- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2014

The surge of an al Qaeda splinter group in Iraq over the past month has depended heavily on support from more secular Sunni factions in the nation, which challenges the Obama administration’s policy of making distinctions between extremists and moderate militants in the region.

One of the more complicated issues in the debate within the administration over whether to unleash U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is the manner in which the group has nimbly blurred the line between itself and the rest of Iraq’s disgruntled Sunni population.

The White House, which has authorized hundreds of drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda targets in other corners of the world, may well deem ISIL to be a worthy candidate for such strikes in Iraq. But the problem, according to senior military and intelligence sources, is ISIL has effectively camouflaged itself by partnering with others the administration may not want to hit.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff alluded to the challenge of identifying bona fide ISIL targets last week when he told a Senate panel that “ISIL is almost indistinguishable right now” from various Sunni tribal groups, as well as the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) — a Baath Party loyalist outfit that has been lurking in northern Iraq since shortly after former dictator Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006.

“As I mentioned, these forces are very much intermingled,” said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey in response to several lawmakers, who probed for insight into whether the White House may be close to authorizing airstrikes in Iraq. “It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking it,” the general said.

“In this cauldron of Northern Iraq, you have former Baathists, JRTN, [and] you have groups that have been disenfranchised and angry with the government in Baghdad for some time,” he said.

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U.S. officials have for years monitored JRTN, even moving to block its access to U.S. financial markets in 2009. But many in Washington’s counterterrorism circles view the group as a decidedly different kettle of fish from ISIL.

While JRTN may be made up of Sunni Muslims, it is a mainly secular-minded group of former Iraqi military officers who resist ISIL’s publicly stated goal of establishing an Islamist caliphate spanning the Syria-Iraq border.

There is even speculation in Washington about the extent to which JRTN, or other more moderate Sunni groups now supporting ISIL in Iraq, may represent Washington’s best chance for developing the intelligence needed to identify legitimate ISIL targets. Such groups might have insight into the whereabouts of ISIL’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sources familiar with information being weighed by the administration cite a host of Sunni groups now fighting alongside ISIL. Some, such as the Islamic Army in Iraq, are Islamist in name but are more like JRTN than ISIL in that they reject the thirst for an Islamist caliphate in Iraq.

The 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Jaysh al-Mujahideen, the Jaysh Muhammad and the Jaysh al-Fatihin all fit into that category and appear only to be aligning with ISIL out of shared desire to bring an end to Shiite-dominated government, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been pursuing in Baghdad over the past several years.

“There has been a growing unhappiness among important segments of the Sunni community in particular with the Maliki government, and what [ISIL] has done is make an offensive charge,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior analyst with the Rand Corp.

Once it became clear that ISIL was on the move, said Mr. Jones, “you had a little bit of a domino effect [when] these other groups jumped: the JRTN, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army of Iraq and others.”

“None of them share this idea of a caliphate,” he said. “This is a marriage of convenience for the moment. I’d be surprised if these groups have any interest in cooperating over the long term.”

That ISIL has profited this month by allying with other Sunni militants in Iraq has only added to the complexity of the situation for the Obama administration, because it reverses the way the jihadist group has been seen to operate in nearby Syria over the past year.

The administration has channeled aid to moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army, which has clashed violently with ISIL. The surprise in Iraq, intelligence and military officials say, is the manner in which ISIL is seen to be suddenly willing to work with more moderate groups.

Analysts say the development is disturbing on multiple fronts.

For one thing, it means more moderate Sunnis in Iraq are so desperate to overthrow the Maliki government that they’re willing to join forces with al Qaeda. On the other, it could mean that groups like JRTN are simply attempting to exploit ISIL to gain territory in northern Iraq under the belief that it can distance itself from ISIL — perhaps even crush it — at a later time.

“If these groups didn’t jump on board, they might miss an opportunity to shape what’s going on,” Mr. Jones added. “Better to get involved now, gain control of some territory, and then you can go after [ISIL] at some point down the line.”

Some in the Obama administration appear to be clinging to hopes that such a scenario may play out sooner than later in Iraq.

Gen. Dempsey indicated as much when he too mused during testimony before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense that ISIL’s alliance with other Sunni groups may merely be “a partnership of convenience.”

“There’s probably an opportunity to separate them,” he said.

But it remains uncertain when such a separation will ultimately occur — or how bloody it may be.

Another source, who spoke anonymously with The Times, said there was evidence of impressive tactical cohesion between ISIL and JRTN, especially around the northern Iraq city of Mosul.

While Western media outlets were quick to credit ISIL with taking the city early this month, the source said ISIL fighters were actually only inside Mosul for a matter of hours before handing control of security over to JRTN fighters.

“The reality,” said the source, “is that [ISIL] is ghastly unpopular in Mosul because of protection and extortion rackets they’ve been running against people in that city. That’s why they quickly handed security over to the former Iraqi military guys.”

Other evidence suggests that some within JRTN may be eager to assert control over ISIL. Reports over the weekend said 17 people were killed when a firefight suddenly broke out between the two groups in the town of Hawija, roughly 50 miles south of Mosul.

Agence France-Presse cited an unnamed security official as saying the fighting began when JRTN fighters refused an ISIL demand to give up their weapons and pledge allegiance to the jihadist force. The news agency also cited witnesses as saying the clash grew out of a dispute over who would take control of multiple fuel tankers in the area.

The potential for a bigger clash seems ripe going forward.

“We don’t know who’s going to be in charge,” said Joshua Landis, a leading scholar on the region who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Theoretically, Baathists and Sunni tribal leaders know what they’re doing, but there’s going to be tons of fragmentation,” said Mr. Landis, who added that more moderate Sunni groups in Iraq have taken on a dangerously risky gamble by working with ISIL.

Such groups, he said, are likely to find themselves stuck in the crossfire between al Qaeda supporters and Iraq’s current military forces.

“There are going to be many wise Sunni leaders who realize they cannot beat the Iraqi military when it comes over the horizon,” Mr. Landis said. “But they will also have ISIL guns at the backs of their heads, saying we’re going to put a bullet in you if you cut a deal with al-Maliki.”

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