- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan — Newly radicalized Sunnis and disillusioned nationalists are swelling the ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq, which thinks it can turn part of the country into an Islamic emirate, a moderate Sunni politician said yesterday.

Saleh Mutlaq, whose Iraqi National Dialogue group supports the U.S.-backed political process, said al Qaeda’s growing control of strongholds at the heart of the Sunni insurgency was paving the way for an Islamic fundamentalist state in western and central Iraq, and even Baghdad.

“In the beginning, [al Qaeda] was a percentage that did not exceed 2 to 4 percent of the total resistance,” Mr. Mutlaq said in an interview in Amman. “Now al Qaeda’s growth is at the expense of the nationalist resistance.”

Dozens of al Qaeda-linked gunmen took to the streets of Ramadi — capital of Anbar province — last week to announce that the city was joining an Islamic state comprising Iraq’s mostly Sunni Arab provinces, Islamists and witnesses said.

The western Anbar province, which encompasses a third of Iraq, has been the deadliest region in the country for U.S. forces.

Mr. Mutlaq said the decision this month by the Shi’ite-controlled parliament to pass a law allowing provinces to form federal regions encouraged Islamist Sunni groups to set up their own rule in areas under their control.

“They are saying we also have our provinces and will set up an Islamic emirate, and this is terrifying,” Mr. Mutlaq said.

The moderate Sunni politician said U.S. tactics toward civilians had propelled many ordinary Sunnis into the arms of al Qaeda. “American prisons have become the school for suicide bombers and transformed many prisoners into al Qaeda elements when they were not before,” he said.

He said al Qaeda plans to expand its territory both in Iraq and beyond its borders. “They want to capture territory to attract more jihadists to destabilize everywhere, and they think they can take over all of Iraq later when they have the territory to operate,” he said.

Mr. Mutlaq said he saw signs that U.S strategists were increasingly ready to talk to mainstream nationalist insurgents who oppose al Qaeda’s harsher aspirations for Iraq. A direct dialogue could emerge in the “next few months,” he said.

But he warned that mainstream Sunni insurgents — including former army officers and former regime loyalists — would not give up their arms without political concessions.

“The nationalist resistance wants those who talk to them to bring them a plan that attains the goals they fought for. … Then it will be ready to give up its arms,” Mr. Mutlaq said.

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