For four days this month, US marines were onlookers at just the kind of fight they had hoped to see: a battle between suspected followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a foreign-born insurgent, and Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters at the western frontier town of Husaybah. In clashes sparked by the assassination of a tribal sheik, which was commissioned by Zarqawi, the foreign insurgents and Iraqi tribal fighters pounded one another with weapons and mortars in the streets of Husaybah as the US military watched from a distance, tribal members and the US military said.
When a stray mortar round accidentally hit near the Marines, Lt. Col. Tim Mundy recalled, ‘‘they’d adjust their fire, and not shoot at us’’ for fear of drawing Americans into the fight. ‘‘They shot at each other,’’ he said. The Sunni Arab tribe involved in the clashes, the Sulaiman, lost four men, Salman Reesha Sulaiman, a member of the tribe, said in an interview after the fighting, which occurred during the first week of May.
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On the al-Zarqawi side, 11 foreign fighters were killed outright, plus an unknown number of other foreign fighters and their Iraqi allies in US bombing runs after local tribes tipped off their location to the Americans.
The fighting at Husaybah was a dramatic sign of the fractures in support and allegiance the foreign fighters are experiencing, several Iraqi political leaders and other Iraqis said. The battles also revealed what appears to be fissures within the network’s top leadership, they said.