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Some bickering between armed groups is affecting the war in Iraq. The disagreements come amongst Sunni Muslims. They are the groups that struck first at the U.S. occupation, and they are also seen as the closest allies of al-Qaida in Iraq.
But something has happened over the past few weeks. Iraq analysts say three key insurgent groups joined together to oppose al-Qaida. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on an alliance that now calls itself the Reformation and Jihad Front.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: April was damage control month for al-Qaida in Iraq. And it managed 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 al-Qaida last month issued a series of tapes attempting to patch things over and reassert its status. The tapes include this one released, April 19th. It's a video showing a man identified as a spokesman for the umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida.
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KELLY: He's announcing a so-called Islamic Cabinet for Iraq, with al-Qaida in Iraq's leader, Abu Ayyub 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 2nd, a new Web site appeared and announced the creation of the Reformation and Jihad Front. Kara Driggers, who monitors jihadi Web sites for the Terrorism Research Center, reads through the posting.
Ms. KARA DRIGGERS (Terrorism Research Center): Some of this is standard of any announcement. They give their greeting, you know, praise God, and then they give the scripture. And then they go down and they started listing the reasons why they're breaking away.
KELLY: The driving force behind the revolt is the Islamic Army in Iraq. It's joined by two others - the Mujahedeen Army, and Ansar al-Sunna - one of the most hardcore insurgent groups. Driggers says these are all major players within the insurgent landscape.
Ms. DRIGGERS: The important difference between them and al-Qaida is that they are nationalist groups. They are fighting for Iraq, and solely for Iraq.
KELLY: Evan Kohlmann agrees. He's an analyst who runs the Web site, globalterroralert.com
Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (globalterroralert.com): 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. 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.
KELLY: So is the emerging split good news for U.S. interests in Iraq? On the one hand, if it isolates al-Qaida, that would be a welcome development. But Evan Kohlmann cautions the Reformation and Jihad Front has no more interest in a democratic Iraq than al-Qaida does, and that we shouldn't paint the new alliance as the good guys.
Mr. KOHLMANN: It has no interest in supporting the United States. It is not a friend of the United States. 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, you know, I think that you have to take that very seriously.
KELLY: Kohlmann argues that if the new alliance succeeds, it could, quote, "present an existential threat to the future of al-Qaida in Iraq."
Mark Perry doesn't go quite that far. Perry is co-director of the Conflicts Forum, an international think tank that promotes dialogue between Islamist groups and the West. But he does see the emergence of this new anti-al-Qaida coalition as significant.
Mr. MARK PERRY (Conflicts Forum): 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. 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.
KELLY: This rift within the insurgency follows what the U.S. sees as another potentially promising development: Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq's volatile Anbar province 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'll view the formation of this new insurgent alliance.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.
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