Abu Musab al Zarqawi immersed himself in the last 10 days of April in talks with the two most radical Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq on the joint establishment of a militia or army that would operate in the open.
Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terror sources name the two groups as Army of the Sunna and the 20th Revolution.
The argument the al Qaeda commander used to persuade the representatives of the two groups was this: The time has come to end the underground phase of our operations and set up regular military units, with names and numbers, a command hierarchy and a flag recognizable in and outside Iraq.
He held up the Shiites’ Badr Organization and Wolves Brigades as models, or the Kurdish peshmerga in the north.
As he saw it, each of the groups would preserve its operational autonomy within the militia framework, like the Shiite militias, while also maintaining military and logistic coordination and, in certain pre-defined cases, responding to calls for aid from fellow groups under attack.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts fill in the rationale behind Zarqawi’s initiative:
1. The US military continues to withdraw from certain areas of Iraq and Baghdad, pulling back into well-protected zones from which they are chary of launching offensive action.
2. Iraqi security and military units have not moved into the areas the American troops have evacuated.
3. The ensuing security vacuum generates ideal stamping grounds for the Islamic insurgents and terrorists to put down strong roots unhindered. They are exploiting this situation in four of Iraq’s 18 provinces: Al Anbar, Salaheddin, Diyala and Babil.
4. The sectarian leaders and their militias, especially the Kurds and Shiites, are racing each other in a grab for control of towns, territory and oil resources, too preoccupied to heed the takeover, particularly since the terrorists are moving into areas of no immediate interest to either of the vying communities.
Truce talks miss their destination
According to our sources, Zarqawi’s proposition met with a favorable response from the Army of the Sunna and the 20th Revolution, especially as it came with ample funding. If the plan takes off, it will be the first time al Qaeda has organized into a regular military framework since losing the base it maintained in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s up until 2001.
The creation of this army is seen by its three fundamentalist components as a step toward proclaiming an Iraqi Islamic republic in the territory they have occupied.
Monday, May 1, Iraqi’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani said he had talked to “seven armed groups who visited me.” They did not include “Saddamists and Zarqawi types,” he said. They were amenable to a deal for ending violence and joining the political process afoot in Iraq. So he claimed.
The next day, the Saudi-owned London Arabic newspaper, Shawq al-Awsat, argued that the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad – not Talabani – had held the talks with said armed groups.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraqi sources assert, after investigation, that both claims are inaccurate on key points. They confirmed that Talabani’s representatives did indeed meet a “Saddamist” group. Heads of the Baathist guerrilla Army of Mohammed, which is made up of ex-officers and men who served in Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, were persuaded to travel to Salahedin in Kurdistan for truce talks with Kurdish and American officials. The president attended one of the meetings; the US ambassador did not, but sent an embassy official. Also present were leaders of small insurgent groups operating on the fringes of the Army of Mohammed.
Some progress was achieved, according to our sources, but it is of little account, because the Army of Mohammed is one of the least active of all the insurgent groups, so that laying down its arms will barely scratch the volume of violent attacks.
The most conspicuous feature of this negotiating track is that all the talks led by Iraqis in government and US officials in and outside the country, especially in Jordan, were held with ex-Baathists or Saddam loyalists – never with Islamic groups which are responsible for the vast majority of terrorist operations bedeviling the country today.