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Deadly Rift Grows Among Insurgents

Times Staff Writers

Deadly fighting has erupted within Iraq’s insurgency as home-grown guerrilla groups, increasingly resentful of foreign-led extremists, try to assert control over the fragmented anti-American campaign, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Yet there is no evidence that the split here in the Sunni Arab heartland has weakened the uprising, diminished Iraqis’ sense of insecurity, or brought any relief to U.S. forces, the officials say.

Tit-for-tat killings among locals and followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi have been reported across western Iraq in recent months, and some U.S. officials see the strife as a positive sign. They have been working to drive a wedge between Zarqawi’s foreign Arab volunteers and Iraqi-led militant groups, and to bring Sunnis who have backed the uprising into Iraq’s political process.

“There’s an opportunity to divide the ... insurgency, and we’re starting to see breaks in that now,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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Mowaffak Rubaie, the Iraqi government’s national security advisor, said a growing body of intelligence indicated that Iraqi-led groups were turning against Zarqawi’s faction, Al Qaeda in Iraq, over a divergence of basic aims.

He believes the shift reflects Iraqis’ growing resentment of a foreign-led force whose fundamentalist religious goals and calls for sectarian war against Iraq’s Shiite majority run counter to Iraqi nationalist traditions.

But U.S. military officials concede that the guerrillas’ ability to strike anywhere at any time is largely undiminished. They say the insurgency remains a stubborn, elusive and deadly collection of fighting groups that share the aim of ousting American forces.

Their attacks across Iraq averaged 75 per day in December, up from 52 a year earlier, driving the country’s sectarian violence and contributing to a decline in its oil production. U.S. troops died at the same rate last year as in 2004, and most estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties rose.

Reports of clashes among the anti-American fighters began surfacing several months ago.

One outbreak of violence came in mid-January after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey, the top military commander in Iraq, visited this provincial capital to solidify a pact with tribal sheiks. Under the deal, young men from their tribes had been signing up for a municipal police force to replace the one the insurgents had destroyed.

A day after the meeting, one of the sheiks, Nasr Abdul Kareem, a 49-year-old physics professor thought to be an insurgent strategist, was shot dead in an ambush after dropping his sons off at school. Two other sheiks cooperating with U.S. forces here in Al Anbar province were slain the same week.

Outraged by the slayings, insurgents from their tribes have retaliated by killing at least a dozen Zarqawi followers, an Iraqi intelligence official said.

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Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said six “major leaders” of Zarqawi’s network had been killed since September by Iraq-led insurgent groups -- “people saying, ‘Get outta here, we’ve had enough!’ ”

“The local insurgents have become part of the solution,” Lynch said.

The severity of the rift among insurgents is hard to gauge, security specialists say, because the movement has long been fragmented into dozens of loosely coordinated factions, a feature that makes it hard to understand, much less defeat. Estimates of their numbers range from 4,000 to 20,000, a significant minority of them commanded by Zarqawi.

“Because we still lack a clear picture of the insurgency, we can’t assess the full import of this development,” said Bruce Hoffman, a leading specialist on terrorism and director of the Rand Corp.'s Washington office. Hoffman said he was skeptical that the clashes point to deep differences among guerrilla groups, suggesting that the killings might simply be examples of traditional Iraqi tribal justice.

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Rubaie disagreed. “Al Qaeda in Iraq is at loggerheads with the Islamic Army and the Mujahedin Army,” he said, mentioning two home-grown insurgent factions. “This is not infighting and retaliation and revenge between tribes. We are talking about two ideologies.”

Working to exploit the division, U.S. diplomats helped persuade the main Sunni political groups, which had boycotted the polls last January, to compete in Iraq’s Dec. 15 election and seek a share of power in Baghdad.

Ignoring threats by Al Qaeda to sabotage the election, Sunni clerics and many insurgent groups mobilized a heavy Sunni voter turnout. The returns gave Sunni parties about one-fifth of the seats in parliament and a chance to bargain for a minority role in a government now dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

U.S. officials said the election had helped thwart an effort by Zarqawi to draw ever greater numbers of Iraqi Sunnis into his terrorist campaign of car bombings and suicide attacks. Army Gen. John R. Vines, the top ground commander in Iraq, said recently that Zarqawi’s group was in “disarray.”

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The fallout has spilled across Al Anbar, the cradle of the insurgency and the deadliest battleground for U.S. forces.

Most of Zarqawi’s foreign-led operation in Al Anbar, which smuggles weapons and cash across the border from Syria, is said to be made up of Iraqis. Insurgents who supported the election are also entrenched here -- and increasingly at odds with Zarqawi’s fighters.

In one of the earliest reported clashes, insurgents in Qaim, on the Syrian border, fought with Zarqawi’s followers during the summer and eventually drove them out of the city, Iraqi officials said.

Three times in the last month, insurgent groups have battled each other in the streets of Ramadi, U.S. intelligence officers reported.

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“It’s much like Mafia dons battling it out over turf,” one officer said, with “pinpoint assassinations and gang-on-gang warfare.”

Karim Hussein, headmaster of a primary school in Ramadi, said one reason for the clashes is that people object to religious orders that radical insurgents have distributed on leaflets throughout the city, instructing women to cover their faces.

Another source of friction is Al Qaeda’s opposition to the new U.S.-backed police force, to which tribal leaders agreed to recruit their insurgent followers as a way of calming the city and eventually enabling U.S. forces to leave.

The conflict escalated after a suicide bomb attack Jan. 5 in Ramadi amid a crowd of men lining up to join the new force, killing about 70 people. Zarqawi, one resident said, suddenly became the city’s “No. 1 enemy.”

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Tribal leaders and local insurgents have since vowed to drive Zarqawi’s militants out of Al Anbar. Three Ramadi-based Islamist guerrilla factions once financed by Zarqawi have broken with him, making it harder for his forces to operate in the city.

It is unclear who is winning this fight. Undeterred by the Jan. 5 bombing, hundreds of new volunteers have joined Ramadi’s police force. But a Pentagon official called the subsequent execution-style slayings of cooperative tribal leaders a “devastating” blow that demonstrated Al Qaeda’s continuing ability to intimidate its rivals.

What is certain is that insurgent violence rages unabated in Ramadi, as in much of Iraq.

During a recent 10-day stretch, insurgents staged 113 attacks on U.S. troops here. Mortar rounds rain down almost daily on their base. Marine snipers sit atop the governor’s office, dueling with masked men in black who shoot through broken windows of abandoned buildings across the street.

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One plausible explanation for the undiminished violence against U.S. forces is that Sunnis might be hedging their bets, continuing to foment violence even as they collaborate with the Americans and bargain for a place in the government.

A counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon suggested that the Sunnis had adopted a model similar to the Sinn Fein wing of the Irish Republican Army, forming a separate political movement as it continued to wage war. Rubaie, Iraq’s security advisor, said he concurred with this view.

Although Sunni party leaders deny that they speak for the guerrillas, they press many of the same demands, including a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

In Ramadi, Sunni residents close to the Iraqi-led insurgents sounded determined to fight on two fronts -- against the Americans and Zarqawi’s followers.

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“We’re sick and tired of the extremist insurgents, but not of the honorable resistance that targets the occupiers,” said Hussein, the schoolmaster. “We still believe in jihad, and fighting the occupiers is jihad.”

Jeffrey White, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the independent Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, concluded that “even if we can exploit this rift” between rebel groups, “it doesn’t mean they stop fighting us.”

Rather than ease pressure on U.S. forces, the insurgents’ internal battles here have added a layer of violence to one of Iraq’s most embattled cities.

Zarqawi’s extremists “started killing everybody -- Iraqi police, Iraqi soldiers -- all these guys are from tribes, and tribes retaliate,” said Mohammed Abdullah Shahawani, head of Iraqi intelligence.

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“They are on the run,” he said. “First of all, they have difficulties hiding now. And secondly, someone is chasing them.”

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Roug reported from Ramadi and Boudreaux from Baghdad. A Times special correspondent in Ramadi, staff writers Mark Mazzetti and Doyle McManus in Washington, and staff writers Raheem Salman, Chris Kraul and Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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