New Front Challenges al-Qaeda in Iraq
The establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq — an al-Qaeda inspired organization that threatened to split the Sunni resistance and sparked high-profile attacks against American and Iraqi targets in Baghdad — has had the unintended consequence of uniting non-al-Qaeda Sunni resistance movements into a new umbrella organization, the Reform and Jihad Front. The RJF has brought together three main Islamic movements in Iraq — Ansar al-Sunna Sharia Council (“The Supporters of the Sunna”), al-Jaish al-Islami (the Islamic Army in Iraq) and the al-Mujahadeen Army. While the RJF was established in response to the threat posed by ISI, a number of resistance figures were planning the formation of the front well before ISI’s emergence.
In early May, according to our sources, the leaders of the three organizations that eventually formed the front traveled to Damascus to consult with a number of resistance figures on how best to respond to the al-Qaeda challenge posed by the formation of the ISI. The resistance figures met with Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, a former leader in Saddam Hussein’s Baath Socialist Party from Mosul, in a suburb of Damascus. The three leaders told al-Ahmed that they believed that the formation of the ISI would actually strengthen “the American and Iranian plot to divide our country” — a point of view on which al-Ahmed agreed. Al-Ahmed agreed to the formation of the RJF, but counseled the three leaders that their groups would need to confront the ISI in Mosul and in al-Anbar province “in order to regain their credibility among the people.”
When the leaders returned to Iraq, they implemented al-Ahmed’s recommendations by dispatching fighters to ISI strongholds near the Himreen Mountains — in northeastern Iraq, near the Iranian border — then attempted to further broaden their base of support by appealing to the leadership of Jaish Mohammed (the Army of Mohammad) and the 1920 Revolution Brigades (literally, the Revolution of the Brigades of 1920), both of whom operate west of Baghdad. The formation of RJF sparked the ISI leadership to denounce the leaders of the new group as “factionalizers” who were only interested in splitting the Islamic resistance. But the RJF has already received support from major former Baath Party officials, one of whom told me that the ABSP (Arab Baath Socialist Party) “supports the RJF on the political, media and military levels.”
American officials have been watching the formation of the new umbrella group with interest, and have expressed surprise that it has gained the support of former Baathists. But such support should come as no surprise at all, because while the ABSP is largely secular, the vast majority of the leadership of Jaish e-Mohammad is comprised of former Baathist officials — so much so, in fact, that it now comprises the military wing of the ABSP. The 1920 Revolution Brigades is also shot-through with ABSP officials, most of whom are loyal to Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed. The leadership of RJF, I have learned, has also contacted several media personnel in London and Paris seeking their support and have maintained their contacts with Arab satellite channels — to ensure that their anti-al-Qaeda message gains a wide audience. Journalists in the Arab world have been recruited to circulate the RJF message, and have been told to be in direct contact with Abdullah al-Zubaidi, the RJF’s spokesman.
The RJF’s goals are to “fight all kind of occupations” (that is, American and Iranian) and to “make Iraq an Islamic State and guarantee its unity under an Islamic flag.” The RJF has also vowed to “target occupation forces and their agents and not civilians” to “promote moderate Islam and denounce all parties which do not differentiate between good and evil” to “abolish all decisions adopted by the American government including de-Baathification” and “to work to release all prisoners.” The RJF announced that they will never recognize the al-Maliki government and that upon taking power they will abolish the current constitution.
The quick formation of the RJF — almost totally ignored by the Western media — has brought relief to American and Iraqi officials, who feared the disintegration of a more moderate resistance in the face of the al-Qaeda threat. But the relief has been short-lived. The growth of the RJF, its ability to appeal to a broad political front, and its organizing skills have been felt throughout Anbar Province and far into the north. And while the RJF has vowed that it will fight the takifir current of al-Qaeda and marginalize the more extreme elements inside the resistance itself, its ability to quickly root itself into the populations of the Sunni heartland, just weeks after its establishment, has provided little relief to hard-pressed American and Iraqi military units. One RJF official waved aside the divisions that have opened up in the resistance since the founding of the ISI — and the resulting response in the formation of the RJF: “While the ISI opened up cracks inside the resistance,” he said, “there is still a united front when it comes to fighting the occupation. We are more dedicated than ever.”