Iraqi rebels at odds with foreign fighters

Two sides clashing increasingly over goals and methods

July 11, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Tension appears to be rising between the homegrown Iraqi resistance and the foreign Islamist fighters who have entered the country to destroy the U.S. military here. This is one reason, experts speculate, that Iraq has not had the kind of spectacular attack meant to spread terror and defy the U.S. agenda for a long two weeks, even during the transfer of formal sovereignty back to the Iraqis.

Evidence has emerged in sniping between groups on Arabic television and Web sites, and in interviews with Iraqi and U.S. officials, as well as members of the resistance and people with close ties to it. All speak of rising friction between nationalistic fighters and foreign-led Islamists over goals and tactics, with some Iraqi insurgents indicating a revulsion over the car bombs and suicide attacks in cities that have caused hundreds of civilian deaths.

But such friction does not mean there is a "submission by the resistance," said Dhary Rasheed, a professor at the University of Baghdad who lives in Samarra, a center for the resistance. "It is a phase of reconstruction and re-evaluation in order to push the operations out of the cities," so as "not to have innocent people killed."

Large car-bombings - thought to be carried out more often by foreigners, who make up a small percentage of the insurgents - have "disgraced the reputation of the resistance," Rasheed said. "And the resistance has worked just like the government has been trying to, to curtail the influence of the foreigners."

Routine violence continues at high levels across much of Iraq, and many civilians and U.S. soldiers continue to die. And the big attacks have not necessarily ended, experts are quick to acknowledge.

But last week, the split took a cinematic turn when masked men calling themselves the Salvation Movement released a videotape containing threats to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who is suspected in the deadliest attacks here. U.S. military officials say the Salvation Movement is composed of secular former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and is based in Fallujah. Then on Friday, a second group of guerrillas released a similar message threatening Zarqawi.

The same day, a statement posted on an Islamist Web site, claiming to be signed by Zarqawi, lashed out at the Muslim Clerics Association, an influential Sunni group with strong ties to Iraqi insurgents. The statement accused the group of weakness for offering a ransom to prevent the beheading of Nicholas E. Berg, the U.S. businessman killed in May.

"Some mediators tried to save this infidel and offered us as much money as we want," the statement said. "But we refused, although we need this money to keep the wheel of holy war rolling."

Opinions among resistance fighters vary, but it is not uncommon these days to hear comments disdainful of the foreign fighters, like those from a young fighter in Fallujah, whose relatives hold high positions in the resistance.

"Iraqis do not need Zarqawi or al-Qaida members to help them," he told The New York Times.

The split would seem to be welcome news to the new government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. His strategy for combating violence is to divide the insurgency by appealing to the patriotism of Iraqi fighters to reject the presence of foreigners who he claims do not care about Iraq. He promises amnesty for some Iraqis but threatens to crack down on those who do not accept it.

To that end, Allawi and other government officials say, he has been meeting with former Baath Party members in the resistance and tribal leaders to persuade them that their interests and those of foreign fighters are not the same.

"We're negotiating with what I call the noncriminals, those who never really were the hard core like Zarqawi and his aides and the al-Qaida-style people," Allawi said in an interview. "And on the other hand be very firm with the criminals and the assassins and the killers and the terrorists."

But many with ties to the insurgency caution against drawing clear lessons from this split or expecting Allawi's strategy to succeed. For one, there is little evidence that the various parts of the resistance regard Allawi's government as the legitimate sovereign leadership of Iraq. There are 160,000 foreign troops on Iraqi soil, and U.S. officials continue to hold sway. Until the last U.S. soldier is gone, there will be no end to the resistance, say many Iraqis sympathetic to the insurgency.

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