Understanding the political positions of Sunni groups in Iraq

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Khalil Fadl

Muharram 23, 1429 2008-02-01

Special Reports

by Khalil Fadl (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 12, Muharram, 1429)

Until the US started recruiting Sunni tribal forces to use against resistance forces in Iraq last year, it was widely thought that Sunni opinion in Iraq was firmly against the occupation and in support of the resistance. In fact the situation is far more complex. KHALIL FADL reports.

In a moment of rare confidence, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki announced on January 25 his government’s intention to send thousands of troops to the city of Mosul to drive al-Qa’ida Organization in Iraq from its last major base in the country. “Today, our troops started moving toward Mosul,” Maliki said. “The fight there will be decisive.” Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, has lately become the only remaining city to still be a stronghold for al-Qa’ida, as many of the group’s members fled north in the face of American and Iraqi counter-insurgency operations following the US “troop surge”, which started a year ago. Aided by Sunni Arab tribes, which rose up against al-Qa’ida and its backers, the US and Iraqi troops have so far managed to break the back of al-Qa’ida, but not to completely wipe it out.

The declining fortunes of al-Qa’ida, which was the best-organized and strongest resistance group operating in predominantly Sunni Arab areas of western, central and north-central Iraq, in the past year has brought to the fore political fissures within the Sunni Arab community. The once-powerful minority community is finding it difficult to cope with the loss of its privileged status in the post-Saddam era. Feelings of political loss and humiliation are being compounded by a sense of economic marginalization as members of the Sunni Arab tribes, which are geographically concentrated in the so-called “Sunni Triangle” (al-Muthallath al-Sunni) lying between Baghdad, Mosul and the Syrian border, also suffer material loss. The generous economic benefits enjoyed by the community, which was disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of Saddam’s professional armed forces and many secret services, were taken away when Paul Bremer, then-US viceroy in Iraq, in May 2003 issued decrees disbanding the Iraqi army and security agencies and initiating a process of “de-Ba’athification,” whereby senior Ba‘athists were barred from holding public posts.

Communal prejudices have also given rise to perceived grievances as bitterness among many Sunni Arabs is made worse by the prospect of living under a system of government in which political supremacy and the privileges of power are concentrated in the hands of Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs. These grievances are being exacerbated by the fact that the political and military elite under Saddam had been drawn mainly from tribal and rural Sunni Arabs. They are much less educated and more parochial than the more educated and urban Sunnis who dominated political and public life in modern Iraq, whose fortunes declined after the military coup that brought the Ba‘ath party to power in 1968. They are also more at ease with the polyglot sectarian and ethnic pluralism of Iraqi society.

Divisions among the Sunni Arabs, who comprise around 20 percent of the population of Iraq, surfaced immediately after the invasion. The main rift unfolded along the question of whether or not to take part in the nascent post-Saddam order. The Iraqi Islamic Party (al-Hizb al-Islami al-’Iraqi), which was formed in 1960 as the Iraqi branch of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, was the main organized Sunni group that decided to participate in the political process, despite being highly critical of the American occupation. It was at pains to provide a Shari‘ah-grounded justification for that highly unpopular position among Sunni Arabs. In making its case for engagement in a political process being put together under foreign occupation, the IIP compared its decision with Yusuf (as) assuming high position in ancient Egypt under the unjust (taghut) Pharaonic rule. It argued that there was an overriding necessity for serving in office in the upper strata of the political system introduced by the US occupation. Accordingly, former IIP Muhsin Abd al-Hamid accepted a seat in the 15-member Iraqi Governing Council formed shortly after Saddam’s fall. This position became a source of serious embarrassment for the Ikhwan.

The IIP’s decision to take part in the political process and cooperate with the US had to contend with a pervasive Sunni Arab mood that tended toward rejecting any sort of engagement in the new political order. This unbending mood was reflected by the Association of Muslim Scholars (Hay’at ‘Ulama’ al-Muslimin), which was founded in the week after the downfall of the Ba‘athist government in April 2003. Although it claimed to represent Iraqi Sunnis irrespective of their ethnic background, in practice the AMS expresses primarily the grievances, and represents the interests, of Sunni Arabs in the Sunni Triangle, and to a lesser extent in Basra, where a sizeable Sunni minority, an estimated 30-35 percent of the population of the province, lives. Its secretary-general is Shaykh Harith al-Dhari (above), the grandson of Dhari al-Mahmud, a tribal chieftain of the Zawba’a tribe who is credited with killing British political officer Gerald Leachman during the anti-British revolt that swept parts of central and south-central Iraq in 1920. In the 1960s, Dhari pursued a doctoral degree in Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University, and then had a checkered teaching career at the Faculties of Arabic Literature and Islamic Law at Baghdad University, and then in Jordan and the UAE. In November 2006 the Iraqi interior ministry issued an arrest warrant against Dhari for “inciting terrorism.” The secretary-general of the AMS, who was inJordan when the warrant was issued, has not returned to Iraq since then. Among the Association’s other prominent figures are several well-spoken and media-wise personalities such as Harith al-Dhari’s Saudi-educated son Muthanna, who is also AMS’s principal spokesman, Shaykh Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi, and Shaykh Muhammad Bashar al-Faydhi. Its well-organized media arm includes a newspaper (al-Basa’ir), a sophisticated website and a satellite TV station (al-Rafidayn).

Although the AMS denies any political ambitions, it has taken unmistakable political stands. Muthanna al-Dhari has defined the Association as “the political arm of the resistance.” In a series of articles entitled “Fiqh al-Muqawamah” (‘the jurisprudence of resistance’), its chief ideologue Muhammad ‘Ayyash al-Kubaysi set out to defend armed resistance as the inalienable right of a people under occupation. Absolute and total rejection of the occupation and of its by-products, including the current government, shape the Association’s outlook and positions on the issues and challenges facing post-Saddam Iraq. This uncompromising anti-occupation stance initially brought the AMS to forge good relations with anti-occupation Shi‘a trends such as those of the young but very popular Muqtada al-Sadr and the much smaller trend led by Shaykh Jawad al-Khalisi. However, its relations with the Sadrists deteriorated precipitously after the bombing in February 2006 of the ‘Askariyyah shrine in Samarra, when elements of Sadr’s Mahdi Army engaged in violent retaliatory attacks against Sunnis and their mosques.

The AMS led the call for a boycott of the elections on January 30, 2005, for a provisional National Assembly as an illegitimate process borne out of an illegal occupation. This call contributed to a very low turnout in predominantly Sunni Arab areas: in some cases, such as al-Anbar province, as few as 2 percent of eligible voters cast their votes. But the boycott further eroded the Sunni Arabs’ political influence in the nascent political order. As such, it did little to ease Sunnis’ fears of political marginalisation and exclusion. So Sunni Arabs moved to re-stake their claim in the political life of the country by taking part in the general elections and constitutional referendum of October and December 2005 respectively. However, unlike other Sunni groups, which sent a joint delegation to the constitutional drafting committee, the AMS distanced itself from the constitutional process, condemned the draft constitution and issued a fatwa urging its followers to vote against the document.

In the run-up to the general elections of December 2005, the IIP joined forces with the Conference of the People of Iraq or Mu’tamar Ahl al-’Iraq (formerly the Conference of the Sunnis in Iraq or Mu’tamar Ahl al-Sunnah fi al-‘Iraq), led by Adnan al-Dulaymi, and the Iraqi Council for National Dialogue (Majlis al-Hiwar al-Watani al-‘Iraqi), led by tribal chieftain Shaykh Khalaf al-‘Ulayyan, to form the Iraqi Accordance Front (Jabhat al-Tawafuq al-‘Iraqiyyah). The heavy participation of the Sunni Arabs in the elections enabled the IAF to clinch 44 out of the 275-seat parliament: the largest Sunni Arab bloc in the house. But the move consolidated the trend towards institutionalizing sectarian and ethnic identity as the main principle organizing political life in post-Saddam Iraq. Six cabinet seats were allocated to the IAF in the cabinet formed by Maliki in 2006. But on August 1, 2007, it suspended its participation in the government after Maliki failed to meet a list of demands, including an amnesty for security detainees not charged with specific crimes, the disbanding of militias, and the inclusion of all parties in government plans to control violence in the country.

Since its inception, the AMS has tried to secure for itself a role as a power-broker in the Sunni community similar to that played by the Najaf-based Shi‘a marja’iyyah under the leadership of Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, which emerged as a behind-the-scenes authority issuing broad political principles and courses of action for the Shi‘a community. In this context, it is notable that Shaykh Harith al-Dhari was absent from the signing in October 2006 of the Mecca Charter, a ten-point document issued under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, calling for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on places of worship in Iraq. Instead, the AMS sent a junior member to sign the document on its behalf. It is believed that Dhari did not attend the signing ceremony because no high-ranking Shi‘a authority was present.

The AMS’s desire to become the sole voice of the Sunni Arab community has been challenged by other Sunni bodies. A notable challenge to the AMS’s claim to “bring the Sunni community under one roof,” to use a phrase by Shaykh Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi, has come from the politically weaker but financially stronger Sunni Waqf (Endowment) Administration, which was formed in accordance with a decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority to split the ministry of religious endowments into two sections: one Sunni and the other Shi‘a. The deterioration in relations between the AMS and the Sunni Waqf came to a head on November 14, when a force from the guards of the chairman of the Sunni Waqf, Shaykh Ahmad Abd al-Ghafour al-Samarra’i, evicted AMS employees from their headquarters at the Umm al-Qurra Mosque in Baghdad, an immense structure built by the former government in the 1990s and famous for its minarets shaped like Scud missiles which Saddam had named “Masjid Umm al-Ma’arik” (‘the Mother of All Battles Mosque’). The AMS has condemned the move as an act of “aggression.” A former prominent member of the AMS, since taking office in the summer of 2005 Samarra’i has abandoned some of the more uncompromising positions of the AMS. For instance, despite the AMS’s criticism of al-Qa’ida’s excesses against Iraqi civilians and occasional wars of words between the two groups, Dhari still describes the group as “part of the resistance.” In contrast, Samarra’i voiced outright condemnation of Arab jihadists infiltrating into Iraq, saying: “We reject their presence in our country and we ask that they be severely punished, particularly those of them who killed Iraqis” (al-Hayat, August 7, 2005). Last month Samarra’i attacked the AMS for criticising the Awakening Councils: the predominantly tribal Sunni militias that played a leading part in the US counter-insurgency strategy to crush al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Dhari has, for his part, described these councils as being composed of “bandits” (qutta’a turuq), “thieves” (lusus) and “outcasts” (manbudhin).

The Awakening (sahwah) movement, which started in al-Anbar about two years ago, is widely regarded as a major factor behind the recent sharp drop in violence in former insurgent hotspots in Iraq. As of last December, the Americans have signed up some 74,000 members, many of who are former insurgents who have turned their guns against al-Qa’ida. The movement grew from a bout of violent upheavals in which there were armed clashes, power struggles and reshuffling of alliances among Iraqi insurgent groups. The upheavals grew partly from the scramble of these groups to position themselves to be better able to fill the power vacuum to be left by a future withdrawal of US forces. Concerned about the adverse effects of the rise of salafi jihadist groups in Iraq, neighbouring Arab countries, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are reported to have played a role in stoking internal fighting among insurgents.

Anti-Iranianism figures prominently among the Awakening Councils. For many of them, the Shi‘a political parties are nothing but fronts and tools for Iranian interests. This seems to have dovetailed with the shift in US strategy toward concentrating on containing Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. Anti-Iranianism has often been a cloak for anti-Shi‘a prejudices among the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. It finds its counterpart in Shi‘a suspicions that Sunni Arab empowerment might bring the Ba‘athists back to power. So the Shi‘a-dominated Iraqi government has been reluctant to give in to American pressures to bring the Awakening Councils to the fold of the security forces. There are fears among Shi‘a parties that these undisciplined groups will become an uncontrollable force that rivals government-controlled forces and might contribute to intensifying sectarian strife in the future. But the tribal chieftains, insurgent warlords and politicians behind these councils are demanding more political weight and a larger share of power. If their demands are not accommodated, the resulting sense of frustration might well induce them to turn their guns back on US and Iraqi forces.

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