The Islamic Army in Iraq, a prominent insurgent group, is pulling away from the purely rejectionist trend of most Sunni Arab insurgents, refining its approach toward conducting the Iraqi insurgency. Instead of exclusively focusing on the military fight (as most Sunni insurgents have done), or pursuing their interests solely through negotiations (like many Shiite and Kurdish groups), the Islamic Army’s leaders are conducting a two-pronged political-military strategy against coalition forces and the Iraqi government. They have adopted a more sophisticated approach, with militants conducting simultaneous negotiations with, and attacks against, coalition troops. While insurgent groups have been known to continue attacks while negotiating, it seems as if the Islamic Army is taking cues from its main rivals: the Shiite political groups with militias, especially the Mahdi Army.
The Islamic Army has been in “talks,” though not formal negotiations, with Iraqi and U.S. officials since May, purportedly through President Jalal Talabani’s office and through Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s al-Tawafuq (Accord) Front (Terrorism Focus, May 9). Last week, al-Hayah reported that contacts have become more formalized between the Islamic Army and the coalition.
Reports state that the Islamic Army was meeting with a U.S. delegation in Amman, along with representatives of al-Tawafuq and Sunni tribal leaders. Both sides acknowledged the meetings. An Islamic Army spokesman confirmed that they “received a positive reply from the U.S. side to start negotiations.” Salim Abdallah al-Juburi, a deputy within al-Tawafuq, commented, “Dialogue between the two sides is old and some of al-Tawafuq Front’s leaders were involved in it…but dialogue faced some obstacles at different stages. The armed factions reacted to the call for negotiations with U.S. forces in different ways. Some of the [insurgent groups, but primarily the 1920 Revolutions Brigades] did not participate in the negotiations and they are still hesitant” (al-Hayah, October 20).
Yet, the Islamic Army appears to be serious and has sent senior leaders to the Amman meetings. Their delegation was led by the emir of the group and coherently set out their demands. “The Islamic Army has set a number of conditions; foremost, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Iraq and the trial of all officials in the successive Iraqi government since the occupation, if they were proven to have been involved in murder operations and financial or administrative corruption, in addition to the recognition of the Iraqi Islamic resistance as the sole, legitimate representative of the Iraqi people” (al-Quds Press Agency, October 18).
Tall orders, but the United States is willing to engage in at least some of these points on the condition that the Islamic Army cease cooperation with al-Qaeda and assist in their expulsion from the country. The mediation of tribal leaders and al-Tawafuq was central to bringing the two sides to the table. Many Sunni Arab tribal leaders from al-Anbar have recently pledged their support to the Maliki government and have vowed to dispel al-Qaeda from their areas of control. The Islamic Army is certainly feeling pressure from their Sunni Arab compatriots involved in the government and is worried by the series of setbacks suffered by al-Qaeda in recent months.
The Islamic Army, however, remains skeptical that negotiations will take off or lead to anything in their favor. There is still a significant amount of distrust on both sides. The United States has insisted that it will not set up a timetable for withdrawal, preferring instead a conditions-based approach. The Islamic Army remains reluctant to cooperate against al-Qaeda.
Therefore, the Islamic Army has continued its military attacks. While the Islamic Army may feel pressured by the active opposition of al-Anbar tribal leaders and the loss of allied al-Qaeda senior officials, they are still a capable and deadly force. Recent sniper attacks caught on film and distributed widely by the group aim to remind coalition forces of the damage they can easily inflict on their troops and on Iraqi national interests. On jihadi websites, the Islamic Army in Iraq has issued situation reports that detail attacks by the group occurring nearly every day in the month of October (Islamic Muharjirun Network, October 2006). The group also claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.S. military base in Baghdad, which caused a fire and substantial damage (Kuwaiti News Agency, October 5).
The Islamic Army’s hedging strategy appears to be borrowed from Shiite political- militia groups like the Mahdi Army. This strategy consists of engaging in negotiations while, at the same time, continuing military attacks. Additionally, the strategy includes using all tools available to direct the organization’s goals instead of adopting the traditional Sunni Arab role of pure military resistance and rejectionist political positions. The group is likely betting that continued attacks against coalition interests will improve their position at the negotiating table and lend flexibility to the coalition position as it continues to suffer more setbacks by the group.
At the same time, the Islamic Army continues talks because of its documented differences with al-Qaeda. Islamic Army spokesman Ibrahim al-Shammari has criticized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda operations in the past, saying, “he committed some mistakes.” The Islamic Army also rejected al-Qaeda’s declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq as a retort to Kurdish and Shiite insistence on largely autonomous regional zones. Al-Shammari explained in an al-Jazeera interview: “In our view, there are a number of conditions that should be available for this Islamic state to be established. Among these conditions are a safe land, economic resources, borders, as well as a people who [subscribe] to the belief for which this state acts. All of these conditions are not available at this stage.”
A second and more important reason that the Islamic Army has been drawn to the negotiating table is its desire to combat Iran’s growing influence and Shiite dominance in Iraq. They have realized that they cannot allow Shiite groups to dominate both the political dialogue and military control through their militias. The Islamic Army is using negotiations with the United States as a weapon against Shiite dominance. In the recent sniper video, an Islamic Army militant states, “America and Iran are occupying Iraq. America is the disease which caused the symptom which is the Iranian occupation; but today, the symptom has become more dangerous than the disease.” In the end, the Islamic Army’s desire to curb Shiite influence could be a positive development if it draws them into the political process. In the meantime, however, we should not expect attacks to abate just because the group has shown a willingness to enter into talks. In fact, their attacks will likely escalate as the negotiations play out and the Islamic Army continues its hedging strategy.