The Islamic State of Iraq clearly felt the pressure from the insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army of Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna, and has responded with what is being portrayed as a conciliatory tape by its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. According to Reuters:
Baghdadi called on insurgents to maintain their unity, warning that enemies wanted to cause splits in their ranks. "Our friendship is deep ... and ties between us are stronger than some believe," he said. His comments appeared to confirm reports of a growing rift between his militant group and other insurgent organisations that accused al Qaeda of trying to impose control over them. Addressing insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Ansar al-Sunna, Baghdadi said he strongly opposed any fighting between insurgent groups and vowed to take all necessary measures to prevent bloodshed. "By God, you will not hear or see but good things (from us)," he said.
These key parts of the tape clearly reflect the dynamics I've been reporting over the last couple of weeks. The Islamic State of Iraq felt the need to respond to its critics among the major insurgency factions, and its warm words of brotherhood do seem - in part - aimed at smoothing the waters. He even apologizes for any infractions carried out by soldiers of the Islamic State, but defends their collective honor... anyone conducting such offensive acts as outlined in the Islamic Army's communique were just a few bad apples, one might put it.
It's also worth noting that Baghdadi's remarks to the tribes confronting al-Qaeda is far less conciliatory - at one point, he describes those who align with a house not their own (i.e. not Sunni Muslims) as the worst of all people. At another he caustically says that al-Qaeda were not the ones sending their mothers and sisters and daughters to Abu Ghraib. His decision to be somewhat conciliatory towards the insurgency factions and curtly dismissive towards the tribal leaders might offer a hint into which challenge he finds more threatening.
Much of the early reaction - both in Western media and on the jihadi forums - suggests that the tape is a victory for the Islamic Army of Iraq. It's tempting for me to support that reading since it would in some ways vindicate my earlier analysis (al-Qaeda was forced to back down in the face of the Islamic Army's superior power, once the IAI called its bluff). But there may be more to it than that, and I don't want to rush to any such conclusions. This conciliatory messages to the Islamic Army and Ansar al-Sunna come in the context of a fairly uncompromising speech. Baghdadi presents a highly optimistic account of four years of jihad in Iraq - for which he claims far more credit for al-Qaeda than the other insurgent factions may be willing to concede. Baghdadi's talk praises the doctrinal advances in Iraq even before the political or military, which implicitly criticizes the pragmatic and Iraq-focused approach of the Islamic Army and Ansar al-Sunna. What's more, while he certainly does appeal for unity, that unity should come under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq. By protesting the blamelessness of the Islamic State of Iraq, which only seeks unity, and criticizing the Satanic forces spreading fitna and disarray, Baghdadi puts the onus on the Islamic Army and Ansar al-Sunna for the current controversy. Finally, his suggestion that the wise cadres of the other factions might sit down with their counterparts in the Islamic State and learn the truth of the situation could easily be read by the leaders of those factions as a veiled threat - since such wise cadres, once persuaded, might well defect to the Islamic State. In other words, his conciliatory words may be pleasantries meant to conceal a fairly tough message: its insurgency critics have been duped by Satanic forces and are responsible for unleashing divisions (fitna) among an otherwise extremely successful jihad.
I'll be following the reactions to and interpretations of the speech as they appear.
UPDATE: the first substantive response I've seen comes from the influential Kuwaiti jihadist commentator Hamid al-Ali, whose public criticism of the Islamic State of Iraq's behavior helped touch off this whole controversy. Ali essentially says that he wants to see deeds from the Islamic State which match its words. Shedding the blood of other Sunnis, and especially other mujahideen, should be an uncrossable red line for all insurgent factions, and anyone who has done so should be expelled from the ranks of the jihad. Nothing should be placed ahead of the battle against the occupation of Iraq and the liberation of the umma, says Ali, neither doctrinal differences nor factional rivalries. He calls for unity, greater cooperation, and an above all an end to intra-factional fighting - and seems to place the onus for demonstrating adherence to those goals on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaeda.
... Thus far, I've seen a report that Ibrahim Shamri of the Islamic Army in Iraq has welcomed Baghdadi's remarks, but can't yet get a confirmation of it [update: I've heard a voice recording of the comments; it sounds like him, but I'm no expert in voice identification, and it sounds like a phone interview on a TV show
but I don't know which one/ it was al-Jazeera, I now know]. Also, there's an odd report going around that Ansar al-Sunna has split, with its sharia council leaving the group (perhaps to join up with the Islamic State of Iraq)? Again, I can't get confirmation of the report or a denial, but will keep searching. (update: Ansar al-Sunna has issued a statement denying al-Jazeera's report on the split - which doesn't mean that it isn't true, just that they denied it...)
... and while I'm here, it's probably worth mentioning that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a press conference that he has been negotiating with unnamed insurgency groups "that are not part of the political process" over a political reconciliation and end to the violence. Al-Jazeera reports that the groups he has been talking to include the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, and three others. Those names might be familiar. Whether those "secret" talks are part of the story behind those factions breaking with al-Qaeda's Islamic State, or whether those very public comments are meant to undermine the position of said factions just as they confront al-Qaeda's Islamic State, will surely be much debated in the coming days.
... final, final update, rather than start a new post: the 1920 Revolution Brigade released a statement (under that name, not as Hamas Iraq) welcoming Baghdadi's speech as a fine example of self-criticism, but expressed the hope that the speech would lead the way to changes on the ground.