Blogs > HNN > Sheikh al-Dhari's Disastrous Gamble, and Ours

Oct 1, 2005 4:52 pm

Sheikh al-Dhari's Disastrous Gamble, and Ours

Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948. He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Click here to access his homepage.

It was a warm and sunny early spring in Baghdad, and I was sitting in the office of Sheikh Harith al-Dari, the leader of the Muslim Ulama Association, asking him how he planned to end the American occupation whose first anniversary had occurred the day before. As dozens of Kalashnikov wielding aides milled around his "Mother of Battles" mosque, he matter-of-factly answered (with a hint of enthusiasm): "We'll get the Americans out even if it means killing every infidel."

In the months following our meeting it became clear that al-Dari and the Muslim Ulama Association had become the most important Iraqi religious voices of the insurgency. And as their importance grew, the chances of peacefully ending the US occupation dropped precipitously.

At our meeting it was clear that just as President Bush and his advisors underestimated the strength and resolve of the insurgency, al-Dhari and his colleagues miscalculated the willingness of the US both to absorb significant casualties and to inflict a much higher toll on Iraqis in order to remain in the country. As troublingly evident was their belief that they could control the foreign jihadis streaming into the country and use them as a tool in their struggle against the United States.

They were dead wrong. Though they share a similar conservative theological orientation to Iraq's Sunni religious leadership, the military and ideological leaders of the foreign jihadis saw Iraq as merely a battle ground in a larger war. In fact, they were the ones playing al-Dhari and other Iraqi Sunni leaders; using their support as cover to pursue an agenda that most Iraqi Sunnis didn't share: a holy war not just against America and the West, but against Iraq's majority Shi'i population as well.

I cannot imagine that sitting in his office almost a year and a half ago al-Dhari imagined, let alone would have supported, the almost daily carnage against Shii Iraqis fomented in large measure by the global jihadis and their ideologues. Yes, some Iraqi Sunnis, perhaps including he, were willing to deploy internecine violence as a tactic to maintain a semblance of their Saddam-era privileges. But al-Dhari--like most every Iraqi religious leader I met, Sunni or Shi'i--went out of his way stress his desire for Sunni-Shi'i unity; (the general view of the Kurds, however, was much more suspicious, and even hostile).

Beyond misconstruing the aims, level and direction of violence that would be used by Zarqawi and al-Qa'eda, Iraq's Sunni religious leadership never considered how their presence would further destabilize an already tenuous Iraqi identity. The US invasion and occupation further stressed a national identity that was long brutalized by a regime whose modus operandi was enflaming ethnic and sectarian hatred to maintain its hold on power. On top of this, in places such as Falluja, a lack of marriable men left families desperate to find husbands for their daughters. Enter thousands of fighters from Jordan, many of whom--including Zarqawi--shared strong tribal ties with the inhabitants of western Iraq, and a new type of distorted identity was forged, one that is at once Iraqi, tribal, sectarian and global-Muslim. Its power grew as a broader and more cosmopolitan"Iraqi" identity seemed an increasingly impossible dream.

Such a closure of loyalties and identities are crucial prerequisites for the kind of violence that characterize civil wars, whether in Lebanon or Rwanda. They particularly characterize civil conflicts in the era of contemporary globalization. Particularly in politically and socially weak countries lying along the"arc of instability" stretching from Africa to Central Asia, what could be described as an"instrumentalization of disorder," or"sponsored chaos," has become the preferred method of securing crucial resources (particularly oil) and the political and economic power drawn from them.

Of course, the extremist and violent views I encountered in al-Dhari's offices are not limited to Sunnis. Many Shi'i Iraqi leaders, particularly Moqtada al-Sadr and his ideological mentors, professed similarly hostile and violent views vis-à-vis the occupation and America's larger role in the world in the era of globalization--which Iraq officially entered on March 19, 2003.

But as the sometimes brilliant political maneuvering of al-Sadr has demonstrated, even those Shi'is most opposed to the US have a very different perspective than their Sunni counterparts, precisely because they know the future of Iraq is in their hands. As one young Shi'i religious leader explained to me,"We're not stupid; we know the Americans are here for bases and oil. But with each political step taken [elections, the Constitution] we gain more power, and eventually we will have the power and tell them to leave."

This strategy, however, ignores an important dynamic that will likely will prolong the violence: If it is true, as most every Iraqi and many foreign commentators I've spoken with believe, that the US has little intention of withdrawing all its troops or leaving the bases it has been building since the invasion any time soon, then Iraq is faced with the prospect that the Bush Administration prefers a manageable if bloody insurgency that ensures its indefinite presence to a peaceful enough environment that Shi'is (and perhaps even Kurds) ask us to leave.

The stage is set for a long and bloody future for Iraq, and Iraq's religious leaders as well as the Bush Administration must both share the blame.

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