WASHINGTON — U.S. and Iraqi officials are seeking ways to exploit emerging fissures between the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Iraqi extremist groups that allied with it to seize much of northern and western Iraq over the past month.
The groups, which follow the Sunni branch of Islam, made common cause with ISIL, whose members are also Sunni militants, to fight Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. The Shiites are the majority in Iraq, and there is deep distrust between them and the Sunnis.
Recently in Mosul, ISIL has rounded up members of Saddam Hussein’s banned Baath Party, whom the group saw as potential rivals. Residents in Salahuddin province are chafing under harsh Islamic law that ISIL has already started putting in place. Former Baathists are suspected in last week’s assassination of the ISIL emir in Diyala province.
In short, the marriages of convenience formed among ISIL and Baathists, Sunni nationalists, Sunni tribal groups and Sunni jihadists to fight a common enemy — the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — are coming under strain. Those fissures are being watched closely as the U.S. military’s Central Command is expected to deliver to the Pentagon this week a classified report on whether Iraq’s shattered security forces can rally to combat the threat.
Exploiting any rifts among the Sunni militants is a top priority for U.S. and Iraqi officials and their regional allies.
The United States has weighed sending former U.S. officials to meet with Sunni tribal leaders. Ideally, the United States would try to recreate the Sunni Awakening alliances formed in 2007 that had nearly 100,000 Sunni tribal fighters to combat an earlier incarnation of ISIL. But these efforts are still very much in their infancy, officials said. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has reportedly urged Sunni tribes to turn against ISIL.
“It’s a terrorist organization that needs to be eradicated,’’ said one Middle Eastern diplomat.
Iraqi officials caution that peeling Sunni groups away from ISIL will be far harder than it was when U.S. troops were in Iraq in force. After Americans left Iraq in 2011, al-Maliki refused to pay members of local Sunni Awakening councils, tribal militiamen armed by the Iraqi government to battle al-Qaida fighters in Iraq; only about 20,000 out of 100,000 ended up with jobs.
The Sunni insurgent groups are not widespread in each province and, by their nature, are small — whereas tribes are dispersed throughout provinces and even across provincial borders. In many ways, the biggest opportunity to foment an uprising is with the tribes since they have the sheer manpower that could be harnessed to face down ISIL.
But there is a strong feeling among many tribal leaders that if they fight against ISIL before the government commits to replacing al-Maliki and offering a new deal to Sunnis, they will lose out and help the government but not get any political compromise.
Further, unlike in 2007 and 2008, there are no U.S. bases or smaller outposts deep in hostile territory to serve as emissaries to the tribes, to offer their leaders some protection when they come under attack or to serve as sounding boards for discontent with the government. Now the outreach would have to be done by the Shiite-affiliated if not-dominated Iraqi security forces, which at least initially would lack credibility with tribal leaders.
As Pentagon officials prepare to receive the assessment of Iraqi security forces, they are carefully watching the fraying ties of these groups to ISIL in hopes of pinpointing potential vulnerabilities.
“If you can separate those groups, then the problem becomes manageable and understandable,’’ Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Pentagon news conference July 3.
Dempsey said the goal would be to “enable Iraq’’ to defend itself — not with a major influx of U.S. military personnel, but by providing “special skills, leadership and niche capabilities that we possess uniquely.’’ Among those niche abilities could be surveillance drones to identify concentrations of ISIL fighters and weapons.
The disagreements among the Sunni fighters show the challenges ISIL faces in building an enduring militant force among groups that have been rivals or enemies for years, are divided on religious and political grounds, and compete for power in specific towns or districts. The Baathists, for instance, are more secular and more nationalist, and have little interest in living under the Islamic caliphate that ISIL has declared in Iraq and Syria.
Although its blitzkrieg has settled into an armed stalemate with Iraqi security forces on the outskirts of Baghdad, ISIL has the weapons, personnel and momentum to maintain for now its grip over wide stretches of territory, U.S. and Iraqi security and intelligence officials say.
“They are a diffused irregular army, not a terrorist group in the traditional sense,’’ said Derek Harvey, a former Army intelligence officer and specialist on Iraq who now directs the University of South Florida’s Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict. “They have leadership, resources, and control territory, fighters and organization.’’
The overall number of Sunni insurgents in Iraq is hard to pin down. U.S. intelligence officials say that ISIL has about 10,000 fighters — about 7,000 in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq. ISIL fighters were the shock force that swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, on June 10, counterterrorism officials said. As the ISIL vanguard moved through northern Iraqi cities, thousands of other Sunni militants followed to consolidate control of local governments and neighborhoods.
In Salahuddin, Sunni groups have sworn allegiance to ISIL, and they have created a mujahedeen council. In Diyala, where the terrain is thick with palm groves and crisscrossed with canals making movement more difficult, some groups seem more independent: While some are working with ISIL, some are not and some appear to have remained neutral. Anbar province has a couple of towns, like Garma, with a patchwork of different insurgent groups, but ISIL dominates.
U.S. intelligence officials say that after ISIL, the largest group of insurgents consists of former Baathist regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers, who belong to the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, a group often called JRTN, the initials of its Arabic name.
Other nationalist or tribal groups include the 1920 Revolution Brigades, while more Islamist groups include the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Mujahedeen Army. Ansar al Islam, a radical Islamist organization often linked to al-Qaida, has its roots in the country’s Kurdish region, and is a main rival of ISIL despite sharing common ideologies, a Defense Department official. They are mostly based in the north and in the past were active in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces, though they have been seen operating in Fallujah as of March.
Dempsey said that after ISIL’s rapid advance “they’re stretched right now — stretched to control what they’ve gained and stretched across their logistics lines of communication.’’
But with Iraqi forces shattered by the uprising, some U.S. lawmakers are calling on President Barack Obama to order airstrikes against ISIL. Critics warn that without U.S. forward air controllers on the ground, airstrikes might accidentally kill tribal leaders who might be needed if there is any hope of keeping Iraq together under a more inclusive government.
Interviews this past week with the local police, residents and tribal leaders across northern Iraq revealed that ISIL has been exerting different levels of control, region by region.
In Mosul, ISIL initially sought to avoid alienating Sunni residents, but now appears to have started to impose its will more forcefully, even with erstwhile allies. In the past week, Sunni militants who overran Mosul last month have rounded up 25 to 60 senior ex-military officers and members of the Baath Party, Reuters reported.
“They came in with strong leadership, handing out food during Ramadan, not enforcing bans on smoking,’’ said Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has embedded with Iraqi security forces. “Now as occupiers, they’re identifying potential rebels, getting them registered, and then getting them to repent or kill them.’’
In Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, where Sunni nationalists are strong, the ISIL writ is less sweeping, and clashes with other Sunnis are more common.
Naqshbandia are fighting ISIL, most notably in Diyala, since they issued an Islamic law ordering people to be loyal and forbidding any other flag to be flown other than the ISIL black banner, according to police officers and tribal leaders there. Naqshbandia fighters were suspected in last week’s assassination of the ISIL emir for Diyala by a roadside bomb, the authorities said.
ISIL has also skirmished with fighters from the Islamic Army of Iraq and Ansar al Sunna, another Islamist organization.
In Salahuddin province, groups including the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Mujahedeen Army are working in tandem with ISIL, according to U.S. intelligence officials and an Iraqi journalist living and working in the province.
The groups sit together in a council that includes a representative of each group. They hold meetings, debate decisions, have a court and a judge and are applying Shariah, the journalist said.
“At first, everyone was happy that the army was gone and there were no more random arrests, no one was going to barge into their home,’’ said the journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for personal safety.
But in recent days, that has changed. “If someone says anything negative, they will be executed and their whole family,’’ the journalist said. “Now their ultimate goal is to reach and enter Baghdad. Everybody knows this.’’