War Within the Iraqi Insurgency

Sabrina Tavernise and Dexter Filkins report that there is a civil war going on inside the Iraqi “insurgency” between local guerillas and al Qaeda terrorists.

The story told by the two Iraqi guerrillas cut to the heart of the war that Iraqi and American officials now believe is raging inside the Iraqi insurgency. In October, the two insurgents said in interviews, a group of local fighters from the Islamic Army gathered for an open-air meeting on a street corner in Taji, a city north of Baghdad. Across from the Iraqis stood the men from Al Qaeda, mostly Arabs from outside Iraq. Some of them wore suicide belts. The men from the Islamic Army accused the Qaeda fighters of murdering their comrades. “Al Qaeda killed two people from our group,” said an Islamic Army fighter who uses the nom de guerre Abu Lil and who claimed that he attended the meeting. “They repeatedly kill our people.” The encounter ended angrily. A few days later, the insurgents said, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Islamic Army fought a bloody battle on the outskirts of town.

The battle, which the insurgents said was fought on Oct. 23, was one of several clashes between Al Qaeda and local Iraqi guerrilla groups that have broken out in recent months across the Sunni Triangle. American and Iraqi officials believe that the conflicts present them with one of the biggest opportunities since the insurgency burst upon Iraq nearly three years ago. They have begun talking with local insurgents, hoping to enlist them to cooperate against Al Qaeda, said Western diplomats, Iraqi officials and an insurgent leader.

It is impossible to say just how far the split extends within the insurgency, which remains a lethal force with a shared goal of driving the Americans out of Iraq. Indeed, the best the Americans can hope for may be a grudging passivity from the Iraqi insurgents when the Americans zero in on Al Qaeda’s forces. But the split within the insurgency is coinciding with Sunni Arabs’ new desire to participate in Iraq’s political process, and a growing resentment of the militants. Iraqis are increasingly saying that they regard Al Qaeda as a foreign-led force, whose extreme religious goals and desires for sectarian war against Iraq’s Shiite majority override Iraqi tribal and nationalist traditions.


According to an American and an Iraqi intelligence official, as well as Iraqi insurgents, clashes between Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and Iraqi insurgent groups like the Islamic Army and Muhammad’s Army have broken out in Ramadi, Husayba, Yusifiya, Dhuluiya and Karmah. In town after town, Iraqis and Americans say, local Iraqi insurgents and tribal groups have begun trying to expel Al Qaeda’s fighters, and, in some cases, kill them. It is unclear how deeply the split pervades Iraqi society. Iraqi leaders say that in some Iraqi cities, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and local insurgent groups continue to cooperate with one another.

American and Iraqi officials believe that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is largely made up of Iraqis, with its highest leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian. Even so, among Iraqis, the group is still perceived as a largely foreign force.

Evidence of the split is still largely anecdotal, and from most available evidence, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains the most virulent and well-financed group fighting in Iraq. But in most Sunni cities, Iraqis defied Al Qaeda’s threats and turned out to vote in large numbers on Dec. 15.

“The tribes are fed up with Al Qaeda and they will not tolerate any more,” said a senior Iraqi intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The intelligence official confirmed reports that a Sunni tribe in Samarra had tried and executed Qaeda members for their role in assassinating a local sheik. “It was a beautiful mistake,” the intelligence official said of the sheik’s assassination by Al Qaeda. “Now the tribes will kill Al Qaeda. Now they have the courage.”

I’ve long argued that describing the opposition forces in Iraq collectively as “the insurgency” was problematic, because it disguised the fact that the major groups were fighting at cross purposes. For some time, that hardly seemed to matter since their efforts resulted in dead Americans and Iraqis and were wreaking havok with our mission. But, months ago, the terrorists began killing the “wrong” people, from the standpoint of not only ordinary Iraqis but their comrades in the actual insurgency.

Cori Dauber agrees:

The only thing I’d complain about is that the Times frames this as a “split” within a single and overarching insurgency, as if before this they were all pulling in harness together as a single and coordinated entity, which is absurd. They were surely all pulling for the same intermediate goal (getting the US out), and they may have periodically been coordinating, but the different groups didn’t even share the same strategic goal in many cases, with al Queda and other groups fighting for the imposition of shariah and a regional caliphate surely seeing their ultimate goal differently than the secular and nationalist groups.

My paper paper hasn’t arrived yet, so I don’t know where in there this article is placed — but I hope its somewhere very, very visible.

Now let’s see if this piece gets as much attention as, let’s say, Marines needing more body armor. Because this may well have greater implications for our ability to win with fewer casualties.

Quite right. There have long been signs that the terrorists were overplaying their hand but there were few signs of backlash beyond some isolated grumbling. That may finally be changing.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.