Assassination of Sunni Cleric Inflames Sectarian Tensions in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 46

On November 15, Sheikh Khadir al-Anbari, a Sunni imam and preacher at al-Sajjad Mosque, was assassinated in Iraq. The mosque is one of the few Sunni mosques in the predominantly Shiite inhabited Sadr City section of Baghdad. Al-Anbari was allegedly killed by members of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army. The incident is the latest in a series of targeted sectarian attacks characteristic of the ongoing cycle of violence in Iraq.

According to a November 18 statement published on the official website of Hayat Ulama al-Muslimeen (AMS, Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq), al-Mahdi Army militiamen abducted al-Anbari and executed him in a public area in the presence of Iraqi security forces. The announcement went on to condemn the sheikh’s murder, labeling it a “terrorist act” committed by “criminal militias” who operate with the approval of the “sectarian government and the security services.” The statement also condemned the “occupation forces” and the Shiite-led Iraq government for their alleged complicity in the act (http://www.amsi-iraq.org).

The AMS is a Sunni Islamist organization that is reported to have ties to various elements among Iraqi nationalist, Baathist and Sunni Islamist factions of the insurgency. AMS is known to blend Iraqi nationalist discourse with pan-Islamic calls for Sunni-Shiite unity against U.S.-led coalition forces and the impending disintegration of Iraq along sectarian lines. The Iraqi Interior Ministry issued a warrant last week for the arrest of Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, the group’s leader. Officially, al-Dhari is wanted on charges of inciting violence and division among Iraqis. A frequent traveler to Arab capitals, al-Dhari was purported by regional media reports to be in Jordan at the time that the warrant was issued. The call for al-Dhari’s arrest has elicited a sharp rebuke from leading Sunni political and religious associations, including the Iraqi Islamic Party and other groups (al-Jazeera, November 16).

In his latest statement at a press conference held at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo on November 23, al-Dhari called on members of the Arab League and the United Nations to withdraw their support for what he described as “the pro-occupation government” in Baghdad. He also accused the Shiite-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of sowing sectarian divisions to achieve its goal of marginalizing Sunnis and all non-Shiites from Iraqi political life (http://www.amsi-iraq.org).

The al-Maliki government’s singling out of al-Dhari for arrest amidst escalating religious tensions, namely the marked increase in attacks against Sunnis by Shiite militias and clandestine units believed to be operating in concert with or within Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces, is likely to incite reprisal attacks. On the political side, the threat of al-Dhari’s arrest, during the increased targeting of Sunnis, threatens to drive the Sunni political parties participating in the Shiite-led government to a permanent boycott of Iraqi institutions and the political process, effectively ending any realistic chances to prevent Iraq’s disintegration into a full-scale civil war.