Politics and Violence in Iraq: An Interview with Fareed Sabri

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 4

Fareed Sabri

Fareed Sabri is the spokesman of the Iraqi Islamic Party in the United Kingdom. He also served on the party’s leadership council in the late 1990s. This interview was conducted by Terrorism Monitor editor Mahan Abedin on May 12, 2005 in London.

Mahan Abedin: Please discuss your relationship with the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP).

Fareed Sabri: I am the spokesman of the IIP in London.

MA: How long have you had a connection with the IIP?

FS: I have had a formal connection with the party since 1991.

MA: What political affiliations did you have before then?

FS: I had connections to Islamic student societies here in the UK, many of which shared the same ideas and agenda as the IIP.

MA: When did you leave Iraq?

FS: I left Iraq in 1982 to study medicine. But eventually I ended up studying computer systems at Salford University.

MA: How do you account for the emergence of the IIP?

FS: The idea for establishing a political Islamic party was being seriously debated as early as 1945; however the party as an organization was formed in 1960. Many of our party’s founding members had been active politically through various organizations like the society for the salvation of Palestine in the 1950s and they were heavily influenced by the emergence of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt in the 1930s. Former president Abdul Karim Qasim pledged that political organizations would be allowed to operate legally in Iraq. Consequently our party’s founders decided to formally register the party. At first the Interior ministry rejected the application but our appeal was upheld by the courts and the party was officially formed in April 1960.

MA: Is it true that the former Grand Marjaa, Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim lobbied to have the party formally registered?

FS: As far as I am aware this information is incorrect. The interior ministry initially rejected our application, and it was in fact the court of appeal which decided in our favor. But it is certainly true that the Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim helped us issue an edict against the communist party

MA: How would you describe the party’s activities in the early days?

FS: The party’s most important mission has always been to educate people in the culture and world view of Islam. It strove to show that Islam could form a state and manage a country effectively.

MA: What was the party’s core objective; to turn Iraq into an Islamic state?

FS: Yes, that was indeed the core objective. It is an objective that is as applicable today as it was in 1960. The party wants Iraq to adopt Islam as a way of life. But our way eschews violence and political theatrics and instead focuses on gradual and calculated activism to achieve this core objective.

MA: Did you have a publication in 1960?

FS: The first one was al-Heyad and the second was called al-Jihad. The latter was established after 1960 and it published and distributed 20 issues before it was closed down by the government.

MA: How did the various Iraqi governments in the 1960s react to the party?

FS: When our party issued a statement criticizing the then President (Abdul Karim Qasim) and the atrocities committed by his communist allies, the government turned against our party. They initially imprisoned some of our party leaders and forced some to escape. Eventually they banned our party in November 1960.

MA: And the party remained proscribed until April 2003?

FS: Yes.

MA: So before the downfall of Saddam Hussein, you only had a few months of official existence behind you?

FS: Yes, but of course we continued to work underground. You can compare the situation to Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned for decades but it still managed to remain a coherent political force.

MA: What type of activities were you undertaking underground?

FS: We were trying to enlarge our party base through education and indoctrination. But we steered clear of violence because we have always said that violence complicates the situation.

MA: Looking at this from a wider perspective, what you are describing in the 1960s was totally eclipsed by the larger battles between the Baath, the communists and other political forces. What I am trying to say is that Islamist politics, particularly of the Sunni variety, were consigned to the margins of Iraqi political life.

FS: But we were severely persecuted by the government and I think we still managed to have a strong impact on Iraqi society. But of course there is no denying the fact that the communists and the Arab nationalists dominated Iraqi politics at that time as a result of securing and maintaining power through brute force.

MA: Some people have said that the Iraqi Islamic Party was essentially an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. How accurate are these observations?

FS: We don’t deny the fact that many of our early members were either members of the Muslim Brotherhood or were at least heavily influenced by their ideology.

MA: But would it be wrong to say that the Iraqi Islamic Party was just a continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit under a different name?

FS: We were not completely distinct. Our ideas, for instance, are a continuation of the ideas developed by the Brotherhood. But in terms of organization, our party has always been distinct from the Brotherhood. We are a separate organization wholly dedicated to Iraqi politics.

MA: How would you compare and contrast the IIP with Hezb al-Daawa (the main Shia Islamist party in Iraq)?

FS: When it comes to this issue peoples’ memories are very short. Because Hezb al-Daawa was the main opposition force to Saddam in the 1980s and 1990s, this has tended to eclipse the role of the IIP.

MA: I wanted you to address this question from an ideological perspective. For instance many scholars credit al-Daawa with introducing original themes into Islamic ideology.

FS: But most of Hezb al-Daawa’s theories about the Islamic state were taken from the IIP and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of their cadres were schooled in the circles of the IIP and the Brotherhood. Even Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaafari (a Daawa leader and current Prime Minister of Iraq) has acknowledged this connection. Also you have to remember that the idea of an Islamic state was a new theme in modern Shia Islamism. Daawa cadres were inspired by the Egyptian thinkers, in particular Seyed Qutb.

MA: What are the core differences between the IIP and Hezb al-Daawa?

FS: Ideologically and politically speaking there is not that much difference; both organizations seek to turn Iraq into an Islamic state. But of course there is a difference in Mazhab (religious school of thought); Daawa is obviously a predominantly Shia party whereas our party is predominantly Sunni. Consequently they emphasize the role of the Marjayeeat (Shia clerical establishment) in the Islamic state. The IIP however emphasizes the role of Shura (consultation) in the running of the Islamic state. Daawa recognizes the importance of Shura but does not accord it the same level of prestige.

MA: What is your party’s position on the Marjayeeat? Do you see this institution as far too quietist, especially in its response to the invasion and occupation of your country?

FS: We have always had the greatest level of respect for the Marjayeeat. This institution is a very important part of Iraqi society. In fact when the IIP was officially formed in 1960, our first action was to send an envoy to the Grand Marjaa at the time, Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim.

MA: How about Hizbut Tahrir, did they have a serious influence on the ideological development of the IIP?

FS: Hizbut Tahrir has never had grass-roots support in any Muslim country. Iraq was not an exception.

MA: Because it is too radical?

FS: Not just that, they are basically too intellectual. They have never inspired the masses and their ideas have always been confined to esoteric theories.

MA: What is your party’s position on the politics of pan-Islam?

FS: Of course like most other Islamic movements, our ultimate objective is to create the right conditions for the emergence of a universal Islamic state that represents all Muslims in the world.

MA: Let us discuss the organizational details of the IIP. Who were the original leaders?

FS: Our founding leader was Dr. Noman Samarrai.

MA: How was the party governed?

FS: We were primarily governed through a 12 member Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Assembly), which made major decisions and enforced them. We have always had a democratic governing system.

MA: How did the party organize itself underground?

FS: We obviously made use of conventional cell structures and networks which we sometimes called “Halaqa” (study circles).

MA: Do you consider your party to be the main Sunni Islamic Party in the entire history of the Iraqi state?

FS: We don’t really like to describe ourselves in sectarian terms, because we do not believe in sectarianism. The IIP strives to represent all Iraqi Muslims. But practically speaking we have been the main Sunni Islamic party in Iraq since the 1950s and 1960s.

MA: Have there been many Shia members in IIP?

FS: Yes, of course. This was particularly the case up to the late 1960s, but as the Daawa party got stronger, some of our Shia members left to join it.

MA: What is the sectarian ratio in your party today; would you say 80% Sunni and 20% Shia?

FS: Unfortunately since the invasion, and all the polarization it has created, that ratio is probably correct.

MA: Let us discuss the Iranian revolution. The massive impact of the Islamic revolution on Iraqi Shiaism is already well documented. Please discuss its impact on Iraqi Sunni Islamism.

FS: It had a huge impact. The Islamic revolution showed Muslims all the over the world that pious Muslims could topple even the strongest governments, provided they could educate and mobilize the people. This was a very powerful and electrifying idea. As far as Iraqi Sunnis are concerned, the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic revolution which he led have always elicited the highest levels of respect and affection.

MA: It seems that in some respects the Iranian revolution had a deeper and more meaningful impact on the Sunnis of Iraq. I say this because the Islamic revolution has always had a divisive impact on Iraqi Shias; some have enthusiastically embraced it, while broadly speaking the quietists have been lukewarm toward it.

FS: Because the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini introduced Velayat-e- Faqih, which is a Sunni concept! This is why it has always divided Shias, not just in Iraq but everywhere.

MA: How did the IIP react to the Islamic revolution?

FS: Our party closely followed the doctrine and positions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and in that respect we wholeheartedly welcomed the Islamic revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood sent a delegation to congratulate the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, especially after the Iranians closed down the Israeli diplomatic representation in Tehran and replaced it with Palestinians.

MA: How did you see the Iran-Iraq War?

FS: We were against that war from the beginning, because it was a fratricidal war. We encouraged the Iranian government to stop the war because we thought the western powers had a vested interest in prolonging this conflict.

MA: Therefore in that respect you were different from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who continued to exhort the Islamic regime in Iran to prosecute the war against the Baathists until victory is attained. Consequently the ending of the war in July 1988 had a very depressing effect on Egyptian Islamists.

FS: Because, geographically speaking, we were closer to Iran than the Egyptians and therefore disagreed with them over this. That war had an enormous human and material toll, and changed the geo-strategic map of the region for the worse.

MA: What has been the historical impact of SCIRI and other Iraqi Shia Islamists on the relationship between the Islamic Republic and Sunni Islamists, both in Iraq and beyond?

FS: The Iranian government relied on a lot of people who inflamed sectarian issues in Iraq and beyond. This was very demoralizing, particularly for people who had such high hopes for the Islamic revolution and envisioned it inspiring similar movements in other countries. They relied on exiled Shia Iraqis who had many sectarian and political axes to grind with Iraq’s Sunnis and Sunni Islamists all over the Muslim world. But at the same time I don’t want to pin the blame exclusively on Iran. There was a lot of propaganda against the Iran at that time, mainly from some Gulf States, but by deploying exiled Iraqi Shias in their propaganda counter-attacks, the Iranians simply made the situation worse. Consequently the Islamic Republic lost the massive and unprecedented support it initially enjoyed in the Muslim world, particularly in North Africa.

MA: Many Iraqi Shia Islamists settled in Iran after the revolution, did Sunni Islamists also see the Islamic republic as a safe haven to fight the Baath regime?

FS: Many members from our party settled in Iran after the start of the war. Also other Sunni Islamists, who were not connected to our party, fled to Iran from 1979 onwards.

MA: Did they establish relations with the Iranian government while living in Iran?

FS: There were some contacts, but because of the war and the difficulties between Iran and Iraq, the Iranian authorities always treated them with suspicion.

MA: Does the Iranian revolution still inspire Iraqi Islamists?

FS: Yes, especially now that Iran is moving toward developing a truly democratic system. Islam is not nearly as rigid and atavistic as the west likes to show it. The political situation in Iran is much better than many other Muslim countries.

MA: Let us go back to the chronology of events. Would you agree with the statement that Sunni Islamic resistance to the Baath virtually disappeared in the 1980s?

FS: It certainly declined as a form of direct confrontation with the Baath regime, but insofar as ideology is concerned, Sunni Islamism remained powerful.

MA: Correct me if I am wrong, but to my knowledge Sunni Islamists never undertook any violent action against the Baath regime, quite unlike Daawa and SCIRI.

FS: The Iran-Iraq war was crucial to this, because we thought internal attacks would weaken the country further.

MA: So you would agree with the statement that in the 1980s and 1990s, much of the serious opposition to the Baath regime came from Shia organizations like Daawa and SCIRI?

FS: That is true, but these parties had considerable support from Iran, whereas we had nobody. In fact many of the Arab governments treated us with the utmost suspicion. And of course we have never believed in an internal violent struggle, and were not interested in bombings our fellow citizens.

MA: It is widely accepted that there was a resurgence of Sunni Islamism in the 1990s. How important was the former Iraqi government’s Hamla Imaniyah (Faith Campaign) to this revival?

FS: The Baath regime’s Faith Campaign was a response to the strength of the Islamic movement in Iraq. The Baathists tried to ride this wave.

MA: Did the former Iraqi government generate dynamics through its Faith Campaign that were ultimately beyond its control?

FS: Yes, I think that is the case. All western ideologies had been discredited in Iraq by the 1990s, and Islam was the only alternative.

MA: To what extent did the former Iraqi regime succeed in co-opting Sunni Islamism?

FS: The Baathist regime always looked upon organized Sunni Islamists with the greatest suspicion. Some of our party members were executed in the early 1980s. Up to 2,000 members of our party were imprisoned in 1987.

MA: How many of your members were executed?

FS: Three of our party members were executed in 1970; they were Mohammed Faraj, Abdul Sattar Alobossi and Abdul Ghani Shendala and I think another 5 members were executed in 1980. And in 1996 the party’s leadership was imprisoned; if I remember correctly they were Dr Mohsin Abdul Hameed, Ibraheem Abdul Latef, Fouad Alrawi and others.

MA: Why were so many members imprisoned in 1987?

FS: Because the authorities discovered that they were trying to organize themselves.

MA: So you would agree with the statement that the Faith Campaign of the 1990s enabled the former Iraqi regime to co-opt some elements in traditional Arab Sunni society, but not the serious and organized Sunni Islamists?

FS: Yes, broadly speaking that is correct.

MA: But would you agree that the Iraqi authorities in the 1990s created conditions that were favorable to the growth of political Islam?

FS: Yes, of course we benefited from this environment. For instance before the Faith Campaign mosques could not open after night prayer, but now mosques were open round the clock. This enabled the growth of Islamic culture and ideology.

MA: Do you think some of the insurgent activity we are seeing in Iraq today can be traced to the Faith Campaign and the social and religious dynamics which it unleashed?

FS: I think this has had a big impact on the scale and intensity of resistance to foreign occupation. But don’t forget that Islamic movements in Iraq have been working non-stop from the 1960s onwards educating the people in the culture and ideology of Islam.

MA: How would you characterize events since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003?

FS: This is clearly one of the darkest days in the history of Iraq.

MA: Please discuss in more detail. For instance what do you think about the political developments of the past 2 years?

FS: There is a glimmer of hope since we have some political freedoms now and we are beginning to develop a new state. But the priority for us right now is to remove the occupation and rid Iraq of the ills and consequences of wars and occupation.

MA: In that respect a lot of people would say some good has come out of the occupation, after all the country is now free from Baath control. Also what do you make of the notion that the Baath regime could only be removed through a U.S. led invasion?

FS: I don’t agree with this statement at all. The west never tried to support the struggles of the Iraqi people against Saddam Hussein. They never supported the genuine and credible opposition to the Saddam regime. The invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with freeing the Iraqi people.

MA: But was there a lot of opposition to the Baath regime in the Arab Sunni community? For instance did the Arab Sunni community rise up against Saddam in the Safar Intifada of March 1991?

FS: People from our community were alarmed by that uprising because it followed the Kuwait war. Also as you are aware the Arab Sunni community in Iraq see themselves as the inheritors of a great Islamic Empire. They see themselves as the guardians of Iraqi unity and are therefore reluctant to support anything which could lead to national fragmentation.

MA: But the March 1991 uprising was the perfect opportunity to oust Saddam.

FS: The problem was that the Americans were at our doorsteps. There was also a fear that Iran could exploit the situation and overrun the country.

MA: What was your party’s position on the Safar Intifada; did you encourage people to abandon the fight against Saddam?

FS: Of course we had our sympathies with the Intifida, but we urged both sides to refrain from excesses and we regretted the damage that was caused to Iraq during the uprising.

MA: What is your party’s position on the Iraqi insurgency?

FS: We are a political party and we have always been committed to peaceful politics. But—and this is a big but—we will never deny Iraqi people the right to defend themselves in the face of such massive and naked aggression. Even the president of the United States acknowledged the right of Iraqi people to defend their country against occupation in one of his speeches. Our country has been humiliated, our human rights and dignity have been massively violated and our property has been violated and destroyed. We are also now faced with sectarian conflict which is something wholly new to Iraq and a direct result of the occupation.

MA: How would you account for the emergence of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS)? Are they a direct product of the Faith Campaign?

FS: Not really. The AMS was formed after the invasion and many of their members are also members of the Iraqi Islamic Party. In fact Dr Mohsin Abdul Hameed (IIP president) was the first to propose the establishment of the AMS immediately after the illegal occupation of Iraq.

MA: What is the core function of the AMS? Some people claim it is trying to compete with the Marjayeeat.

FS: That is not true. The Sunnis require clerical representation just as much as Shias do! Just because we are different, that does not mean we are in competition. The AMS strives to provide religious and spiritual guidance primarily for Sunnis, but ultimately for all Iraqi Muslims.

MA: But AMS is an essentially Sunni body, right?

FS: It is of course primarily Sunni, but they have excellent relations with many Shia clerics and organizations.

MA: How extensive is your party’s presence in Iraq?

FS: We have an organized presence in all the regions of Iraq.

MA: Including the extreme south, the Basra area for instance?

FS: We have a strong presence in Basra, which is effectively controlled by SCIRI. We hear of many abuses against our community in Basra and we try to put a stop to these.

MA: What kind of abuses?

FS: Most of the police and national guards in those areas are composed of militia members and we always hear reports of members of our community being abused and murdered by these forces.

MA: But surely you recognize that these provocations are nothing compared to the massive provocations the Shias have had to contend with. I am referring to the almost daily bombing of their mosques and Husseinias all over Iraq.

FS: Of course, and I think the occupation has a hand in these atrocities. We in the Iraqi Islamic Party, alongside the AMS are working hard with our brothers in Daawa and other Shia organizations to avert serious sectarian conflict in our country.

MA: You say the occupation has a hand in the anti-Shia attacks, but most observers—certainly here in the west—attribute these attacks to Sunni Islamists, particularly its foreign component.

FS: People started saying this after the sudden “discovery” of the so-called Zarqawi letter last year.

MA: What do you make of that letter?

FS: After the “discovery” of this letter the sectarian bombings started. Therefore this was a very well planned assault on Iraq’s unity. Also I can assure you I have read plenty of such letters well before the occupation of Iraq, some alleging that Iraqi scientists were experimenting on Kurds or they are targeting cities in the west and nonsense like that. These letters were clearly manufactured by foreign intelligence services in order to undermine Iraq and its unity. But they were written in an Islamist style and clearly intended to deceive the readers into believing the authors are Salafi-Jihadis.

MA: So which intelligence agency could have manufactured the Zarqawi letter?

FS: Western intelligence services and the Israelis are the obvious culprits.

MA: Give me an instinctive answer; which intelligence service manufactured the Zarqawi letter?

FS: Probably the Israelis, with or without American acquiescence.

MA: You don’t think regional intelligence services, like the Jordanians or the Iranians could have been behind this alleged plot?

FS: I don’t think the Jordanians and the Iranians, or any other regional country for that matter, has any interest in provoking this kind of tension in Iraq.

MA: How about regional countries involvement in the insurgency. Again most observers believe the Syrians and the Iranians are giving limited support to some of the insurgents.

FS: We have to make a distinction between in-fighting among Iraqi communities and the Lebanonization of Iraq, and fighting the occupation. I think the Iranians and the Syrians have an interest in supporting resistance against the occupation but they have no interest whatsoever in provoking civil war in Iraq.

MA: How do you see the insurgency developing?

FS: I think the resistance will become stronger. The Americans are violating every single code of human rights in Iraq and this has caused enormous amount of hate for America in the country.

MA: What about the parallel political process; is this likely to fail?

FS: Well certainly any American led effort in such an environment of massive human rights abuses in Iraq is likely to fail.

MA: What about the elections of 31 January, you don’t think they were democratic?

FS: I think they were perfectly representative of the people who actually took part in the elections. But as you are aware the Arab Sunni community largely boycotted the elections.

MA: Your party officially boycotted the elections. Will you review this decision in the future?

FS: Yes, of course we will review it.

MA: So you will take part in the next elections?

FS: We will most probably take part, but only after intensive consultations with different elements in our community.

MA: When are we likely to see a serious reduction of American troops?

FS: Well the Americans are sitting tight at the moment. They think the resistance will die down in due course and they’ll be able to prolong some form of presence in Iraq indefinitely. They are badly mistaken; I don’t think the resistance will die down. As long as there are foreign troops in Iraq there will be resistance.

MA: Do you think the Americans will be defeated in Iraq?

FS: There is this possibility. Much will depend on their behavior, but as it stands their behavior is creating an enormous amount of ill feeling towards America and Americans in Iraq. These grievances—which are not limited to Iraq but exist throughout the Muslim world–are likely to last well beyond the end of the occupation.