Even by the standards of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the suicide bombing in Ramadi on Jan. 5 was stunning for its audacity. The bomber had blended into the ranks of Iraqi police recruits outside the Ramadi Glass and Ceramics Works before blowing up his explosive vest, loaded with ball bearings for maximum devastation. The blast killed two U.S. service members and more than 70 Iraqi police recruits–but it also turned out to be a deadly miscalculation by the jihadis and their leader, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. Most of the victims were local Sunnis, and they were joining the police force under the protection of tribal chieftains who, with the U.S. military’s approval, are trying to impose order over their violent swath of Iraq. After the Jan. 5 blast, according to insurgents, tribal chiefs in Ramadi notified al-Qaeda that they were withdrawing protection in the city for the group’s fighters. The jihadis responded by gunning down several prominent Sunni clerics and tribal leaders. Now al-Qaeda fighters who once swaggered through Ramadi are marked men. “It’s war,” says an Iraqi intelligence officer with contacts among the insurgents.
For months, U.S. officials in Iraq have tried to exploit growing differences over tactics and aims among factions of the insurgency, a push first detailed by TIME in December. Although reports of clashes between Iraqi nationalist groups and religious extremists linked to al-Qaeda remain difficult to quantify, there are signs that at least in some parts of Iraq, the tension is boiling over. Iraqi security sources with contacts in the insurgency told TIME that fighting has erupted in several cities that have long been bastions of the resistance, including Fallujah, Samarra, Latifiya and Mahmoudiya. In one recent incident, according to an Iraqi security source, insurgents wounded a Palestinian member of al-Qaeda, tracked him to a Baghdad hospital and then kidnapped him from his bed and handed him over to U.S. forces. Some Pentagon decision makers believe that the feuding within the insurgency may help U.S. and Iraqi troops quell the terrorist attacks that have made parts of the country ungovernable. “We’re starting to see a little bit more every day,” says Army Lieut. General Ray Odierno, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In places like Ramadi and Fallujah, Odierno says, “we’ve had some Iraqi insurgents’ groups actually put up defenses to protect their people against al-Qaeda forces.”