Iraqi militant group attracts Sunni support

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 6:42 p.m.

BAGHDAD — As clashes last week raise fears of a destabilizing eruption of sectarian fighting in Iraq, a shadowy militant group linked to the top fugitive from Saddam Hussein's regime could stand to gain by attracting new Sunni Muslim support.

The Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order depicts itself as a nationalist force defending Iraq's Sunni minority from Shiite rule and as an alternative to the extremist version of Islam championed by al-Qaida, whose branch in Baghdad alienated many in the community during the height of the country's sectarian bloodshed in the middle of the last decade.

The Naqshabandi Army boasted online that it contributed to the wave of violence that followed a government crackdown on Tuesday on a Sunni protest site in the town of Hawija.

The deadly clash there prompted assaults by Sunni gunmen in a string of towns and cities, mainly in the north. The violence has claimed more than 170 lives.

In a posting on its website, the group urged its fighters to prepare to storm Baghdad to confront “with an iron fist ... the enemies of Arabism and Islam” — a reference to the Shiite-led government that many Sunnis believe is too closely allied with neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran. Although it says foreign diplomats are not its target, it warned that those who ally themselves with the government can expect no mercy.

It's not just propaganda, say officials and analysts.

“The intelligence we have clearly indicates — beyond any doubt — that the Naqshabandi Army is involved in the recent clashes” in the north of the country, said Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who's on parliament's security and defense committee.

Al-Zamili told The Associated Press that the group is thought to have a cache of small- and medium-sized arms, and it is continuing to carry out attacks against army positions.

“They are intensifying efforts to recruit more people and gather more weapons,” he said.

The group, believed to be made up largely of former officers and other former members of Saddam's regime, occasionally claims responsibility for attacks on government security forces.

Estimates of its size range from 1,000 to five times that.

It takes its name from the Naqshabandi order of Sufism, Islam's mystical movement, which counts many followers in northern Iraq.

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