BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s main Sunni Muslim insurgent groups have rejected laying down their arms to join the political process and will keep fighting, nearly three months after the last U.S. troops withdrew, a senior security official and militant leaders said.
Many Shi’ite and Sunni armed groups have laid down their weapons since U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq in mid-December. But six prominent Sunni armed groups say they will fight on to drive the last Americans from Iraqi soil and topple “the occupation government.”
“These groups are still fighting and still active, they continue to carry arms,” said Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi. “(They are active) in all Iraq, and are stationed in Mosul, Diyala, Anbar, Salahuddin, Baghdad, Babil, and some on the outskirts of Basra and Kut.”
The provinces he named are mainly in the north and centre of the country where most of Iraq’s Sunni minority is concentrated, but also include Sunni regions in the heavily Shi’ite south.
The groups include al-Qaeda’s Iraq wing, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, the Islamic Army, the Mujahedeen Army, the Rashideen Army and Ansar al-Sunnah, Asadi said.
The United States withdrew its troops in December nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraq still houses the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy in the world, with about 2,000 diplomats and, as of last year, 14,000 contractors. Embassy spokesman Michael McClellan said that number is falling but declined to provide an up-to-date figure.
Thursday, simultaneous early morning attacks on mostly Shi’ite targets across Iraq killed at least 60 people and wounded dozens in one of the bloodiest days of violence since U.S. troops left. The al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility.
“The war of the Sunnis against is a religious war, a holy war of faith,” the group said.
The Islamic Army in Iraq, composed of Sunni Arabs and former Iraqi army officers whose aim was to end U.S. military presence and influence in Iraq, said it would keep fighting as long as the “effects” of U.S. occupation were still being felt.
“We are happy to declare the defeat of the occupation but the occupation has a project and the effects of this project still exist,” said Ibrahim al-Shimari, the spokesman of the Islamic Army.
“We are continuing to defend the Iraqi people and this weapon is the guarantee of the security of the Iraqi people.”
The Islamic Army is a member of the Political Council of the Iraqi Armed Resistance which consists of several armed groups which reject the Shi’ite-led government and say it must be toppled.
“Let there be an Iraqi government that works for all the Iraqi people without discrimination, then the situation will change,” Shimari said. “Now, this government is a government of sect not people, so our situation is valid.”
Washington is preparing to cut back its diplomatic presence, which includes a vast, heavily-fortified embassy compound on the banks of the Tigris in central Baghdad and consulates in Basra, Arbil and Kirkuk.
Iraqi Sunni insurgents describe the U.S. presence is as an extension of the military occupation and say targeting it is therefore legitimate.
“The occupier has not left, they left an embassy which includes thousands of persons, and certainly those are not diplomats,” Sheikh Khalid al-Ansari, a senior leader with the Islamist militant al-Rashideen Army, said. “We will keep fighting to drive the last U.S. soldier from Iraqi soil.”
Ansari said his group will keep targeting embassy buildings, military bases that host the contractors and consulates.
“They are living in fortified areas which makes the access to them difficult but we will reach them by rockets,” Ansari said. “Even the contractors who live with the Iraqi Army in its bases, we will target them.”
Reporting by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Peter Graff