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Fighting exposes rift between Qaeda, Iraqi groups

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Clashes on the streets of Baghdad between one of Iraq’s main home-grown insurgent groups and members of an al Qaeda-led militant movement have exposed a deepening rift within Iraq’s Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

Iraqi soldiers stand guard behind barb wire at a checkpoint in Baghdad June 5, 2007. REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz

Last week’s battle for control of the Baghdad suburb of Amiriya was the first between Sunni Arab insurgent groups, who had previously maintained an uneasy alliance against U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope al Qaeda will lose crucial allies and become increasingly isolated in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, where their ruthless tactics, including bombings that have killed thousands, have alienated many.

After 48 hours of fighting between al Qaeda and the Islamic Army in Iraq, calm has returned to the streets of Amiriya.

But the battle has continued on the Internet.

Until recently, Web postings from different insurgent groups almost always complimented each other for their claims of responsibility for attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as killing members of the majority Shi’ite community.

Now statements from al Qaeda and the Islamic Army posted on a Web site used by insurgent groups openly attack each other.

Al Qaeda followers also post abusive messages aimed at leaders of the Islamic Army. One called them “dogs”, a grave insult in the Arab world.

The Islamic Army, a large group of mainly former supporters of Saddam Hussein and ex-army officers, denied al Qaeda allegations they started the fighting in Amiriya by blowing up a man who tried to erase anti-al Qaeda graffiti.

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In an audio statement posted on the Web site, Islamic Army spokesman Ali al-Nuaimi blamed al Qaeda leaders for the fighting and said the al Qaeda-led Islamic State of Iraq had turned Sunni cities into “ghost towns”.

“We hold Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi responsible for what their followers have done to Sunnis,” Nuaimi said, referring to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri and the head of an umbrella group they set up.

“They should fear their outcome between God’s hands on the day of resurrection,” he said, adding that al Qaeda had killed 40 Islamic Army militants to date, including senior figures.

NAME CALLING

A barrage of insults from al Qaeda sympathizers followed the posting of the Islamic Army audio statement on Monday. Pro-al Qaeda moderators closed the page after deleting the message of one outnumbered participant who had cursed the group.

The al Qaeda-led Islamic State, angered by another Islamic Army spokesman’s comments to television channel al Jazeera, described members of the group as “backstabbers”.

“This has to be settled, either by leaving the backstabber or by confronting him and making him abide by God’s laws to repent,” the group said in an online statement.

Iraqi analyst Hazim al-Nuaimi said the infighting was not surprising given al Qaeda’s increasing unpopularity among Sunni Arabs, many of whom reject its indiscriminate killings and hardline brand of Islam.

“This battle was expected because al Qaeda has angered Iraqis by disregarding their well-being during their fight. This could be in the interest of home-grown groups who may increase their popularity by standing up to al Qaeda,” he said.

Some Sunni Arab tribes in western Anbar province, long a safe haven for al Qaeda, have fought militants from the group for weeks and say they have gained control over large areas of the desert province.

U.S. and Iraqi officials, eager to end the violence that threatens to fracture Iraq, have sought to isolate al Qaeda, often describing them as “irreconcilable”, while other insurgent groups are considered “reconcilable”.

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