- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

BAGHDAD - Al Qaeda in Iraq is increasing its attacks against its traditional Sunni supporters as tribes of the minority religious group turn their backs on extremists to cooperate with the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.

The three suicide-bomb vehicles loaded with chlorine gas that poisoned hundreds Friday were detonated in a part of Anbar province west of Baghdad ruled by a Sunni tribal leader who works with the government.

Spectacular attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala province also are proving to be the biggest threat to the Iraqi and U.S. forces trying to secure the province, officials said.

“The tribal members are fighting al Qaeda and, in response, we are seeing an increase in spectacular attacks, audible attacks,” said Col. David W. Sutherland, who is leading U.S. operations in Diyala.

Col. Sutherland said U.S. and Iraqi forces were trying to talk with 17 of the province’s paramount sheiks and integrate them into Iraq’s security and political process.

Diyala has 19 major tribes and several subtribes. Although not as powerful as they once were, tribes in Iraq still are influential.

Although Sunni tribes in western Iraq have given tacit support to the extremist al Qaeda group to counter the shift of political power to the nation’s Shi’ite majority, their resulting isolation has driven them to turn away from the foreign terrorist group.

“The Sunnis are fed up that they can no longer drive around Baghdad. They can’t do business; they can’t get medical care,” said Ahmed, an Iraqi with relatives in the western Sunni-dominated provinces.

Although based in the west, many Sunni tribe members owned successful businesses in Baghdad and regularly traveled to the capital.

“The fight is between Sunnis and Sunnis,” said Ahmed, speaking on the condition that his full name not be used.

The problem, he said, is that al Qaeda also has infiltrated those tribes that are working with the government.

Friday’s attack in Anbar province appeared to target Sheik Khamis Hasnawi al-Eifan of Albu Issa, a Sunni tribe that had moved to expel al Qaeda from its territory and work with the government. Many tribe members had joined the police force.

“It was a message from al Qaeda that they will attack anyone who works with the government or supports the government,” said Moayad Mshawa, a sheik from the Sunni al-Jumeili tribe contacted by telephone from Baghdad.

Col. Sutherland said that al Qaeda in Iraq which is now calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq” was one of several terrorist organizations battling security forces, ranging from Sunni extremists to Shi’ite extremists.

Iraqis in Baghdad say security has improved since the start of the year, when bodies bearing signs of torture were being found all over the capital, but that roadside bombs and sectarian hatred are still daily threats.

Seven more U.S. soldiers died over the weekend, including four killed in western Baghdad by a roadside bomb while carrying out a citywide security operation, the Associated Press reported. All of the victims were killed on Saturday, the military said.

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