Friday, November 24, 2006


Baathists and Islamic groups increasingly fighting for control

With Baghdad shaken by daily outbreaks of sectarian violence, in Iraq's western al-Anbar province, groups of former Iraqi Baathists are battling armed Islamist groups for control of this largely desert region near the Syrian border. This increasingly bloody conflict may signal the start of a new phase in the country's three-year old war. Amid increasing bloodshed in Iraq, many Sunnis are looking to end the violence. Local people say that the conflict within Iraq's Sunni minority has potential to detabilise the region long after the US military has gone home.
The former Baathist fighters are believed to be relatively secular while their opponents share al-Qaeda's dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq which will then be a launchpad for carrying out attacks around the Middle East. The ex-Baathists' offensive has been so successful, local people say, that Iraqi groups working with al-Qaeda have been forced to divert their attacks away from the Americans to focus on fighting the al-Awda party, as the new secular Sunni movement is called.
In early November, this growing conflict took a new turn when masked gunmen linked to al-Qaeda distributed flyers and posters throughout al-Anbar province threatening to execute anyone from Al-Awda. "The Baath secular party will find no quarter in the new principality of the Islamic State of Iraq" read leaflets distributed in al-Anbar province by groups allied with al-Qaeda. Since then, several high-ranking officials from the former Iraqi army have been found murdered throughout Anbar province.
Hiyt residents told Al Jazeera that Yassin was known to have recruited fighters for the Jaysh Mohammed (Mohammed's Army). The Jaysh Mohammed is one of the largest Sunni insurgent groups and in the past it has claimed numerous attacks against US forces in Baghdad and Anbar. The assassination of Yassin may suggest that al-Qaeda and its allies fear that the Jaysh Mohammed may be close to joining the al-Awda neo-Baathist alliance.
In the past year, the Jaysh Mohammed has already clashed several times with another group, Al-Tawheed wa Al-Jihad, a mainly Iraqi group which is affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sheikh Abdel Sattar Abu Risha of Ramadi has called on Sunnis to resist Al-Qaeda. The increasingly heavy fighting between the rival armed groups in Hiyt and other urban centres in Anbar has led many Sunnis to believe that a new war between secularist and Islamist factions could be beginning. Although both groups are in principle opposed to the US presence in Iraq and the Shia-led government in Baghdad, Anbar residents say an rapprochment between the two is unlikely.

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