U.S. Sees New Threat In Iraq From Sufi Sect

A slow but steady toll of violence continues in Iraq, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki consistently blames al-Qaida elements.

But the fundamentalist Sunni al-Qaida seems to have lost its sway in Iraq. Instead, U.S. officials caution that a little-known strain of the insurgency has emerged, with tougher roots in Iraqi soil: the Naqshbandi army, which draws strength from an ancient Sufi order and from a Saddam Hussein-era Baathist fugitive.

Sufism is sometimes described as the mystical side of Islam, and it is often associated with rituals of singing and dancing that inspire a feeling of religious ecstasy. In more extreme examples in Iraq, Sufis even pierce themselves with needles or knives to show how faith makes them impervious to pain. Most Sufi orders are pacifist, and their traditions appeal to both Sunnis and Shiites across the Muslim world.

Naqshbandi Sufism is many centuries old and believed to have originated in Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey. Famous Naqshbandi Sufis have included the last two grand muftis of Syria and the 18th century Indian Islamic scholar, Shah Waliullah of Delhi.

Fundamentalists like al-Qaida consider Sufis to be heretics, but there has been some contact between al-Qaida in Iraq and the Naqshbandi army, which comes from the fringe of the Sufi order.

The group was founded by an ex-Iraqi army noncommissioned officer named Abdurahman Naqshbandi, who hails from the Lake Hamrin area of northeastern Diyala province — now one of the few pockets in Iraq where the insurgency has resisted U.S. and Iraqi control. Solid information about the group is elusive, but Brig. Gen. Craig Nixon says it started with a call for jihad against America in 2003.

"There's clearly a different ideology between al-Qaida and Jaysh al-Nashqbandi," said Nixon. "We've seen some local-level tactical commingling of the pipe-swingers, if you will, but the Jaysh al-Naqshbandi is clearly a nationalist element with a view to go back to the former Baath leadership."

Nixon's area of command includes Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, where the Jaysh al-Naqshbandi seems to be increasing its activity. Al-Qaida's power may be on the wane in Iraq, after inflicting so many civilian casualties. But the Sufi-inspired order can present itself as a more indigenous resistance, Nixon says.

"They're well-organized, have ties with former regime elements," Nixon says. "Primarily [they] focus on coalition forces but are trying to establish a power base between the local Iraqis. We're concerned that left unattended they will provide a threat to the Iraqi government in this transitional phase."

The other key element is the group's link to the last remaining fugitive from Saddam Hussein's inner circle. Former Vice President Izzat al-Douri, reputedly a fanatical Sufi, may have had earlier contact with Abdurahman Naqshbandi. U.S. military officials believe Douri is outside Iraq raising funds for the insurgency, and they say the Naqshbandi army lends Douri some post-Saddam legitimacy for his continuing fight against the Americans and the Iraqi government.

"I think they are regrouping now," said Ibrahim al-Sumadaie, of the Iraqi Constitutional Party. "The Baath party itself thinks it's time to look ahead after the American withdrawal and the conflict between political parties."

Especially with U.S. troops beginning a gradual drawdown from Iraq, Sumadaie says the Naqshbandi army has become the de facto armed wing of the Baath party. Many Sunni gunmen who flipped to the American side to form so-called Awakening Councils and fight against al-Qaida now feel abandoned, says Sumadaie. He fears the Naqshbandi army may attract many of these Sunnis who feel under siege by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

"They're well-organized and well-financed from outside Iraq. I think they can attract the remnants of al-Qaida fighters who believe in fight but do not believe in al-Qaida itself," said Sumadaie.

The group has an active Web presence with purported videos of their attacks on U.S. targets and pictures of an arsenal of munitions. Their claims of killing Americans are exaggerated, say U.S. military officials, but at the same time, they say the Naqshbandi army should not be underestimated.

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