A leading Sunni Muslim cleric has launched a new political party. It brings together extremist Sunni and Shiites. But membership is open only to those who fought the US. NIQASH asked the alliance leader, Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, what’s really going on.
A leading Sunni Muslim authority has launched a new initiative to bring together extremist groups in a political alliance. What makes the alliance unusual is that the extremists, who laid their weapons down after US troops withdrew from the country late last year, come from the two major sects of Islam in Iraq: Shiite and Sunni. In practice, these sects are often rivals in a political, and sometimes a social, sense. During several years of unrest between 2005 and 2007, that rivalry turned violent in Iraq with extremist Sunni Muslim groups like al-Qaeda targeting Shiite Muslims and vice versa.
But now leading Sunni Muslim religious leader, Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, a hardline cleric who is well known for issuing fatwas, or religious decrees, calling upon followers to fight the US forces in Iraq and who is also known to represent the Salafist jihadists, is not only bringing the extremist factions to the debating table, he is also planning to unite the two sides within one political party.
What will unite the various groups from different sects is the fact that they all fought against US troops in Iraq, after that country invaded Iraq in 2003. Al-Sumaidaie believes that, now that the US military has left Iraq, it is time for these groups to lay down their weapons and to participate in the political process.
According to al-Sumaidaie, the fact that the groups have US-resistance in common, stands for the new political entity’s credibility and patriotism.
Despite such good intentions, al-Sumaidaie is hardly a spotless character though. The former preacher and leader of a Salafist Muslim extremist, jihadist group (Salafist Muslims tend to be more orthodox Sunni Muslims, the jihadists are those who become part of violent campaigns) was arrested several times by allied forces and he spent four years in prison; he was released in 2008. And today his critics say that he is subservient to Iranian influences; this is based, in part, on his public support of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both organs that the Iranian regime also supports.
Inside Iraq, al-Sumaidaie has always been pro-political engagement. For instance, he called upon the Sunni Muslim community to vote, despite a community-wide boycott of Iraq’s 2005 elections. And most recently al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that prohibited the carrying of arms after the US withdrawal.
NIQASH spoke to al-Sumaidaie about plans for his new political group, how he hopes to unite the extremist groups from different sects and whether there might be any less obvious powers working behind the scenes with him.
NIQASH: Earlier this year reports indicated that you had plans to form a new political alliance that represented both Sunni and Shiite Muslims and which would also include former terror groups. How are plans for this proceeding?
Mahdi al-Sumaidaie: The project is well under way. We’ve been working on it for over four months now. The project has three parts. The first involves coordinating with Sunni Muslim insurgent groups to build a political alliance of some kind.
The second is to form a similar political alliance with Shiite Muslim insurgent groups. And the final part involves working toward an atmosphere of cooperation between the two groups and the community. We’ve already had a lot of success.
NIQASH: So what have you actually achieved, in concrete terms?
Al-Sumaidaie: We held the “Allegiance to Resistance” conference in February this year. Armed Sunni Muslim factions were invited to this and at the conference we all agreed to end the resistance and to start to try and rebuild the country.
After this, we took the second step: we started a dialogue with Shiite Muslim factions – and in particular with the League of the Righteous and the Sadrists. Their response was very positive and they were eager to join the alliance.
Then we started with the third step: which was reaching out to the ordinary people. What we wanted to do was spread awareness that, although it had been legitimate to take up arms during the US occupation of Iraq, now that the US had withdrawn, there was no longer any justification for it. Now is the time for all of us to make an effort to re-build this country – and those ideas were appreciated by the ordinary people on the street.
NIQASH: How did you convince armed factions to join the project?
Al-Sumaidaie: It wasn’t actually that difficult. They were motivated by a love of their country in the first place and we convinced them that this project was a positive one. Now more than 90 percent of the members of the armed groups, who have laid down their weapons, have joined our project.
Additionally there are also sleeper groups such as the Abi Ghafeer Salafi battalion, the Young Islamic Salafists, the Dawa and the Jihad, the Black Flag group and members and the leaders of the Islamic Army In Iraq and the Mujahideen Army- most of these factions have also joined the project.
Recently we also started working with tribal leaders. After a conference we held two weeks ago, which was attended by 20 tribal leaders, we’ve been trying to attract more tribal leaders from around Iraq.
NIQASH: Do you have an office?
Al-Sumaidaie: We opened an office in the Arbaa Shawarea area of Baghdad and that is fully operational.
NIQASH: So to clarify: what you’re doing is forming a new political party composed of members of formerly armed Sunni Muslim groups. And then you want them to become allied with a similar Shiite Muslim group?
Al-Sumaidaie: That’s right. But we’re working equally on all the different groups. We brought various formerly armed Sunni Muslim groups together but we also recently held a meeting in the Salahaddin region and invited the [mainly Sunni Muslim] Salafists. More than 80 religious leaders attended and altogether they decided that a new political alliance should be founded.
NIQASH: Which Sunni Muslim insurgent groups joined?
Al-Sumaidaie: Most of them, including many of the most significant ones.
NIQASH: Some have commented that using the word “Islamic” in the name of any new political alliance is not a good idea in Iraq. The word has connotations of religious conservatism and even religious extremism, such as that practised by violent militias. Additionally, a variety of political parties in Iraq have described themselves as “Islamist” – from the extremists to more moderate – but none have been particularly popular with voters in the recent past; although religious as a population, Iraqi voters have moved toward politicians with a more secular outlook. What are your thoughts on this?
Al-Sumaidaie: Over the past four months, we have visited many different Iraqi provinces and mostly, we’ve stayed in each place for around four days. And all the people we have met were in favour of an Islamic project.
And in regard to violations committed by those who claim to be Islamists, I believe that everyone in this country has to try and understand that different people have different beliefs – which is why we fought one another in the first place. But we want to correct those mistaken beliefs now.
However that does not mean giving up on our religion. We will not be taking the word out of our project’s name.
NIQASH: Can you tell us more about the Sunni Muslim factions that do not want to join the project?
Al-Sumaidaie: There are some fighters who do not trust the government. And that’s their choice. Some of these believe that the government is still tainted by the fact that the occupier [the US] helped bring them to power and that, for this reason, they’ll continue to fight the state.
But I believe there are very few of them; I also believe they do not live in Iraq but rather, in neighbouring countries. There are also those extremists who think this is a trap – that it is simply a trick that will allow the government to hunt them down. But over time, they’ll realize that’s not true.
NIQASH: And what about Shiite Muslim groups?
Al-Sumaidaie: We’re still holding meetings. A committee has been formed and members include representatives from the [mainly Shiite Muslim] League of the Righteous, the [mainly Shiite Muslim] Sadrists and some [mainly Sunni Muslim] Salafist factions.
But we have a large project and we won’t give too much information out to the media – we don’t want anyone to abuse that information or have anyone disrupt our efforts.
NIQASH: If you don’t manage to get the Shiite Muslim factions onboard, will the project be meaningless?
Al-Sumaidaie: It’s not like that. The Shiite Muslim factions have already embraced the idea. In fact, they’re more worried about not being part of it. We don’t have seats in the Parliament right now but we have the will to participate in the political process – and we will do that.
NIQASH: So how do you plan to convince the general public in Iraq that your project is worth supporting?
Al-Sumaidaie: We have been active in a number of provinces including Ninawa, Salahaddin and Anbar. We think the right information has reached the right people. The people of Iraq are beginning to realise that they should give up their differences and their weapons and unite. The next stage for them is political activism.
NIQASH: Will other groups, other than armed or resistance groups, be allowed to join this alliance?
Al-Sumaidaie: The alliance will be composed of resistance groups only. Those who didn’t resist the occupation and carry arms doing so, will not be allowed to join. The names of candidates will be announced and voters in their different areas will know who the candidates are – because everyone who resisted the occupation was known. These candidates have credibility because of this. And that’s why people will support these candidates, and the resistance project.
NIQASH: Who is your project really representing: Iraq’s Sunni Muslims? Or Iraq’s Shiite Muslims?
Al-Sumaidaie: Our project is based on justice for all the people of Iraq. We are aware that we need to work through the consequences of the US occupation of Iraq. Among these: the marginalization of certain sects, sectarian violence and other devastating impacts. The candidates we will present have agreed to help stop the marginalization of Sunni Muslims.
NIQASH: Does the government support your project?
Al-Sumaidaie: Definitely. The government has welcomed this project. They believe it is an important step and that it serves the public interest. Although the government is not funding this project, they are providing moral support.
NIQASH: It all sounds very expensive: where are you getting funding from?
Al-Sumaidaie: We have refused to accept any funding from outside of Iraq, because we believe that for this project to be successful it should be all about the Iraqi people.
NIQASH: Did some other nations offer funding?
Al-Sumaidaie: I won’t mention which countries because we want to maintain good relations with them. But we won’t accept any funding because we don’t want anybody from outside of Iraq to interfere with the interests of the Iraqi people, or to dictate to us. If the Iraqi people decided that this project is worthwhile then they will vote for it. If they don’t then that’s up to them.