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Rivalry among Sunni militants explodes into war in Samarra

Times Staff Writer

The offer was simple. The Islamic Army must hand over its weapons to a rival Sunni insurgent group led by Al Qaeda in Iraq. It had one week to surrender.

The deadline passed and then the war began in Samarra.

Islamic Army member Abu Ibrahim remembers the fateful meeting in September, and the recriminations between his group and the umbrella group Islamic State of Iraq, which ended years of collaboration in a city that had proved impossible for the Americans to tame.

“After the week, they said that they will kill us because, as they say, you are either with us or against us,” Abu Ibrahim recalled Saturday.

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Since then, dozens have died in the internecine Sunni bloodletting in Samarra, the city 75 miles north of Baghdad where nearly two years ago Sunni insurgents blew up a revered Shiite shrine, broadening the civil war.

On Friday, Abu Ibrahim said, the two sides had their fiercest battle yet in a district 10 miles southeast of Samarra. The three-hour battle ended with 18 Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters dead, including their local leader, he said.

Abu Ibrahim claimed that his group captured 16 fighters and herded them back to the Islamic Army’s secret prisons. Five of his own men were killed, he said.

The battle between the two Sunni groups, both committed to killing Americans, fits into a broader trend of Sunni revolt against groups linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

But the Samarra conflict arguably has less to do with the U.S. war than with Sunni feuds and power struggles. It also shows how even as groups across Iraq break with Al Qaeda in Iraq, civilians are still at the mercy of gunmen.

Since that meeting in September, the factional fighting has made Samarra’s nightmarish situation even worse. A third party is also in the mix -- Iraq’s controversial national police, a force that has been accused of regularly using excessive violence. Its Samarra branch is under the supervision of Rashid Flaih Mohammed, a Shiite general who was removed in fall 2006 from a similar job in Baghdad amid allegations that his troops were involved in sectarian attacks.

A string of killings and kidnappings by the two insurgent factions has left Samarra a minefield.

“It is very sad to see the sons of our city fight each other under any condition,” said Iyad Awad, 28, a machinist. “The killer and the victim are from the city.”

After the 2003 invasion, some Sunnis in the Samarra region, many of them unemployed youths, aligned themselves with Al Qaeda in Iraq, while the old-guard military and security veterans picked the Islamic Army.

Initially, Al Qaeda in Iraq was able to recruit fighters because it had money to hire bomb makers, gunmen and enforcers. But as early as 2004, people were becoming disenchanted with the group over its policy of killing Iraqis accused of working with the Americans. The violence tore apart tribes and pitted relatives against one another.

The Islamic Army claims as its strongholds central Samarra and the district of Mutasim Nahia, about 15 miles south, which it wrested from the rival faction late last month. Fighters linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq still are dug in on the city’s eastern outskirts, but the Islamic Army has been pushing into their territory.

Some branches of the Islamic Army in other areas have cut deals to fight their rivals in U.S.-funded paramilitary units of so-called concerned citizens, but the Samarra-based fighters are not yet ready to make the switch.

“Our aim is to target the occupation and kick them out of the country,” Abu Ibrahim said. However, the Islamic Army, preoccupied by its Sunni rivals, has virtually stopped those attacks.

Meanwhile, the city remains under a dusk-to-dawn curfew and is sealed off except for its southern entrance.

“After all that is happening in the city, we want to ask the U.S. forces, Iraqi forces and the armed men, what are their goals? What are they doing in this oppressed city?” said teacher Hamid Abdul. He said the armed groups use homes to fire on government targets and then flee, leaving the residents on the receiving end when the police return fire.

The national police force has indicated it plans to carry on its campaign against all armed Sunni groups, regardless of whether they have renounced Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“We don’t differentiate between the Islamic Army and Al Qaeda. They are all outlaws to us,” one officer said.

In east Baghdad, a bomb exploded Saturday near a minibus in a Shiite district, killing two people and wounding seven. Also in the capital, a Shiite driving through the Sunni neighborhood of Adil was fatally shot, police said.

A U.S. soldier died and three were wounded Friday in a bomb attack in northeastern Diyala province, the military said Saturday. Since the war began in 2003, at least 3,860 U.S. military personnel have died, according to icasualties.org.

An explosion damaged a pipeline near the northern city of Kirkuk, where oil is once more being pumped to Turkey, a security official said. He said the attack should not stop the flow.

ned.parker@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Saif Rashid, Said Rifai, Raheem Salman and a special correspondent in Samarra contributed to this report.


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