Sunni clerics turn on Association of Muslim Scholars


Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al Samarrai. Click to view.

Wednesday's closure of the headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars at the Umm al Quraa mosque marks a dramatic shift in the Sunni religious establishment. Prominent Sunni clerics, who once supported, justified, or remained silent about al Qaeda's terror tactics, have now turned on the leading Sunni religious establishment that supports al Qaeda in Iraq.

On Nov. 14, Iraqi soldiers surrounded the headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars after Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al Samarrai, the leader of the Sunni Religious Endowments, or Waqf, ordered the mosque's closure. "The association has always justified killing and assassinations carried out by al Qaeda," Samarrai said the day the troops shut down the Umm al Quraa mosque.

Samarrai's criticism of the Association of Muslim Scholars was pointed. He accused the Association of collusion with al Qaeda in Iraq and held the group responsible for the murder of Iraqi Sunni and Shia alike. Iraqslogger excerpted portions of Samarrai's statements, which were originally reported on Voices of Iraq in Arabic:

The Association of Muslim Scholars is still committed to the side of silence on the crimes of al Qaeda, while it kills tribal leaders and religious scholars   and sows sectarian divisions among the Iraqis.   The Iraqi people hold them responsible for these crimes.

[The Association of Muslim Scholars] denounces the successes of the Iraqi tribes and the sons of the Iraqi mosques and the resistance factions and their courageous stance against al Qaeda ... [which is a] clear provocation and wanton encouragement to the al Qaeda organization in their slaughter and killing.

If the AMSI had agreed with the Iraqis in their opposition to al Qaeda, and had had not been a party to splitting the unity of the Iraqi ranks, then we would not have closed it.

Al Qaeda announced that it kills the Sunni people who participate in the political process, and (kills) the Shi'a on the basis of their identity. We want the world to understand that we refuse al Qaeda's death sentence on the Iraqi people.

Samarrai also stated the Association of Muslim Scholars was responsible for boycotting the elections and held back Sunnis from entering the security forces. Samarrai said these decisions led to a "catastrophe" for Sunnis and the Iraqi people.

The Association has been an obstacle in the way of entry of our sons (Sunnis) into the ranks of the Army and the police. ... [In] April 2005 more [than] 60 Iraqi clerics gathered and we published a fatwa (in favor of) joining the ranks of the Army and the police.

The Association's leaders announced on the television screens that the Association disavows this fatwa, and they took into account members of the Association who issued the fatwa with us. Because of this, tens of thousands of our people have been reluctant to volunteer in the ranks of the Army and the police. ... [This decision] upset the balance [and led to a] catastrophe.

The crackdown on the Association of Muslim Scholars is part of the efforts of Sunni scholars to delegitimize the religious support given to al Qaeda in Iraq and other radical Islamic extremist groups in Iraq. The creation of the Council of Iraqi Scholars, or Council of Ulema of Iraq, has led the way in alienating the radical clerics.

The Council of Iraqi Scholars was formed in early April 2007 after over 60 senior Sunni clerics gathered in Amman, Jordan. The religious leaders sought to wrest control of the religious edicts, or fatwas, issued by the radical clerics in the Association of Muslim Scholars. Sheikh Abdul Malik al Saadi, Iraq's preeminent Sunni scholar, leads the council. Samarrai is also an influential member and acts as the council's spokesman.

"It's high time our clerics unify their utterances," Sammarai said after the formation of the Council of Iraqi Scholars in April. "Religious scholars have to work on teaching Muslims respect for the others. ... [Al Qaeda kills] by suspicion and commit senseless bloodletting and boast about it. ... Whoever kills a Muslim believer should be penalized by going to Hell."

The Council of Iraqi Scholars serves as the ideological backbone for the Sunni tribes and insurgent groups that have thrown in their lot with the Iraqi government and are encouraging their members to join the security forces or the Concerned Citizens neighborhood security programs. This is crucial, as in the past, the Association of Muslim Scholars has issued fatwas ordering Sunnis to boycott the elections and remain out of the security forces. Other fatwas issued by the Association legitimized al Qaeda in Iraq's suicide tactics and provided cover for the murdering of fellow Muslims.

Harith al Dari. Click to view.

Last spring, Harith al Dari, the notorious leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, criticized al Qaeda in Iraq's suicide tactics and creation of an Islamic State. He also attempted to put space between the insurgency and al Qaeda. "Ayman al Zawahiri doesn't represent Iraqis," al Dari stated.

Al Dari is believed to have ties to both the Islamic Army in Iraq and is widely recognized as the religious leader of the Sunni insurgency. He founded the Association of Muslim Scholars shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has supported various Sunni insurgent groups ever since. Al Dari stated the Mujahideen Shura Council, al Qaeda in Iraq's front group, is "part of the legitimate resistance," stating "these factions attack the occupation forces and do not target the civilians because it is a resistance that broke out immediately at the beginning of the occupation. These factions do not receive support from any foreign party." He also stated a slew of suicide attacks against Arab embassies and the UN headquarters was "the work of the 'occupation' or groups they encouraged."

The Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant for al Dari on November 16, 2006, and he has been reported to now be in Syria.

Al Qaeda in Iraq continues to take credit for the murder and assassination of Sunni sheikhs looking to reconcile with the government. Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq took credit for the suicide attack against Sunni tribal leaders in Khalis in Diyala province last week. "A suicide bomber of what is called Abu Omar al-Kurdi brigade of the Islamic State of Iraq armed group blew up an explosive belt strapped to his body last Friday amid a gathering of senior leaders of the awakening council in al-Dougma region, north of Baghdad," the Islamic State said in a statement released on its website. "The operation killed the council's deputy chairman as well as four other leaders."

In September, Al Qaeda in Iraq announced on the web that targeted senior leaders of the Anbar Awakening, the groups of tribal leaders and former insurgents opposed to al Qaeda, during its Ramadan assassination campaign. Sheikh Sattar, the leader of the Awakening was murdered on the opening day of Ramadan. Al Qaeda also targeted members of the Awakening in Salahadin and every province where the movement formed.

The crackdown on the Association of Muslim Scholars comes as al Qaeda in Iraq has suffered serious setbacks at the hands of US and Iraqi security forces. The Council of Iraqi Scholars and the Sunni Religious Endowments clearly are looking to consolidate their control of the Sunni religious establishment and push aside al Dari and his Association of Muslim Scholars.

Al Dari has been classified as a criminal by the Iraqi government, and the Sunni religious establishment seeks to dismantle his religious organization. This has the approval of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government as Iraqi Army troops were used to close the Association's headquarters. The Iraqi government and the Council of Iraqi Scholars calculated the rewards of moving against the Association far outweigh any risk that may be incurred.



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READER COMMENTS: "Sunni clerics turn on Association of Muslim Scholars"

Posted by AQI Losses at November 17, 2007 11:49 AM ET:

More good news. AQI is even being isolated in the Sunni religious establisment. The days continue to get darker for AQI, even after Osama bin Laden's tape calling for unity.

Posted by andrew at November 17, 2007 1:47 PM ET:

wow, so there IS just thing of some sort of moderacy in the islamic world.

Posted by RP at November 17, 2007 6:35 PM ET:

Let's see, the senior religious leaders take a turn to denounce the junior religious leaders...the wanna be kings who think they are princes.

Backed up by the US military muscle, this is great news if the steam roller keeps rollin' on!

I prefer dead bodies of the bad guys rather than imprisonment or temporary detention. Kinda like a mafia thing with me.

Posted by Neo at November 17, 2007 9:45 PM ET:

The Association of Muslim Scholars may be the last intact bastion of the Baath party left in Iraq. Don't forget that most of these guy's were approved by the Baath party and have strong ties to Saddam's security apparatus. These guy's were as bad as any of Saddam's generals. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a number of these guys are Mukhabarat plants from the very beginning.

It will be interesting what sort of reaction this gets. If the Association of Muslim Scholars can't adequately defend themselves than take them down another notch. Keep firm pressure on them until the public turns against them and they collapse.

Posted by Mark Eichenlaub at November 18, 2007 4:48 PM ET:

Neo, I was wondering if you could give a little more detail about the specifics of the links between the Mukhabarat and these clerics. As the manager of www.regimeofterror.com and always looking to dig deeper on the Mukhabarat I'd be fascinated to hear what you know on the relationship between Saddam's Intelligence Services and the use of religious front groups.

Thanks.

Posted by Freedom Now at November 19, 2007 5:27 AM ET:

I think this is the best news during the entire war.

Now the Shiites have proof positive that the Sunnis are their allies.

Sunnis with insurgent sympathies are now almost completely on the outs.

This will make it easier for moderate Shiites to crack down on Shia militias.

If you want to talk about the progress of political reconciliation, this is the biggest step forward yet.

Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Turner at November 19, 2007 11:05 PM ET:

Yeah Neo pretty well nailed it. I don't know about Mukahbarat, but under Saddam you had to be sanctioned by Saddam and issue Saddam's propaganda during Friday night services. That's why Muqtada's father was so revered: because he went against this grain and suffered for it.

After the fall of Saddam, the sanctioned clerics, joined together as the Association of Muslim Scholars. They needed to do so for a couple of reasons. 1) They were hacks. They had no skill and little education, relative to their peers. Like many in Iraq they had come to power from who they knew and what they were willing to do for them. With the fall of Saddam they needed to adopt another air of legitimacy, hence the name. 2) They stood for the hope that the old system would come back, and they needed a public personna/purpose to hide behind.

Re: Mr. Eichelaub's question about religious front groups in Iraq, it would seem that the Salafi would be the answer to that query. In the last few years, Saddam tried to coopt the jihadi movement and a small population of Salafi during the last part of the UN sanctions. These people wore conspicous white robes, trained in some terrorist tactics and lived better than other Iraqis. At the beginning of overthrough of the Baathists, a lot of these idiots came out and tried to ram tanks with their cars and other nonsense. Saddam made an effort to parade the Salafi before the western media, to scare us with pictures of crazy commited Arabs. It wasn't that effective. Iraq the Model (website) used to talk about both the Salafi, and the Association of Muslim Scholars (NOT) and how their undeserved good fortune rubbed regular Iraqis the wrong way.

Regarding the mukhabarat, from what I've been able to piece together, you don't want to know. In bringing certain documents and pictures together, I figured out a piece of it and it's a piece I won't tell. I'll let the myths that currently circulate replace that. When men become animals, there's no bringing them back and from the way they tried to hide the worst of it from the Iraqis they preyed on, they seemed to have an inescapable fear of seeing it in daylight themselves. "The beast."

Posted by Turner at November 19, 2007 11:16 PM ET:

2nd thought:
I agree with Freedom Now (above) that this is a meaningful change. If the average Iraqi clerics, are dissing the Assoc. Mus. Schols., it means they've overcome old fears of monsters from the past, and it consitutes a true acceptance of trying to make the best of the new climate. In chastising them for cutting people off from elections, they're saying power emanates from democratic institutions, a more radical idea than we might think. IMHO, it means getting over the presence of foreigners and refocusing on how to find a place for their people through democratic tools. that's saying something.

I wonder if the Accord Part will be the next to fall, in favor of something more effective for Sunnis?

Posted by Neo at November 20, 2007 10:28 AM ET:

Mark Eichenlaub,

As you are probably already aware, there is precious little information publicly available on the background of the AMS clerics. What information is out there is scattered at best. My basic contention was that the education and placement of Sunni clerics were carefully screened and tracked by the government. Screening of clerics isn't just isn't just particular to Iraq either and is widely practiced throughout the Middle East. Starting in 1991, after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein instituted a policy of Islamizing the government. Previous to this the Iraqi government was very secular in nature with the role of religion purposely diminished at least within the Sunni community. With a central government weakened by two wars Hussein needed to find ways to rule aside from direct coercion. He reached out to the old tribal and clerical structure to govern. Outside of Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood had become a major force across the Muslim world. If Hussein could tap into organization he could exploit a major resource for resisting Western interests.

As I indicated, not much in the way of specific information is available on Saddam Hussein's Islamization efforts in the ten years prior to the current conflict. What role the AMS clerics had in these efforts prior to war would make an interesting line of enquiry. At this point getting a decent Bio on these individuals isn't widely available let alone what they were doing before the war and what their ties to the government are.

This is probably the best short Bio on Harith Al-Dari I could find on the Internet. He definitely doesn't lack credentials as a professor of Islamic law and history.

"Harith al-Dari was born in Baghdad in 1941 and hails from a prominent Iraqi family of the al-Dari clan. He is considered Iraq's most notable Sunni scholar with degrees from Cairo's al-Azhar University. He is related to the famous Sheikh Dari who became a national hero when he killed a British officer in 1920, sparking a revolution. He spent much of his adult life teaching Islamic law and history at various Arab universities. Harith al-Dari organized the AMS, also referred to as the Muslim Ulema Council or Muslim Scholars Association, on April 14, 2003 as an anti-occupation movement, as a nationalist force and as a nucleus for Iraq's Sunni religious authority (al-Manar al-Yawm, September 5, 2004)."

I would be interested in getting a more detailed breakdown on where he has been and his activities. The al-Azhar University connection raises a red flag as it has long served as the ideological center of the Muslim Brotherhood. I have also seen it suggested at least that there is a connection with Izzat al-Douri that predates the war. (Some sources suggest that Harith al-Dari served as personal spiritual advisor to Izzat al Douri, but unfortunately they never go beyond just the suggestion any sort of hard information, so I'm not sure what to make of that.)

Sorry, if I don't have any first hand nibbles for your files. It's a shame that these people in The Association of Muslim Scholars haven't been put under the microscope. There does seem to be more than meets the eye as far as connections to the insurgency, especially the 1920 brigades. I would also be looking before the war at connections to Hussein's regime. In the case of Harith al-Dari I would also be looking for possible Muslim Brotherhood connections.

Posted by Neo at November 20, 2007 10:32 AM ET:

That hyperlink doesn't work. Here it is.

Bio on Harith Al-Dari
http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?issue_id=3957

Posted by AQI Losses at November 21, 2007 7:51 PM ET:

Possibly the biggest intelligence find in Iraq to date and it happened even before the surge.

Combine this with General Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy and everything else that is happening, no wonder AQI is reeling.

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A key turning point in the U.S.-led war against the Iraqi insurgency came even before last winter's troop surge, FOX News has learned.

A map drawn by Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - who was killed last year by U.S. forces - turned up last December in an Al Qaeda safe house and essentially gave U.S. war planners insight into the terrorist group's methods for moving explosives, fighters and money into Baghdad.

"The map essentially laid out how Al Qaeda controlled Baghdad. And they did it through four belts that surrounded the city, and these belts controlled access to the city for reinforcements and weapons and money," said Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, a FOX News contributor who recently visited Iraq.

"And [U.S.-led forces] simply made the decision to reduce these belts one at a time, and essentially what that did was it choked off Al Qaeda's access to the city. And once that was done, Al Qaeda had no alternative but to leave the city, to leave the belts and to retreat into the city of Baquba," Scales said

The map showed four rings around Baghdad, nearly identical to rings former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein once created to protect the city.

U.S. military planners used those maps to choke off Al Qaeda, moving ring by ring, hunting and destroying Al Qaeda in Baghdad, flushing them out of their urban strongholds and picking them off as easy targets in the desert.

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,312343,00.html?sPage=fnc.world/iraq
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Here is the hand drawn map by Zarqawi

http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/Baghdad_Belt.pdf