups in a brazen and violent struggle not only against foreign occupation but also and mainly for power in Iraq.

If Al-Qaeda was responsible, as it claims, for the suicide bombing at the Iraqi parliament, the attack represents its most daring act yet aimed at asserting a monopoly of representation of Iraqis. The bombing, as much as it shattered the American security plan, signals that Al-Qaeda has embarked on an irreversible path of wrestling for power even before a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

While various Iraqi resistance groups have always differed with Al-Qaeda's tactics and actions, trying at the same time to avoid an all-out confrontation with the transnational organisation, the so- called Islamic State of Iraq is declaring war on all who do not conform to its ambitions.

The struggle between resistance groups and Al-Qaeda rose to surface when the Islamic Army, a prominent resistance group, issued a strong-worded statement condemning Al-Qaeda's actions and calling on Osama Bin Laden to personally intervene to rein-in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The assassination of 1920 Revolution Brigades leader Harith Dhaher Khamis Al-Dhari, nephew of the influential Muslim Scholars Association leader Sheikh Harith Al-Dhari, on 27 March, reportedly in an Al-Qaeda ambush, sent shockwaves across resistance groups, especially that it followed the killing of at least 30 fighters from the Islamic Army.

"Al-Qaeda has actually killed a number of Mujahideen brothers, 30 of them so far, and also attacked other resistance groups, clashing with the 1920 Revolution Brigades, battles with which break out from time to time until now in Abu Ghraib. Most recently Al-Qaeda killed one of its field commanders, Brother Harith Dhaher Al-Dhari," the statement said.

"Al-Qaeda has also killed members of the Army of the Mujahideen resistance organisation and members of the Ansar Al-Sunna resistance group. Al-Qaeda has also threatened the Islamic Front," the statement added.

Differences between Al-Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq and the resistance have been simmering ever since Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia declared an Islamic state with Abu Omar Baghdadi named "prince of the faithful". That dramatic move, replete with an armed parade, was witnessed with alarm across the Sunni political community and the resistance alike. While staking its claim over the leadership and future of Iraq, it was not expected that Al-Qaeda would move so quickly into eliminating its opponents and demanding total allegiance.

The Islamic Army and other resistance groups, even those with close coordinating ties with Al-Qaeda, refuse the logic of being subordinated to the Islamic State of Iraq's self-proclaimed leader. Sources close to both the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades say it is now obvious that Al-Qaeda is vying for unrivaled control over the resistance.

Differences over the agenda and leadership of the resistance are not new, but the death of Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi brought such differences to the fore.

"We were hoping that the resistance could continue coordinating with Al-Qaeda in the battlefield and postpone any conflict until later," a source close to the 1920 Revolution Brigades recalls. The declaration of the Islamic State and ensuing threats to resistance fighters and leaders made it clear that Al-Qaeda was looking neither for coordination nor a coalition. "Al-Qaeda saw no room for other agendas but one -- its own," the source said.

Following the assassination of Al-Dhari, the 1920 Revolution Brigade and the Dhari tribe tried to contain the incident, as the resistance "should not be dragged into dangerous confrontations with Al-Qaeda", according to at least two sources close to the resistance. Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq, however, was deterred neither by alarmed reactions nor attempts to contact its leadership in Iraq. The Islamic Army broke its silence once Al-Qaeda's attacks against Sunni civilians, mosques, imams, and even "demanding money" from families in return for protection, became the rule, not the exception.

"The Sunni population has thus become a 'legitimate target' for them, in particular the wealthy, who are told that either they must pay what Al-Qaeda wants or they will be killed, and they strive to kill anyone who criticises them or differs with them and exposes their errors, regarding this as a simple matter," the Islamic Army said.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Islamic Army spokesman Ibrahim Al-Shammari said that while at the beginning -- at the onset of the US occupation -- the Islamic Army maintained field coordination with Al-Qaeda, differences had grown to the point where it was impossible "to tolerate Al-Qaeda actions, which have been very damaging to the resistance".

Different resistance groups, especially Islamic- based groups, had initially accepted Al-Qaeda's role, which they saw as impressively efficient and painful for occupation forces. Salafi-based groups, like Ansar Al-Sunna, and some members of the other groups, embraced Al-Qaeda and hailed "the Muslim Mujahideen who came to liberate Iraq." Al-Qaeda was welcomed into the fold of the Majles Al-Shura (Consultative Council) that includes seven factions, though its attempts to control the council or impose its agenda were repeatedly rejected.

The resistance, according to different sources close to the movement, saw the advantage of Al-Qaeda's military attacks against the occupation forces but felt the damage done by its sectarian rhetoric and deadly assaults against Iraqi civilians.

A debate has been ongoing about targeting the Iraqi army and police, and Iraqis involved in the American-sponsored political process. In his Al-Jazeera interview, Al-Shammari rejected considering the Iraqi army, the police and Iraqis in parliament as legitimate targets. The same position is held by the 1920 Revolution Brigades and other Sunni leaders.

Now, as dramatically demonstrated in the parliament bombing, Al-Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq is going out on its own. Reports from Baghdad also suggest an increasing number of attacks by Al-Qaeda on resistance groups, its leaders and districts that don't submit to its control.

While Al-Qaeda's influence has decreased in most of Al-Anbar, following the establishment of the Anbar Salvation Council and local/tribal police forces "to combat terrorism", it exerts total control in certain enclaves such as Al-Karma, a small town near Fallujah, by directly administering schools, hospitals and all movement.

"People and the resistance are finding themselves targets of the occupation and government forces on the one hand, and Al-Qaeda's Islamic State in Iraq on the other," an Iraqi journalist told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to informed sources close to at least two resistance groups, the Iraqi resistance, though engaging Al-Qaeda when forced to, is still seeking to avoid an all-out confrontation, even if Al-Qaeda seeks it. Nonetheless, the situation seems to be escalating on a daily basis, with many Iraqi nationalist activists who support the resistance fearing that "occupation forces are benefiting the most from Al-Qaeda's actions."

* The writer is a US-based journalist.

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