Seven of the most important Sunni-led insurgent organisations fighting the US occupation in Iraq have agreed to form a public political alliance with the aim of preparing for negotiations in advance of an American withdrawal, their leaders have told the Guardian. In their first interview with the western media since the US-British invasion of 2003, leaders of three of the insurgent groups – responsible for thousands of attacks against US and Iraqi armed forces and police – said they would continue their armed resistance until all foreign troops were withdrawn from Iraq, and denounced al-Qaida for sectarian killings and suicide bombings against civilians.
Speaking in Damascus, the spokesmen for the three groups – the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Ansar al-Sunna and Iraqi Hamas – said they planned to hold a congress to launch a united front and appealed to Arab governments, other governments and the UN to help them establish a permanent political presence outside Iraq.
Abu Ahmad, spokesman for Iraqi Hamas said: “Peaceful resistance will not end the occupation. The US made clear it intended to stay for many decades. Now it is a common view in the resistance that they will start to withdraw within a year. ”
The move represents a dramatic change of strategy for the mainstream Iraqi insurgency, whose leadership has remained shadowy and has largely restricted communication with the world to brief statements on the internet and Arabic media.
The last three months have been the bloodiest for US forces, with 331 deaths and 2,029 wounded, as the 28,000-strong “surge” in troop numbers exposes them to more attacks.
Leaders of the three groups, who did not use their real names in the interview, said the new front, which brings together the main Sunni-based armed organisations except al-Qaida and the Ba’athists, had agreed the main planks of a joint political programme, including a commitment to free Iraq from foreign troops, rejection of cooperation with parties involved in political institutions set up under the occupation and a declaration that decisions and agreements made by the US occupation and Iraqi government are null and void.
The aim of the alliance – which includes a range of Islamist and nationalist-leaning groups and is planned to be called the Political Office for the Iraqi Resistance – is to link up with other anti-occupation groups in Iraq to negotiate with the Americans in anticipation of an early US withdrawal. The programme envisages a temporary technocratic government to run the country during a transition period until free elections can be held.
The insurgent groups deny support from any foreign government, including Syria, but claim they have been offered and rejected funding and arms from Iran. They say they have been under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to unite. “We are the only resistance movement in modern history which has received no help or support from any other country,” Abdallah Suleiman Omary, head of the political department of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, told the Guardian. “The reason is we are fighting America.”
All three Sunni-based resistance leaders say they are acutely aware of the threat posed by sectarian division to the future of Iraq and emphasised the importance of working with Shia groups – but rejected any link with the Shia militia and parties because of their participation in the political institutions set up by the Americans and their role in sectarian killings.
Abd al-Rahman al-Zubeidy, political spokesman of Ansar al-Sunna, a salafist (purist Islamic) group with a particularly violent reputation in Iraq, said his organisation had split over relations with al-Qaida, whose members were mostly Iraqi, but its leaders largely foreigners.
“Resistance isn’t just about killing Americans without aims or goals. Our people have come to hate al-Qaida, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. We are against indiscriminate killing, fighting should be concentrated only on the enemy,” he said. He added: “A great gap has opened up between Sunni and Shia under the occupation and al-Qaida has contributed to that.”
Wayne White, of Washington’s Middle East Institute and a former expert adviser to the Iraq Study Group, said it was unclear, given the diversity within the Sunni Arab insurgency, what influence the new grouping would have on the ground.
He added: “This does reveal that despite the widening cooperation on the part of some Sunni Arab insurgent groups with US forces against al-Qaida in recent months, such cooperation could prove very shortlived if the US does not make clear that it has a credible exit strategy.
“With the very real potential for a more full-blown civil war breaking out in the wake of a substantial reduction of the US military presence in Iraq, Shia and Kurds appreciate that the increased ability of Sunni Arabs to organise politically and assemble in larger armed formations as a result of such cooperation could confront them with a considerably more formidable challenge as time goes on.”