"There is ethnic cleansing"
Muthana Hareth Al-Dari, spokesman of the influential Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars, tells Amira Howeidy
that the time has come for everyone, including Sunnis, to arm themselves
As Iraq falls near to the abyss of civil war, a security clampdown on the Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) twice this week went almost unnoticed. On Monday, US forces supported by other unidentified armed groups raided the headquarters of the influential and largely Sunni Association and arrested two of its main leaders.
Al-Ahram Weekly caught up with the AMS's spokesman, Muthana Hareth Al-Dari, 37, during a visit to Cairo where he was putting the final touches on the soon-to-be-launched AMS satellite channel Al-Rafedein, to be based in Cairo.
During the interview, Al-Dari cautiously avoided adopting what could be interpreted as a sectarian discourse but argued that there are forms of ethnic cleansing occurring in Iraq.
When asked about the role of Muqtada Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in last week's sectarian violence, Al-Dari declined to comment. According to informed Iraqi sources who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity the Mahdi army has been "infiltrated" by the Badr Organisation, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and other state-sponsored militias. And as a result, Al-Sadr gradually lost direct control over his militia which is now associated with sectarian violence in Iraq. AMS considers Al-Sadr, who is of Arab origin, a nationalist figure and ally.
The Washington Post reported that 1300 Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, were killed in the violence that erupted following the blast in Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra. Has the civil war started in Iraq?
No. God willing, it won't start. There are attempts to ignite a civil war.
How then do you describe what's happening in Iraq? What's a civil war if this isn't one?
There were prospects of a civil war but they were contained. But the fire will remain underneath the ashes. The forces that were behind the recent crisis will work on igniting it again. Civil war will begin when some forces lose their conscious awareness; I mean the forces which are armed with patience and who endure pain rather than slip into fitna (civil strife). When that happens there will be civil war. But thank God, they chose the general interest of the people over personal interest.
As for the number of Iraqis killed in the past week, the AMS already announced that the death toll exceeds 300. This was confirmed today when the general manager of Al-Teb Adli hospital and its morgue said they have 329 bodies. Then of course there are tens of bodies that were buried by their families before they reached the morgue. So we're actually talking about approximately 400. The 1300 figure is an exaggeration, a way to pour fuel to the fire. A death toll of 400 is not a small figure either.
Reports from Iraq Tuesday said that Sunnis from across Iraq are sending or preparing to send weapons to Baghdad to protect Sunnis and their mosques. Can you confirm this? Do the Sunnis need to be armed?
This need has existed for a long time now. Long before the recent violence, the current government and the security apparatus unfortunately exercised many forms of terrorism against citizens ... There have been detentions and murders, en masse, of many citizens, mostly Sunni, who were taken from their homes at night. So the danger is not new. It's ongoing. The difference this time is that in the past, no one could defend himself because carrying or possessing a weapon was a crime. The occupation forces together with the security forces would conduct their night raids and no one could do anything about it. But after the brutal attack of security forces in daylight against [Sunni] mosques, it is the duty of everyone to defend themselves.
I think that recent events proved to the whole world that there is state violence against many Iraqis. So now it's justifiable and totally reasonable that one defends oneself by any and all means necessary.
The Mahdi army of Moqtada Al-Sadr, and the armed wing of the SCIRI, the Badr organisation, the death squads and such Shia militias, have been exposed recently for their violence against Sunnis. And even during the curfew earlier this week, they roamed the streets freely, terrorising the population and committing more violence and killings. How does the AMS deal with this?
There are security organisations that are affiliated with the current government. Then there are partisan militias that are associated with and have infiltrated these security organisations to serve a political role. It was these militias and the security forces that targeted civilians in the past week.
Can you please name names?
It's very clear and doesn't need naming. These militias have infiltrated the interior and defence ministries.
From the Badr organisation?
Does Iran pose a threat to the stability and unity of Iraq? Do you see an Iranian hand in the recent violence?
There are many regional and international parties that meddle in Iraqi affairs.
But it's clear that Iran is in Iraq and the US is struggling to contain it.
The occupation created a lot of problems, such as the side struggles that are taking place in Iraq ... Iraq has become the battleground for settling accounts.
When AMS head Sheikh Hareth Al-Dari's home was attacked this week he accused the security forces. Why would the government attack an important Sunni figure like him?
He wasn't attacked because he's a Sunni figure but because he's a national figure. This attack coincided with an appeal he made the day before for the Iraqi people to practice self- restraint and to be patient. He also accused the security forces of orchestrating the violent events that included burning [Sunni] mosques. The following day his house was attacked. Also recently there were intense efforts by the AMS and the Khalisi School to contain the crisis. Most people don't know that the AMS is defined by the security forces -- specifically the interior and defence ministers -- as an organisation that supports terrorism.
The timing of the Samarra attack followed revelations of state-sponsored sectarian violence and what seem to be American realisations that empowering the Shia also empowered Iran in Iraq. Do you agree?
State-sponsored violence, government prisons, government militias, are exploiting the sectarian issue ... The timing of the Askariya attack was very sensitive. It happened as talks about forming national government -- which won't necessarily reflect the results of the elections and would have entailed that some of the winners make concessions -- were taking place. This was preceded with statements by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in this respect. All these were messages received by some political forces that won in the elections that there's an attempt to sabotage their election success. Their response came in Samarra.
After Samarra and the events that followed which exposed Shia rogue elements within the government, will the Sunni bloc, now that it decided to resume talks to form a coalition government, be in a better position to negotiate a fair deal?
AMS projects itself as a national, not Sunni, option. A political process that is taking place under foreign occupation is not an issue of concern for us and we don't think it's a legitimate process. As for the National Accord Front [the Sunni bloc that is negotiating] that's their decision. Forming a "national government" will not achieve the interests of the Iraqi people. Everybody was talking about democratic elections that will end the violence in Iraq, followed by elections that will form a government, after that withdrawal of the occupation forces, etc. That was what propagated. The elections happened and talks for forming a government are faltering and a government is not expected to form any time soon ... And unfortunately the latest events where blood was shed and precious lives were lost were used for cheap political gains.
So you're saying even if the Sunni bloc gets control over key ministries in the new government it won't change much.
No, it won't. There are Sunni ministries in the current government, including the Defence Ministry. What did they achieve? Nothing, and they never will. They're just for window dressing. The same will apply to the future government ... Why didn't we hear their voice when the violence broke out? In the press conference that [Sunni] Defence Minister Saduun Al-Dolaimi held Saturday, he simply didn't speak a word of truth about the death toll or the number of mosques attacked.
How did recent events affect the occupation?
It benefited from it. The occupation forces didn't move to stop the violence when it could have contained it from the very beginning -- five or six tanks could have done it. It is obliged under international law to protect the country it is occupying. It didn't and it simply watched.
The Defence Ministry dispatched armoured units and vehicles to protect certain areas in Baghdad, but this hasn't really dispelled Sunni fears. Are these fears valid?
These armoured vehicles are so outdated they're completely useless. Besides, they are only there during the day. At night when the curfew begins, the death squads, or the black crows as they're called in Iraq, begin to appear everywhere. On Monday, the Forsan village in Nahrwan, which is south east of Baghdad, was completely besieged by the black crows and Interior Ministry forces -- specifically the Al-Karar battalion and one other -- and they burned tens of houses.
Who exactly are the black crows?
They're also called the men in black. Nobody dares identify them although everybody knows who they are. They are groups selected by some political parties that have infiltrated the Interior Ministry and directly report to it.
What do they want? Liquidate Iraqi academics? Terrorise Sunni Iraqis?
This is a national issue. There are attempts to silence all the national voices in Iraq regardless of their [sectarian] affiliations. The assassinations have targeted both Sunni and Shia Iraqis.
But the Sunnis have been the primary victims.
Yes indeed. But any voice that says "No" gets killed. They want to clear the scene to execute their plans of maintaining the sectarian and ethnic dominance that we see today. This is why Iraqis migrate in massive numbers.
So what we're seeing is not a civil war but ethnic cleansing?
Yes. There is ethnic, sectarian and political cleansing and it is executed by [Iraq's] security forces.