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.
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.