Signs of strain in militant ranks as ISIL alienates allies

Is the militant coalition battling Shiite prime minister Nouri Al Maliki falling apart? Hugh Naylor reports from Iraq's Ninevah Province

Iraqi Turkmen forces patrol a checkpoint in the northern city of Tuz Khurmatu on June 21, close to locations of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Karim Sahib / AFP Photo
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NINEVEH PROVINCE // The alliance of Islamist militants, Sunni tribesmen and loyalists of Iraq’s former Baathist regime that seized large areas of the country in the past two weeks is under serious strain over ideological differences, according to local officials, Kurdish intelligence and analysts.

The first signs of a split emerged on Saturday, with reports of fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Naqshbandi Army, formed by officers from the former dictator Saddam Hussein’s military, that left 17 people dead.

The fighting in Hawija, in Kirkuk province, on Friday was sparked by the refusal of Naqshbandi fighters to give up their weapons and pledge allegiance to ISIL, a security official said.

However, witnesses said the two sides clashed over who would take control of fuel tankers in the area.

So far, the partnership between ISIL and elements of Iraq's Sunni population has met with stunning success, with Iraq's United States-funded and trained military disintegrating before their advance.

The insurgents seized the northern city of Mosul on June 10, followed quickly by further gains, including Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, to arrive within 60 kilometres of Baghdad.

The offensive has been led by ISIL, an Al Qaeda offshoot comprising foreign and local fighters that is known to be ruthless in combat and in enforcing the austere form of Islam it espouses, but is widely believed to have received backing and logistical support from sympathetic Sunni tribesmen and former members of Saddam’s now outlawed Baath party.

The Sunni-dominated Baathists have family and cultural ties in most of the areas between Mosul and Baghdad that the insurgents have captured so far. Their leaders, including the former dictator’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, share ISIL’s hostility towards Shiites and the government of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. Sunnis have long chafed against what they consider to be the premier’s pro-Shiite agenda.

"There are two dimensions here: there is the mutual dislike for Shiites and then there is the mutual dislike for the Maliki government in Baghdad," said Hazar Salim, an independent political analyst who lives in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. "That has brought them together."

But this coalition of convenience appears to agree on little else. ISIL’s strict enforcement of its religious convictions, such as the destruction of tombs and other cultural symbols in Mosul, has raised misgiving among other members.

This friction may be compounded by public frustration over power outages and fuel shortages in captured territory.

“We’re expecting them to fight,” said Bashar Mahmoud, who headed the provincial council in the northern city of Mosul before it was overrun.

Mr Mahmoud said leaders from the groups met two days after Mosul’s capture to decide on a new governor, but failed to agree on a candidate.

“They couldn’t agree because they’re too different. Yes, they are Sunnis and they came together because of common interests against the Maliki government. But ISIL wants total Islamic rule, while the others want what they call Islamic rule with a secular flavour,” said Mr Mahmoud, who maintains contact with Mosul residents from a nearby village protected by Kurdish forces where he and other local politicians fled.

Elsewhere, too, ISIL’s tough measures have begun alienating those who initially did not oppose their military campaign.

The tribal areas of Kirkuk province, where ISIL has a strong presence, are starting to resent the group’s behaviour, said Mohammed Mohammed, who runs the Arab affairs division of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office in Kirkuk city.

ISIL has killed youths from the tribes for unspecified reasons and demanded that residents repent for their sins, angering leaders of the two main tribal confederations in the area, said Mr Mohammed, whose office is in regular contact with residents there.

“When ISIL first came to those areas, they seemed to be trying to reach out the local population. But then they started killing members of these tribes and that has infuriated their leaders,” he said.

Mr Mohammed said he met a tribal elder from Kirkuk last week who spoke about a backlash brewing against ISIL. “He was enraged and said there could be clashes,” he said.

Now it appears ISIL may also be alienating the Naqshbandi Army, which has played a large part in its success.

Officials, intelligence officers and analysts interviewed for this article said Saddam’s former deputy, Mr Al Douri, plays a key role in the force, also known by its Arabic acronym JRTN.

Mr Al Douri became famous as the king of clubs in the deck of cards of wanted Saddam officials compiled by the US after its 2003 invasion of Iraq that deposed Saddam.

American and Iraqi officials say he played a key role in a Sunni-led insurgency that followed the invasion.

The Naqshbandi Army, formed in 2007, has a strong presence in Mosul as well as other areas taken during the ISIL-led offensive, consists of former Baathist officials who follow a strand of Sufi Islam.

Mr Douri’s influence in the Naqshbandi Army and among many Sunnis may have been important in terms of increasing its popularity by fusing religious elements with the largely secular Baathist ideology, analysts say.

Mr Al Douri himself is a follower of the Sufi order, said Hoshang Waziri, a political analyst in Erbil.

He said Mr Al Douri used to attend a mosque in the city that was linked to the Sufi order. “I remember seeing him here when I was seven. He’s a religious man.”

For years after the US invasion, Mr Al Douri and other Baathists, were given refuge and support by the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, which supported Sunni fighters against the US occupation.

Mr Al Douri’s exact whereabouts during that time are not known, although he is believed to have spent time between Syria and locations near Mosul.

After the uprising against Damascus that began in 2011, the Baathists appear to have begun working with Mr Al Assad’s opponents, hoping to capitalise on the momentum of militant groups such as ISIL that were fighting both in Syria and Iraq.

Mosul officials say Baathists coordinated a large convoy of pickups from ISIL-controlled territory across the border in Syria to that militant-held areas near the city, days before it was captured. The tip was relayed by an informant to a bodyguard of Khalaf Al Hadidi, a Nineveh provincial council member who was in Mosul when it fell.

“One of my security detail is cousin of an old Baathist officer who’s operating in Syria,” Mr Al Hadidi said. “It’s clear the Baathists were heavily involved in this attack.”

He and other politicians who fled the city have for years suspected the Naqshbandis of fanning protests and violence in Mosul.

But the governor in Nineveh, Atheel Nujeifi, said it was only a matter of time before the Baathists and ISIL turned on each other in Mosul.

“The Naqshbandis and [ISIL] will clash,” he said. “Everyone there thinks they control the city.”

*With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse