The January 18 episode of 'Death Makers' on the Saudi-owned Arab TV station al-Arabiya focused on the Islamic Army of Iraq has generated a bit of controversy. The program began from the premise that the IAI, one
of the largest and most important of the 'nationalist-jihadist'
insurgency factions, is trying to move out from the shadows. As part of that effort, according to host Rima Saleh,
Abu Azzam al-Tamimi, presented as a 'former leader of the IAI' on the transcript but as 'one of the leaders of the Islamic Army' on the air,
agreed to sit down on camera. The program acknowledges the IAI's cooperation with the US, presents the Awakenings as a product of the resistance factions (not really of the tribes), and argues that combating the Iranian presence and not al-Qaeda was the main reason for the decision to align with the US and establish the Awakenings. Whether any of this is true has become something of a contentious topics in certain circles.
The Islamic Army immediately issued a lengthy statement
disowning Abu Azzam, denying that he had ever had a relationship with
the IAI in any capacity. Its statement blasts al-Arabiya for serving
as an American propaganda outlet, and implies that the program is just an information operation aimed at blackening the name of the Resistance. It denies having any relationship
with the Awakenings project and maintains its adherance to the jihad
against the American occupation, and denies having any negotiations
with the US. And it rejected the distinction between American and
Iranian occupations, arguing that the "Safavid" occupation came on the
backs of the American, and that the resistance fought them both. All typical of the IAI's public rhetoric... though not necessarily its reality.
The most significant part early in the program came when Abu Azzam deflected questions about the foreign financing of the insurgency, saying that the factions didn't need a great deal
of financial support. The nature of armed resistance in Iraq differed
from other places, he said, since everybody already had weapons left
over from the Iraqi Army and munitions were easily raided from old Army
installations. He denied that they had engaged in kidnapping or
extortion for funds, although he allowed that al-Qaeda might have done
so. Iraq was a wealthy country, he said, and the insurgency enjoyed great
support, so there was no need for significant external funding. That sounds like something which would please Saudis who have been accused of financing the insurgency and which makes the IAI look very decent and patriotic; I'm dubious on quite a few points in this section. It's somewhat interesting here that the al-Arabiya transcript is headlined "Is the financing of the resistance domestic or foreign?" - suggesting that despite all of the interesting material to be discussed in a moment, this was the important takeaway point for them.
Most observers will likely be more interested by his comments about al-Qaeda. He claimed that there had never been any real relationship between the resistance factions and al-Qaeda beyond limited tactical coordination back when the sole focus of the resistance was the American occupation. But, in the now familiar story, AQ departed from the national path [al-tariq al-watani] and lost all support. He described al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization because of its killing of innocent Iraqis, but at the same time, he still had hopes for the Iraqi members of al-Qaeda (as opposed to the hated non-Iraqis). His main arguments against al-Qaeda focused on its foreign leadership: he scornfully dismissed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir as "non-Iraqi personalities working on Iraqi soil." He would only work with Iraqis, not Arabs, and he claimed that none of the major factions accepted Zarqawi or Muhajir or any other non-Iraqi leader. When asked about the current Emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, he grew somewhat cagey - he suggested that AQI had been desperate to find an Iraqi face for its organization (which supports the American version) but didn't suggest that he was an "actor". He also claimed that Baghdadi had been imprisoned and under interrogation in an American prison for months. Again, for what it's worth, this emphasis on the foreign leadership of AQI fits comfortably within the current US talking points and the current Saudi line.
Abu Azzam seemed far more interested in talking about Iran's perfidous influence in Iraq. He said clearly and repeatedly, with considerable passion, that concern with Iranian intervention was the number one reason that the IAI and other factions chose to work with the American forces. Asked directly whether the decision to align with the US was related to the turn against al-Qaeda, he said absolutely not. Iraqis reject occupation in any form, whether American or Iranian, he said, but the factions consider the Iranian intervention more threatening than the American because it is permanent. Iranian influence was pervasive in the government and the opposition, in al-Qaeda (!) and the enemies of al-Qaeda, in every region and every community. When the extent of Iranian influence became clear during the government of Ibrahim Jaafari (which ended in May 2006), he said, the leaders of the insurgency began rethinking their strategy- and that's when they began to talk about a truce with the American forces.
He said that the Awakenings were the product of the resistance's year long dialogue with the Americans beginning in June 2006, sparked by their strategic decision to refocus their efforts against Iran. Al-Qaeda and the 'tribal leaders' like Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha play no role whatsoever in his account (which begins months before the AQI atrocities which dominate the 'official version' of the Anbar Salvation Council's birth). He waved away distinctions between the tribes and the insurgency - where, he asked, do you think the insurgency came from except from the tribes? Many insurgency faction leaders now lead Awakenings, and the Awakenings forces in Baghdad and its surroundings and in the Western areas are the resistance. The Awakenings are not tribal, in this account, other than that the resistance always had tribal foundations and those interlinkages continue. We don't want the Awakenings to turn into militias, he said, and we have constantly asked to be incorporated into the armed forces and police. But to this point the government has refused, and they grow impatient. The Iraqi government still treats the factions as terrorist organizations despite all they have done working with the US, he complained. And while he didn't call the Iraqi government part of the 'Iranian occupation,' one could draw inferences.
Al-Arabiya has frequently promoted the Awakenings, interviewing its figures often and airing sympathetic coverage (one of the points in support of the frequently aired but hard to document thesis of Saudi patronage for the Awakenings). This program stands out because of its hyper-explicit linking of the Islamic Army and the armed resistance with the Awakenings. That could be an attempt to strengthen the position of the Awakenings by giving it the imprimatur of the "moderate, patriotic resistance" and deflecting criticisms that they are American puppets. It could also be an attempt to help the Islamic Army and other factions to enter into the public political process - although the Islamic Army's forceful denunciation of the program undermines that possibility. Or it could be an attempt to undermine the IAI by publicizing claims about its cooperation with the American - as suggested by the IAI's angry public response.
Whether Abu Azzam al-Tamimi is who he says he is and his account should be given credence seem to me to be open questions. The IAI's denial is politically significant but not decisive, it seems to me, since it has often publicly denied things which are widely reported to be happening. It's all murky and ambiguous, as these things tend to be, and all we can really do at this point is speculate about the significance of the broadcast. I'm just throwing it out there as one more data point for observers to take into account and mull over.