Iraqi capital suffers one of its worst days of violence since the 2003 US invasion.
With Baghdad shaken daily by outbreaks of sectarian violence, in Iraq’s western al-Anbar province Sunnis have begun fighting Sunnis for control of this largely-desert region near the Syrian border.
Local people say that this new and increasingly bloody conflict, pitting former Iraqi Baathists against well-armed Islamic groups, may signal the start of a new phase in the country’s three-year-old war.
They believe the conflict is creating divisions within Iraq’s Sunni minority that has the potential to destabilise the region long after the US military has gone home.
The latest fighting began when former members of Saddam’s disbanded Baath party started attacking other Sunnis who were working with Al-Qaeda and foreign Islamists to carry out attacks against the American army, Iraqi police and the country’s majority Shias.
The ex-Baathists’ offensive has been so successful, local people say, that Iraqi groups working with al-Qaeda have been forced to divert their attacks away from the Americans to focus on fighting the al-Awda party, as the new secular Sunni movement is called.
‘Islamic state of Iraq‘
In early November, this growing conflict took a new turn when masked gunmen linked to al-Qaeda distributed flyers and posters throughout al-Anbar province threatening to execute anyone from Al-Awda.
“The Baath secular party will find no quarter in the new principality of the Islamic State of Iraq”
“The Baath secular party will find no quarter in the new principality of the Islamic State of Iraq,” read one flyer.
Since then, several high-ranking officials from the former Iraqi army have been found murdered throughout Anbar province.
These include former Major General Saab Al-Rawi, Major General Saud Al-Naimi and Wagih Dherar Al-Mawla, a former senior officer in the Iraqi Air Force stationed in Habbaniyah.
On November 11 another senior member of the Baath party, Loay Yassin, was found shot in the head in Al-Jamia, the western district of the town of Hiyt.
Hiyt residents told Al Jazeera that Yassin was known to have recruited fighters for the Jaysh Mohammed (Mohammed’s Army).
The Jaysh Mohammed is one of the largest Sunni insurgent groups and in the past it has claimed numerous attacks against US forces in Baghdad and Anbar.
The assassination of Yassin may suggest that al-Qaeda and its allies fear that the Jaysh Mohammed and its thousands of experienced fighters may be close to joining the al-Awda neo-Baathist alliance.
In the past year, the Jaysh Mohammed has already clashed several times with another group, Al-Tawheed wa Al-Jihad, a mainly Iraqi group which is affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The increasingly heavy fighting between the rival armed groups in Hiyt and other urban centres in Anbar has led many Sunnis to believe that a new war between secularist and Islamist factions could be beginning.
Although both groups are in principle opposed to the US presence in Iraq and the Shia-led government in Baghdad, Anbar residents say a rapprochment between the two is unlikely.
The growing divisions between Anbar’s Sunnis is also being felt in Baghdad.
Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which supports Iraqis’ rights to fight the Americans, referred to the tribes fighting Al-Qaeda in the province of Al-Anbar in western Iraq as “bandits”.
“They are groups of bandits and thieves used by the government to fight against Al-Qaeda which is struggling against the American occupation,” he said on 9 November.
This provoked a sharp response from Sheikh Abdel Sattar Abu Risha, a leading member of the Al-Awda grouping.
“If there is a bandit then it is you. If there is a killer it is also you,” he said of al-Dhari.
“You go around the country raising funds for takfiris and death squads. You are a beggar for the takfiris,” he said refering to Islamist fighters.
They are groups of bandits and thieves used by the government to fight against Al-Qaeda which is struggling against the American occupation
The former Baathist fighters of Al-Awda are believed to be relatively secular.
Many of their opponent’s share Al-Qaeda’s dream of founding a Sunni caliphate in Iraq which will then be the launchpad for attacks on Americans, Shias and Arab governments around the region.
A history of conflict
Local people point out that the root of the two groups’ mutual antagonism is based not only on ideological differences but also in events that occured long before the March 2003 US-led invasion.
In 1996, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist security forces scoured Anbar province looking for men who might be plotting against the government.
Dozens of young men were rounded up by the Iraqi army and police. Many belonged to the highly-conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam.
Several of those arrested were sent to prisons in Baghdad such as the Al-Hakmiyah in Al-Rusafa district and the Al-Rathwaniyah jail near Baghdad International Airport.
For more than six years they imprisoned men and their families and their tribes nursed bitter grudges against members of the Baath party in Anbar.
Then, in 2003, just a few months before the March 2003 invasion, Saddam ordered political and criminal prisoners released from prison.
Among those released were the imprisoned Wahhabists.
With Saddam gone and the country in chaos, the men and their families saw their chance to get even.
Furious at their years of imprisonment, ill-treatment and torture at the hands of the Baathists, the men and their families swore to take revenge.
With Iraq in chaos, they began assassinating the former Baathists who they believed had spied on the nascent Islamist movements and then given their names and addresses to Saddam Hussein’s security forces.
The series of killings helped sow the seeds for the present conflict in Anbar province, and has convinced both sides that the latest round of fighting is no mere ideological conflict but rather a fight to the death that is likely to continue even after the US leaves Iraq.