NINEWAH PROVINCE, IRAQ // An Islamic insurgent group has promised to continue attacks on American forces despite this summer's pullback of troops from cities, a move that could soon prompt the return of US combat soldiers to the streets of Mosul. Salahaddin Ayyoub, an official from the Army of Naqishbandi, warned that levels of violence in key disputed areas, including Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq, were also likely to rise again, as Arabs and Kurds continue their struggle for control.
"The American pull-out has not ended the war, it has just moved it into a new phase," he said. "We do not consider the shift of American forces to be anything more than an attempt to stop them being killed - they wish to put Iraqi soldiers into harm's way while they retreat into their bases. "We will adjust our tactics so that the Americans cannot hide, we will continue to target them wherever they are and we have the weapons to do so."
The Naqishbandi Army, which fights under the banner of "The Supreme Leadership for Jihad and Liberation", an umbrella organisation that includes former members of Saddam Hussein's regime, has relied heavily on roadside bombs, designed to destroy armoured vehicles in military convoys. With US troops reducing their on-street presence and spending more time in heavily fortified bases, insurgent groups expect such attacks to become less effective. Instead, Mr Ayyoub said, they will have to rely on more complicated methods such as missiles and rockets.
"Our strategy is to target the Americans wherever they go and their bases are not far from the cities," he said. "We have prepared many rockets for the coming days and months. Over the years we have had a shortage of some weapons but in this new era we have rockets that can hit them." With the war in Iraq now into its sixth year, American casualties have risen to more than 4,300 dead with tens of thousands more wounded, many of them seriously. While US soldiers have been killed since the pullback from cities, there is no sign that casualties are resulting from the kind of missile attacks that the Naqishbandi Army claims to be conducting.
However, the main US camp in Mosul, Forward Operating Base Marez, has been hit by regular rocket attacks since the American pullback on June 30. US troops on the base say the strikes, which have not yet caused any fatalities, prove that local Iraqi forces are not up to the job of keeping security in the restless city without Americans on the streets. A strict curfew currently means US combat forces are largely confined to camp, moving only at night. Some American officers and troops in Mosul are, though, pushing for a resumption of combat patrols, according to Iraqis working closely with them, arguing it is essential for self-defence. The Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) between Baghdad and Washington, which requires US troops be moved out of urban areas, contains self-defence clauses that could be used by the US to legally justify a return to street patrols.
Insurgent attacks are a regular occurrence in Iraq, with a series of recent deadly bombings in Baghdad and other cities apparently designed to reignite the sectarian civil war that brought the country to its knees by 2007. General levels of violence have dropped since then but remain high and incidents have even spread to areas once considered calm, such as Hilla, south of Baghdad. Last month 275 people were officially registered as suffering violent deaths in Iraq. The total number of civilian casualties since the US-led invasion of 2003 has never been formally counted, although some estimates say more than half a million Iraqis died because of the war.
The Naqishbandi Army and their allies claim not to be involved in any incidents that target civilians, and Mr Ayyoub denied that his group played any role in sectarian attacks. "We consider it to be against Islam to kill Iraqis or to shed Iraqi blood," he said. "We do not attack Iraqi soldiers or police, unless they attack us or unless they are fighting alongside American troops." Mr Ayyoub spoke to The National on condition that his location at the time of the interview not be disclosed. He had with him a computer printout showing an aerial view of the US base in Salahaddin province, marked "secret". Although its authenticity could not be verified, it appeared to be of the kind commonly seen in American military operations rooms.
"We have such plans to help us target our attacks," he said. "We have people working inside American bases who help us and most things are for sale. We buy some of our information from the American soldiers themselves." According to Mr Ayyoub, the Naqishbandi Army has forces across Iraq, including Mosul and Kirkuk, major cities that are the subject of an increasingly bitter and dangerous dispute between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs, a struggle for influence complicated by the continued attacks of al Qa'eda inspired groups. The Naqishbandi Army and other insurgent cells within the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, say they oppose al Qa'eda every bit as much as they oppose the US occupation and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
"There will be more violence in Mosul and Kirkuk because there are too many people with an interest in violence there," Mr Ayyoub said. "The Kurds like the violence because it gives them a justification to have their own militia and to keep their military strength. The Iraqi government likes the violence because it gives them an excuse to send up their army to take the cities away from the Kurds.
"Whenever there is an attack against civilians in Kirkuk or Mosul, we believe it is the work of the Kurds or the Iraqi government. "They help al Qa'eda make these attacks because it serves their purposes." In the course of the Iraq war and subsequent insurgency, Mr Ayyoub admitted his group had suffered setbacks. Many fighters, supporters and sympathisers had been killed or imprisoned, he said, although he refused to give more precise details.
Although more Iraqi groups and former rejectionists have now decided to be a part of the political process, Mr Ayyoub said the Naqishbandi Army would not negotiate with US forces, or with the Iraqi government. "We consider all the Iraqi government to be traitors," he said. "Without the Americans, they would not be able to keep their positions. And we are not afraid of the American forces. "Our main principle is to obey our religious orders and we believe it is our religious duty to defend the country against occupation. We had been worshipping God peacefully in our mosques before the invasion. After it we picked up our weapons to fight. We fight under the banner of 'There is no God but God'.
"We will continue to fight until all of the Americans soldiers have left Iraq." The agreement between Baghdad and Washington calls for US forces to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011. In a recent visit to the US, however, the Iraqi prime minister suggested some US military trainers would have to remain in the country after that date. Iraq is also likely to be dependent on the US military for its air power long after the withdrawal deadline.