The power to resist
Harith Al-Dhari, head of the Muslim Scholars Association, spoke to Mohamed Al-Anwar in Baghdad about the US attempts to court Iraq's Sunnis
Harith Al-Dhari comes across as a strong and imposing figure. Al- Dhari and his movement is one of the staunchest opponents of the fact that elections should be held while the country is labouring under the US-led occupation. The status of the Muslim Scholars Association rose to prominence in recent months when the movement championed a campaign to boycott the 30 January elections. Al-Ahram Weekly visited Al-Dhari at the association's headquarters in Um Al-Qura Mosque in western Baghdad.
There have been rumours that your recent meeting with the US ambassador to Iraq resulted in a secret agenda. Is this true? Who helped arrange this meeting and what was discussed and has another meeting been arranged?
Our meeting with members of the US diplomatic mission in Baghdad was the first such meeting to have taken place since the occupation. They had asked for the meeting and it was arranged through the intermediacy of the French Embassy. We agreed to meet because our door is always open to all diplomatic agencies that want to hear what we have to say, just as we want to hear what they have to say. The American delegation was headed by US Charge d'Affaires John Negroponte and consisted of several civil and military officials. Negroponte said that he had been instructed by his government to ask for this meeting. He then addressed two issues: security and the elections. On the first he said and I quote him "the Iraqi people have been deprived of security for 20 years and so they will remain until security is restored to the country. We believe that holding elections on time will help stabilise security and we hope that you participate in them because you are respected by your people and can influence others to take part in the elections as well."
We explained that the US forces' violence and tyranny against the Iraqi people and their destruction of our cities from Najaf to Falluja, were responsible for this dire situation. In addition, the Iraqis do not feel that these elections will lead to the fulfilment of their main demand, which is the end of the US occupation. They simply do not see a light at the end of the dark tunnel. Although I have not been appointed spokesman for the Iraqis who refuse to participate in the elections I do know their demands, feelings and aspirations. Therefore, if the Americans want to bring an end to the problems and reach stability, they should commit themselves to a declared schedule for withdrawing their troops from Iraq.
Did you ask Negroponte for the release of the detainees from your organisation? What reasons did you give for boycotting the elections?
We told him that the killing and destruction have continued uninterruptedly from the time US forces entered the country until the present. More than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed and more than half a million Iraqi men and women are in prison. There are more than 120 imams and preachers from the association who were either killed or imprisoned. Then came the phase of the total or the near total destruction of the cities of Najaf and Falluja. How can people be expected to have elections under such circumstances? The major demand for which Iraqis have undergone such suffering [the end of the occupation] will not be obtained through the elections. The Iraqi people do not expect these elections to produce anything but a government that will always do America's bidding, and all indications are that the forthcoming government under US occupation will be weak and rubberstamp every American wish."
Some people criticise your position on the elections. What would make you change your mind about the boycott?
Our position on this matter is not new. We have made it clear since the creation of the Interim Governing Council that we are a religious jurisprudential organisation, not a political party or association. We have no interest in being, nor do we seek to become, a party in a political grouping until after our country attains independence, for us to do so would confer legitimacy on that grouping, regardless of its beliefs, and consequently contribute to prolonging the occupation. However, we do have supporters and many share our conviction in the need to boycott the elections. However, if the US declared its commitment to a timeframe for leaving Iraq we could appeal to those people to take part in the elections. We would not issue a religious ruling to that effect; we would simply urge them to take part and leave the decision up to them.
What do you have to say to those who charge that you are actively inciting Arab Sunnis to boycott the elections and thereby depriving them of the opportunity to shape their future in the new Iraq?
There are certain facts everyone should be aware of. First of all, the people opposing elections are not just Sunni. The opposition is national, not sectarian as others have described it. More than 70 political parties and political groups from all ethnic and religious affiliations have withdrawn from the elections declaring their opposition. And the withdrawals are continuing. This is not to mention the many prominent political figures who have come out against the elections. The opposition to the elections, therefore, is not merely Sunni, it is a broad-based national phenomenon.
Secondly, the permanent constitution will be created on the basis of the law for the administration of the state which was mainly drafted by Paul Bremer, the former US civil ruler in Iraq, and ratified by the now-dissolved Interim Governing Council. We do not expect the constitution to depart from that law. But even if it is worse, history informs us that countries liberated from occupation work to eradicate all traces of the occupation. This includes the constitutions and laws that have been imposed by force.
Are you coordinating with Shia parties? What are your comments on the fact that there is an Islamic party on the electoral lists and well-known Sunni figures with connections to Sunni parties taking part in the elections?
The Shias, like the Sunnis, are not unified in their position on the elections. The Shia have many parties and authorities. There is the supreme Shia authority as represented by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who has his followers and who wants to participate in the elections. However there are other well-known Shia authorities in Najaf and Karbala, such as Sheikh Ahmed Al-Baghdadi and Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Hasni. These, as well as the Shia tribes in the south will not take part in the elections. The same applies to many secular parties, not to mention the Sadr and Jawad Al-Khalisi movement. As I said, the opposition to the elections is a national, not a denominational or sectarian, movement. As for the Iraqi Islamic Party, it has asked for the elections to be postponed and when this demand was turned down it withdrew. I am 100 per cent sure that it will not participate. If, on the other hand, the elections are postponed it may change its mind again. As for the other Sunni figures, they are only token names.
Do you feel that your life is in danger? Have you received death threats?
Yes. Also, the threats have come from several different sources and some of these had an official stamp and were delivered to me directly. Four months ago I received a letter from the occupation forces via the CIA. Other threats from other parties have been relayed to me through other various agencies.
Do you think that one of those agencies is the one that assassinated your brother, Sheikh Damer, and his son?
It is difficult to say.
What do you want Egypt and other Arab countries to do now?
All we expect from Egypt and other Arab countries is to understand the situation as it stands in Iraq and not to intervene in matters that are not in the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people.