RAMADI, Iraq—Al-Qaida in Iraq, the dreaded terrorist group headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, has broken with local Sunni Muslim Arab insurgent groups in central Iraq, in some cases resulting in gun battles on the street.
On Sunday, fighting between insurgent groups started at a central intersection in war-torn Ramadi—the capital of the Sunni heartland province of Anbar—just past the downtown movie theater. As many as two dozen men fired automatic weapons and blasted away with shoulder-mounted rockets as al-Qaida in Iraq ambushed members of three local groups.
Eyewitnesses and Sunni insurgents said it was a fight between groups that would've been considered allies three months ago. One al-Qaida in Iraq fighter was killed, and an unknown number on each side were injured.
The groups have fallen into disputes about money and tactics, including over whether to participate in Iraq's political system. Residents think the strong support that al-Qaida in Iraq has had in the heart of Anbar province is starting to fracture, if not completely break. The group is dominated by non-Iraqis.
Staff Sgt. Don Dees, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said he wasn't aware of the situation and couldn't comment.
It's hard to gauge the impact of a split among insurgent groups on the United States war effort. There's no sign that the insurgents are any more tolerant than before of the American presence or more supportive of U.S. political efforts in Iraq.
Still, a split in Ramadi could blunt the influence of al-Qaida in Iraq, as the city in the so-called Sunni Triangle has been at the epicenter of fighting for the past 18 months and generally is seen as the heart of the group's power in the country. The group has taken credit for many of the country's more vicious terrorist attacks.
Ramadi, just north of Fallujah, gained attention in April 2004, as coalition forces surrounded and bombarded Fallujah, and al-Qaida in Iraq and local insurgents picked Ramadi as their new headquarters. Fighting that week killed 16 Marines from one outpost. The pace of attacks has continued, making the city one of the most dangerous spots in Iraq.
Kamil Ahmed, a 40-year-old resident with long-standing ties to local insurgent groups, said the break started in the summer, when al-Qaida in Iraq started killing police who showed up for work, breaking an insurgent agreement to let the officers do their jobs.
The split intensified when the group assassinated several sheiks, in mosques, for criticizing its actions. Insurgent groups also went against al-Qaida in Iraq and urged citizens to vote in the constitutional referendum in October and in the upcoming December national elections. Al-Qaida in Iraq had characterized voting as cooperating with the Americans.
Ahmed said the final straw was about money. He said businesses and even some government offices around Ramadi had been paying local insurgents protection money, as much as $70,000 a month. Al-Qaida in Iraq demanded the money.
"Al-Qaida said they needed the money to operate. The others needed it to create their own footprint on the insurgent effort," he said. "This is the basis for all armed groups, the fight for money and glory. What we have now is a very severe split. Open warfare isn't far behind."
By Monday, al-Qaida in Iraq had pasted fatwa, or holy orders, on mosques throughout the area calling for the assassinations of leaders, members and "spies" from the Iraqi Islamic Army, one of the nation's largest insurgent factions, along with The Revolutionary Group and the Ramadi-based Abu Khatab.
"Spies" means anyone who cooperates with coalition forces, for instance by reporting one of the hundreds of roadside bombs laid as traps along Ramadi's streets.
As one resident—a 45-year-old businessman who closed his business a year ago and who was afraid to give his name—walked through the center of the city, he pointed out two insurgent sniper nests and seven artillery shells rigged to explode in one block. Later he indicated what were thought to be U.S. sniper positions, only blocks away. On another block, in a vacant lot between homes, he pointed out stacked shells, hidden by cut blades of grass.
A group of five men sat smoking at a cafe, their rocket launchers behind their chairs. The city market, formerly teeming, was deserted. Buildings, some destroyed by coalition bombs, more by insurgent attacks, littered the center of the city.
He said it was obvious why everyday citizens would side against al-Qaida in Iraq.
"We're being killed by everyone, but we never know exactly who is killing who," he said. "We never know who will come for us next."
Local insurgent groups preach fighting only against coalition forces. They claim that al-Qaida in Iraq's insistence on killing Iraqis has cost it much of its local support.
Hassan al Ani, 34, is a policeman who can't do his job safely these days. Several of his co-workers have been murdered.
"It's clear that Anbar is a battleground for al-Qaida," he said. "I worry about who will win. The local insurgents just want their city back. Al-Qaida is full of men who want to die. I do not know how you defeat that."
(Al Dulaimy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent. Knight Ridder correspondent Matthew Schofield contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.