News Middle East

Monday 22 September 2014

Sunni army will march alongside Isis in all out bid to capture Baghdad

Ruth Sherlock and Carol Malouf Erbil

Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30

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An Islamist fighter, identified as Abu Muthanna al-Yemeni from Britain (R), speaks in this still image taken from an undated video.
A man fires an RPG in an ISIL recruitment video

A senior commander of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq said that his men are fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham to take back Baghdad, even if it means pushing the country to civil war.

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Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash (47), a founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq, who fought the allied invasion in 2003, said thousands of his men were participating in the Isis-led insurgency that has swept across northern Iraq and now threatens the gates of the capital.

The Islamic Army, however, does not share the extremist ideology of Isis Mr Dabash said in an interview, and raised the prospect of his faction one day turning its guns on the jihadists.

"If Maliki [Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister] does not step down, then there is no doubt that we are moving on Baghdad," said Mr Dabash. "We will go all the way."

For more than a decade, Mr Dabash has been a mastermind of the Sunni insurgency that fought the United States-led occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Then an influential imam in Baghdad and a leading figure in the Batawi family, one of the country's largest Sunni tribes, Mr Dabash mobilised tens of thousands of men, forming the Islamic Army of Iraq. Initially in tandem with al-Qa'ida, the Islamic Army battled allied troops across Iraq, making Mr Dabash one of America's 'most wanted', with the US government describing him a key terrorist target in 2006.

Today, his men have regrouped to fight Iraq's prime minister and his Shia-led, Iranian-backed, government. "We are here to fight any occupation, whether American or Iranian. We have a common enemy with Isis now, and for this we are fighting together," said Mr Dabash.

For the past six months, Sunni insurgents have advanced, seizing territory in Anbar province and then, in the past two weeks, occupying Iraq's second city of Mosul and sweeping south, toppling towns and villages as they approach Baghdad.

Isis propaganda, promoted through Twitter, jihadist forums and even the group's own television station, announced its motivation for the onslaught as the desire to build an "Islamic State" comprising swathes of Iraq and northern Syria.

Little, however, has been known about the incentives of the factions who have joined the insurgency, providing the numbers and support that have made the group's dramatic takeover possible.

In what he said was his first face-to-face interview with a news organisation, Mr Dabash disclosed the demands being made by fighters in the domestic insurgency. "Maliki must first be deposed," said Mr Dabash. "Then we demand the fragmentation of Iraq into three autonomous regions, with Sunnis, Shia and Kurds sharing resources equally.

"And finally we need compensation for the one and a half million Iraqis, most of them Sunnis, who have been killed at the hands of the Americans and the Maliki regime."

Mr Dabash denied that Isis were the drivers of the attacks, instead describing the recent battles as a sectarian "awakening" of Sunni Iraqis, whom he said had suffered a decade of oppression.

"Is it possible that a few hundred Isis jihadists can take the whole of Mosul?" said Mr Dabash. "No. All the Sunni tribes have come out against Maliki. And there are parts of the military, Ba'athists from the time of Saddam Hussein, clerics, everyone came out for the oppression that we have been suffering.

"Those who are 18 today were children 10 years ago. They grew up in a hateful environment," he said. "They have seen too much oppression and violence; first by the Americans, and then by the Iraqi government who came to power on an American tank. Now, they are eager to bite off the head of the snake."

Mr Dabash said he preferred a "political solution", whereby the Iraqi government met the Islamic Army's demands.

But he accepted that this was unlikely, saying his men were ready to fight in a bloody sectarian civil war.

In the past week, the Iraqi government and Shia spiritual leaders have called Shia men to arms to fight the Sunni advance. With the national army weakened and having entirely fled the north of the country, the fighting in Iraq is increasingly delineated along sectarian lines.

Insurgency

"The call by the Shia sheikhs to their people to fight is going to lead to a civil war," said Mr Dabash. "We hope they will retreat from this but if they do not then we are ready. All the Sunnis now are in one direction."

As jihadists used Iraq as a rear base for their insurgency in neighbouring Syria over the past two years, the fragile country was once again acquiring the trappings of a civil war.

The senseless killings, so common during Iraq's civil war in the early 2000s, have returned, with suicide bombings in markets, on roads and in schools in both Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods across the country. Some 2,764 civilians have died in violence in Iraq so far in June, according to Iraq Body Count – a database administered by Conflict Casualties Monitor – the highest count since the 2007 civil war.

The decision by the Islamic Army to take up arms again came in December, in Anbar province, said Mr Dabash. "Before that we had been demonstrating peacefully for one year. But in spite of this, the Shia factions attacked us."

For several months, Sunni factions held control of Anbar, only moving on Mosul two weeks ago. "We decided to attack Mosul to distract the army from their siege of Anbar," said Mr Dabash.

The plan worked. Partly terrified of the threat of torture and summary killings, including beheadings, and realising that Isis had the support of local Sunni militants, the Iraqi army capitulated.

However, the commanders, mostly Shia, fled back to Baghdad, leaving their troops to shed their uniforms and return to civilian life, or to join the insurgents. (© Daily Telegraph , London)

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