Rift Appears Among Iraq Insurgent Groups

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Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie plays video images of Abu Ayyub al-Masri i

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie shows video images of Abu Ayyub al-Masri of al-Qaida in Iraq during an October 2006 news conference in Baghdad. hide caption

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Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie plays video images of Abu Ayyub al-Masri

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie shows video images of Abu Ayyub al-Masri of al-Qaida in Iraq during an October 2006 news conference in Baghdad.

The four years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have seen countless alliances rise and then collapse, as fighters bicker over tactics and strategy.

But the past few weeks have brought a new development. Iraq analysts say three key insurgent groups have joined together to confront al-Qaida. They're calling themselves the Reformation and Jihad Front.

Some believe this new alliance poses the most serious challenge yet to the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Al-Qaida in Iraq had managed to infuriate other insurgents through what was seen as a particularly arrogant and brutal campaign of violence targeting not just Iraqi civilians, but other insurgent factions.

So in April, al-Qaida in Iraq issued a series of tapes, attempting to patch things up and reassert its status.

One video showed a man, identified as a spokesman for the umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida, announcing a so-called "Islamic Cabinet" for Iraq, with al-Qaida in Iraq's leader, Abu Ayuub al-Masri, serving as "minister of war."

But if al-Qaida leaders thought a mini-goodwill campaign would smooth things over within the insurgency, they were mistaken.

On May 2, a new Web site appeared, announcing the creation of the Reformation and Jihad Front.

The driving force behind the revolt is the Islamic Army in Iraq. It's joined by two others — the Mujahideen Army and Ansar al-Sunna, one of the most hardcore insurgent groups. Kara Driggers, who monitors jihadi Web sites for the Terrorism Research Center, says they are all major players within the insurgent landscape.

"The important difference between them and al-Qaida is that they are nationalist groups," Driggers says. "They are fighting for Iraq, and solely for Iraq."

Evan Kohlmann, an analyst who runs the Web site globalterroralert.com, agrees with Driggers.

"There is a division separating now Sunni insurgents who see a future Iraq in a Middle East that we can recognize, versus extremists who are intent on redefining the entire face of the Middle East," Kohlmann said. "And the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Reformation and Jihad Front have made it certain that there is not a larger jihad mission — that the jihad is only in Iraq and is not supposed to extend beyond its borders."

Is the emerging split good news for U.S. interests in Iraq? On one hand, if it isolates al-Qaida, that would be a welcome development. But Kohlmann cautions that the Reformation and Jihad Front has no more interest in a democratic Iraq than al-Qaida does, and that no one should paint the new alliance as the good guys.

"It has no interest in supporting the United States. It is not a friend of the United States," Kohlmann said. "But that being said, for a group like this to step forward and to suddenly say things which offer a much more critical view of what al-Qaida is doing inside of Iraq ... I think you have to take that very seriously."

Kohlmann argues that if the new alliance succeeds, it could "present an existential threat to the future of al-Qaida in Iraq."

Mark Perry, co-director of the Conflicts Forum, an international think tank that promotes dialogue between Islamist groups and the West, won't go quite that far. But he does see the emergence of the new, anti-al-Qaida coalition as significant.

"Some of these key insurgency leaders have begun to realize that the American occupation will end, and that what has to emerge after this occupation is a new Iraq in which these groups are going to have to cooperate, or they will be plunged into a much worse, bloody civil war," Perry says. "And I think that there's now maneuvering among key Sunni leaders in Iraq to try to shape a political foundation on which they can take the country forward."

The rift within the insurgency follows what the United States sees as another potentially promising development. Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq's volatile Anbar province are joining U.S.-led efforts to fight al-Qaida.

The tribes have formed what they call the Anbar Salvation Council. It remains to be seen how solid an ally the tribes will ultimately prove to be, or how they will view the formation of the new insurgent alliance.

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