Clashes show internecine Sunni strife

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Fighters allied with al-Qaida battled Iraqi citizens and a nationalist insurgent group in the Amariya neighborhood of western Baghdad this week, in the latest indication of growing internal strife in Iraq's Sunni Arab community.

The clashes in the suburb, where elite civil servants and military officers lived under Saddam Hussein, appear to be the spillover from the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq in the neighboring Anbar province and Baghdad's western suburb of Abu Ghraib.

In recent months, Sunni tribal leaders have turned against the militant group, expressing disgust over the many Iraqi civilian deaths at the extremists' hands.

The bloodshed began Wednesday, reportedly over an al-Qaida ban on traffic that had prevented children from taking exams. Police said U.S. and Iraqi forces joined the melee, with helicopter gunships and infantry.

Fearing new clashes, resident Abu Mohamed, 36, said he stayed home yesterday, slipping out once on the side streets to the bakery. His covert journey took three hours and broke a curfew. "Today, the fighting ceased, we didn't hear a single gunshot," he said. "The U.S. forces are deployed in all Amariya."

The suburb has become a stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq since late 2004, when militants fleeing a U.S. offensive in Fallujah took over the district.

Under their reign, life had become unbearable, Abu Mohamed said. Barbers closed their shops, afraid they would be killed for giving "American-style" haircuts. People were terrified of ending up one of the bodies that would lie on the street for days, until the dogs ate them.

Abu Ibrahim, 40, a commander with the nationalist insurgent group known as the Islamic Army, said al-Qaida fighters had started to assassinate former Iraqi military officers. He accused the Sunni extremists of being bankrolled by Iran.

"I could confidently say that we have the upper hand because the majority of people here want Qaida out," Abu Ibrahim said. "There has always been tension between our organization and Qaida. We never agreed with their methods of operation, killing civilians and carrying out operations regardless of large collateral damage."

Tensions have spiraled higher since October, when al-Qaida-affiliated fighters joined forces in an umbrella group called the Islamic State of Iraq in a bid to command the Sunni insurgency. Abu Ibrahim said the fighting started Wednesday when al-Qaida killed an envoy from the Islamic Army who had been sent to ask them to leave the area.

At least two bystanders were killed in the running battles on Amariya's Honey Street, which connects the neighborhood's two main roads, Abu Ibrahim said. A cameraman for the U.S.-funded Arabic satellite news channel Al Hurra was killed during the fighting in Amariya on Thursday.

A representative of the Anbar Salvation Council, the tribal organization battling al-Qaida in western Iraq, said it had activists in Amariya who encouraged people to stand up against al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida and rival insurgent groups seem nervous about their emerging schism, fearful that the Americans and Iraq's Shiite majority will exploit it.

A Sunni militant group called the 1920 Revolution Brigade issued a statement yesterday on the Internet condemning the Amariya clashes after some residents said the armed faction had joined the fight against al-Qaida in Amariya. The commander of the 1920 Revolution Brigade was assassinated by al-Qaida militants in March.

"We have received information and are very pained due to the internal fighting between our brethren in Amariya. This is not supposed to be happening during these stressful times. Our rifles should be aimed at the occupation and sectarian militias," the statement said.

The group said it had suffered "internal strife" in the past but had learned from its mistakes.

Meanwhile, a pre-dawn U.S.-Iraqi military raid in Baghdad's Sadr City left an ambulance driver dead and his 7-year-old daughter wounded, police said, adding that a second man was killed as well. The U.S. military said it had no information about the incident.

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