Michael Ware


TIME: Uniting to Resist?


Intense fighting broke out last week between U.S. troops, backed by Iraqi forces, and fighters loyal to the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But while al-Sadr's Mahdi militia represents a serious threat to Iraq's stability, an equally vexing challenge to Iraqi order is taking shape in the Sunni Muslim-dominated area northwest of Baghdad, where Sunni terrorists, Baathists and nationalists are thriving.

These resistance groups have so far cooperated only erratically, when it suits their needs. But insurgent sources tell TIME that elements in the resistance, especially jihadis who have ties to al-Qaeda, are pushing to unite the area's disparate militants under a single command. The insurgents are working through a loose assembly of leaders known as Mujahedin Shura, often translated as "supreme council of the mujahedin." This informal group, which meets occasionally to share intelligence and tactical tips, already has a defense minister, an army chief and an operations commander of sorts. At recent meetings, insurgent leaders--including Iraqi nationalists, Baathists and sundry Sunni extremists--have debated streamlining their activities under a single leader. According to several sources involved in the movement, Syrian intelligence agents in the area, who have helped arm the groups and aided their propaganda campaigns, have also been participating in the debate.

But the resistance has its divisions--at least in part because jihadist leaders allied to al-Qaeda-linked Jordanian terrorist Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, a proponent of the unified command, seem to be trying to take control. Militant sources tell TIME that their rise has alienated some insurgents, especially the Baathists and nationalists, who resent the influence of foreigners. Whoever wins, the more disturbing development is that some Iraqi jihadis, hoping to take their fight beyond Iraq's borders, are threatening to launch a terrorist campaign in the U.S. "If America continues to shield its people from the truth," says an al-Zarqawi loyalist, "we shall transport the battle to where their public cannot but see it."