ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Iraq today, there were claims and denials of the death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of the group al-Qaida in Iraq. Interestingly, the claim that al-Masri had been killed did not refer to fighting between the U.S. and insurgents, or between Iraqi forces and insurgents, or even between Sunni insurgents and Shiite insurgents. It spoke of a fight either between Sunni insurgent factions or within a single faction. And that brings to light something that rarely gets mentioned here. Within the Sunni insurgency, there are factional differences that might rise to the level of a firefight.
Political scientist Marc Lynch of Williams College has been tracking the Sunni insurgency on his blog, abuaardvark.com. Lynch follows statements and videos that Sunni groups post on Internet forums and on their own Web sites. He says tensions among Sunni insurgents have escalated since al-Qaida in Iraq made a dramatic announcement.
Mr. MARC LYNCH (Political Scientist, Williams College): Last October, it declared the Islamic State of Iraq and began demanding that all of the other factions basically pledge loyalty to it. And while it is a sizeable faction, there's a lot of other factions that are pretty powerful and well established, and they didn't take kindly to the suggestion that they should submit to the authority of the Islamic State of Iraq. And so dating back to last fall, you already started to see a lot of growing tensions and growing difficulties.
SIEGEL: Now al-Qaida in Iraq, by declaring the Islamic Republic of Iraq, whatever, is being Islamist that is, it - I assume, like the al-Qaida founded by Osama bin Laden, stands for the imposition of Islamic law as the law of the state and a new caliphate. Is the Sunni insurgency generally that religious in what its ambitions are for Iraq?
Mr. LYNCH: I think there's a real division, which has been emerging there. I think that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaida had been pushing for a much harsher definition of Islam and they've really been getting on people's nerves, you could even say.
For instance, in a declaration that the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq gave just a couple of days ago, he referred to the leaders of the Anbar tribes as Kaffir al-Anbar, which means basically the al-Anbar infidels. And that really was the, sort of thing which goes beyond what the other insurgency factions are willing to do. They want to see a united Sunni front against the occupation but they're not interested for the most part in creating this kind of, you know, very strict religious state.
SIEGEL: Have they come to blows? Should we assume that the larger Sunni insurgency, which might be as much about being a minority group that was accustomed to being in power as about imposing religious law, have they actually fought with al-Qaida?
Mr. LYNCH: They have and in general, it seems that al-Qaida has been the instigator in most of these events. Several fairly prominent figures have been killed and there's been harassment of members of other factions, ransacking of people's houses and stealing from people who were declared to be non-Muslims. And that came to a head a few weeks ago when the Islamic Army of Iraq issued what became a kind of a bombshell declaration in which, for the first time, we saw a major insurgency faction publicly denouncing al-Qaida and calling on Osama bin Laden to intervene and to call his wayward lieutenants to account.
SIEGEL: But does that mean that - Sunni groups that are fiercely opposed to al-Qaida and might even be declared infidels by al-Qaida - that they are any more disposed toward the current government in Iraq or toward the U.S. role in Iraq?
Mr. LYNCH: No, not at all. And that's the part which too many people are missing. In general, groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades and other insurgency factions are dead set against the American occupation, as they call it, and are deeply critical of the Maliki government. So in a sense, their turn against al-Qaida is more about trying to create a more effective anti-American insurgency than it is about capitulating to the United States.
But now there's one point where there might be some air, though, and that's that in a number of statements, these insurgency groups have suggested that, were the United States to credibly commit to a withdrawal, then under that condition they would be willing to start talking about the terms of a political settlement.
SIEGEL: Marc Lynch. Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LYNCH: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Associate professor Marc Lynch, a political scientist at Williams College who follows events in Iraq on his blog, abuaardvark.com.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.