Violence and Iraq’s Constitutional Referendum: An Interview with Fareed Sabri

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 11

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 October 7, 2005 in London. In light of the decision of the Iraqi Islamic Party to endorse the proposed constitution in the upcoming referendum on 15 October, a brief follow-up was conducted on October 12.

Mahan Abedin: We last spoke in May. Since that time what overall trends have characterized the insurgency?

Fareed Sabri: I think the actions of the legitimate resistance have been overshadowed by the activities of certain extremist groups, in particular the Zarqawi network, against the Shi’a community. This is very unfortunate, because it is overshadowing the work of the resistance and is increasing the tensions between the different community groups. However, we are really suspicious as to who is really behind Zarqawi.

MA: Is the resistance intensifying?

FS: Certainly the ferocity of attacks against occupation forces is increasing, but the actual number has remained stable. However, as far as Iraqi security forces and in particular interior ministry personnel are concerned, the attacks against them are increasing.

MA: Do you think that, in terms of scale and intensity, the insurgency has now reached its threshold and is unlikely to get worse?

FS: All depends on how the occupation treats the situation in Iraq. Military action will always generate a strong response.

MA: How do you assess the regular U.S.-led operations in Anbar since May?

FS: The continuous operations of the U.S. military in this region are not helping at all. This region is tribalistic and the Americans have no idea how to treat people there. This region is also fiercely religious and nationalistic and people there have a very visceral hatred for the occupiers.

MA: Why is Anbar so implacable? Is it its tribal culture, its Iraqi nationalism or religiosity?

FS: I think it is a combination of all three. Moreover, this region has strong military traditions and produced many of the best officers of the Iraqi military. Many of these officers are now in the ranks of the resistance. On top of that you have significant U.S. military operations in the area that have devastated the lives of many ordinary people, thus further fuelling the torch of resistance against occupation.

MA: Are these operations damaging the insurgency?

FS: The American operations since May have been mainly for public relations purposes. It has had very little effect on the resistance who are now very skilled at avoiding large-scale casualties and cleverly retreating from areas under military attack, only to reappear once the American forces back off. It is extremely difficult to undermine this kind of pervasive and skilful resistance spread out in a very large area and the American military knows this better than most.

MA: You told Jamestown in May that the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) supports resistance, please elaborate more on what kind of resistance you support.

FS: As you know the Iraqi Islamic Party is a political party and we have been resisting the occupation politically. We see this occupation as illegal and we do not deny the right of Iraqis to resist it.

MA: But what kind of resistance do you support; do you support targeting the United States military in Iraq?

FS: We don’t deny the people their right to fight occupation and occupying forces.

MA: Do you support targeting the new Iraqi police and army?

FS: No, of course not. Iraqi blood is a red line and targeting the new army or the interior ministry forces does nothing apart from increasing community tensions in our country. We don’t think targeting collaborators is a good idea in the long run, because we need to build community bridges, links that have been severely damaged by the occupation.

MA: The problem is that the same people who are attacking the U.S. military in Iraq are probably attacking Iraqi forces as well. The “resistance” is not as neatly categorized as you seem to think.

FS: Firstly, let me make it very clear that the Iraqi Islamic Party does not speak on behalf of the Iraqi resistance. Secondly, the problem is that the new Iraqi security forces are really inflaming the situation by attacking those people in the resistance who are not interested in fighting the new government. But when they are attacked by the security forces, they turn against them as well.

MA: Are you talking about the interior ministry (which is dominated by the Badr organization—formerly Badr Corps—of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—SCIRI)?

FS: I am talking about the interior ministry and the National Guard, which is controlled by the defense ministry.

MA: Do you think some of the daily mass killings are perpetrated by these forces?

FS: All evidence suggests that the interior ministry is, at the very least, aware of these killings. And bear in mind that most of the killings take place at night, during curfew, when only interior ministry forces and occupation armies roam the streets.

MA: But do you accept that some of the extreme methods adopted by the interior ministry are in response to the very extreme methods of the insurgents? Also Iraq does not have a proper judicial system and in any case the security situation is so catastrophic that even the most robust and sophisticated judicial system in the world would find it hard to deal with the situation.

FS: But this is not an excuse for a government that calls itself progressive and democratic.

MA: So, how should the government deal with the insurgents?

FS: First of all the government needs to recognize that Iraq is under occupation. They should then recognize that resistance to occupation is legitimate…

MA: So they should just stand aside and let people attack the Americans?

FS: No, what I am saying is that they should reach out to the resistance and work out a deal with them. They need to initiate a dialogue.

MA: You think the insurgents and the government can talk and resolve the situation? Bear in mind that the “resistance” is divided and, as of yet, has no common voice.

FS: No, in Iraq the people in the resistance are well known. The challenge is to build a framework for liberating Iraq from occupation. Some of the groups may not like this, but they are a small minority. The great majority of the resistance would like to talk to the government to resolve the situation.

MA: You say the people in the resistance are well known; who are they?

FS: The resistance in Iraq is mainly made up of people with Islamo-nationalist motives and ideologies. Moreover, most of them are people with security backgrounds.

MA: That points to a Ba’athist element.

FS: No, this is a fictitious argument promoted by the Americans. The Iraqi people hate Ba’athists.

MA: But if they were security people, they had to be Ba’athists, at least in name.

FS: Not really. Certainly people in the army were not Ba’athists.

MA: How about people in the Mukhaberat (former Iraqi intelligence) and Istikhbarat (former Iraqi military intelligence)?

FS: The vast majority of their officers simply scattered after the invasion. The high-ranking officers fled to Syria and Jordan and are now simply leading private lives. The middle- and lower-ranking officers are in Iraq and most of them are just sitting around and doing nothing. They are too well-known and too tainted to play a role in the resistance. The bulk of the Iraqi resistance is Islamic and Iraqi nationalist and there is massive distance between them and Ba’athists of any complexion.

MA: How large is the “resistance”?

FS: In terms of numbers we are talking about 30,000 to 40,000 people who are dedicated to full-time resistance.

MA: Who is targeting the Shi’as?

FS: Well if you believe the Western media, it is Zarqawi and al-Qaeda. But there is real suspicion in Iraq that other forces may also be involved in these attacks. Maybe it is the occupiers, because these attacks provide the best conditions and pretext to prolong the occupation of Iraq.

MA: So the Americans are blowing up Shi’as?

FS: It could be the Americans, or it could be the MOSSAD. We have reports that Israeli intelligence cells are very active in Iraq, especially in the Mosul area. Even in the immediate aftermath of the occupation we had credible reports of intense Israeli intelligence activity in the Baghdad area. The situation is similar to that of Lebanon in the 1970s, when many of the attacks attributed to the Palestinians were in fact the works of Israeli intelligence.

MA: And what would be the purpose of these attacks?

FS: Most of the people in the resistance have strongly condemned attacks against Shi’as, because Shi’as are a part of Iraqi society and you don’t attack yourself! These attacks are designed to fatally damage community relations in Iraq and set the stage for the breakup of our country, which serves the strategic interests of Israel.

MA: What about the phenomenon of Zarqawi?

FS: Zarqawi is a semi-myth. As far as the Sunni Muslims of Iraq are concerned, attacks against our Shi’a Muslim brothers are prohibited on both religious and political grounds.

MA: What is Zarqawi’s role in Iraq?

FS: It is a destructive role; you can not fight an occupation by attacking your own people. If Zarqawi is really behind some of these atrocities, we condemn them in the strongest terms possible.

MA: How numerous are foreign fighters in Iraq?

FS: Their presence has been massively exaggerated, particularly by the Americans, for obvious reasons. I think their numbers are in the low hundreds, while there are tens of thousands of Iraqis involved in the resistance. It is very difficult to blend in Iraqi society, particularly in the extraordinary conditions of today.

MA: Let us talk about the IIP now. It is now clear that the IIP is fully intent on entering the political process. Which factors made you change your strategy?

FS: Our boycott of the January 2005 elections did not mean that we do not agree with the political process in Iraq.

MA: Why did you boycott the elections?

FS: The American military actions in Arab Sunni areas, particularly in Fallujah and Mosul, made it difficult for us to participate in the elections.

MA: Looking at this from a completely different perspective, if the IIP enters the political process in a decisive manner, this might alienate its core constituency, who view the political process as an American controlled affair.

FS: We know it is controlled by the Americans, but we have to find a way of taking Iraq forward. Also fighting occupation has to take place on different levels, and we fight the occupation at the political level. Besides, somebody has to truly represent the Iraqi people and their rights.

MA: Can you ever hope of expanding your core constituency beyond the Arab Sunni community?

FS: Yes we have strong support in the Fao Peninsula (in the extreme south) and in Hilla; we gained this support in the local elections several months ago.

MA: The insurgents have attacked IIP personnel on several occasions in the past few months, how do you explain these attacks?

FS: Some resistance groups totally disagree with the political process and would attack anyone who participates in it. This is unfortunate as we think that someone has to project the views of those who are fighting the occupiers militarily.

MA: Please elaborate on the circumstances behind the recent killing of your members.

FS: Three of our party members in Mosul were killed when they were putting posters on buildings. They were young boys and they were seized on the streets by a group of people who accused them of being traitors and shot them on the spot.

MA: Who killed these boys?

FS: This is the problem in Iraq; we do not know who exactly is doing what. It could have been the resistance, on the other hand it could have been the government or even the Americans.

MA: Your critics might say that given this confused situation on the ground, would it not be wise to condemn all violence in Iraq?

FS: We will do that if the occupiers leave our country. The continuing occupation is, by far, the greatest act of violence. It is also the source of all other violence.

MA: In general, are your party members coming under greater intimidation by the insurgents in the run up to the referendum on the constitution?

FS: We are being intimidated by the government, in particular by some of the militias connected to organizations that dominate the government. We are also intimidated by the occupying armies. And yes, we are also facing intimidation by some forces in the resistance.

MA: If your vision is to turn Iraq into an Islamic state, do you concede that it can not be an exclusively Sunni Islamic state?

FS: First of all the great majority of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq want an Islamic state, and there is no reason to think they can not work side by side to turn this aspiration into reality. Secondly, our vision of transforming Iraq into an Islamic state is a long-term one. We are under no illusions that Iraq could be turned into an Islamic state any time soon. Currently we are promoting good governance, and calling for a government that respects the rights of Iraqi people and protects the freedom of political parties.

MA: On the point of Islamic unity, there should be little friction between you and SCIRI.

FS: Indeed.

MA: Then why are you enemies?

FS: We are not enemies, far from it in fact. We have a dialogue with SCIRI and we make our concerns known to them.

MA: Let us talk about the constitution. Please explain why the IIP suddenly changed its stance on the constitution?

FS: We have reached an agreement with the Shi’as and the Kurds in adding an article to the draft constitution. The amendments to the constitution would in theory give the new National Assembly, to be elected on 15 December, the power to introduce radical changes. But these changes would have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in parliament and a second referendum.

MA: Are you optimistic that your objections to the proposed constitution will be seriously taken into account by the new national assembly which will be elected in December?

FS: Personally I don’t think our objections will be seriously addressed. The Americans and their allies are determined to enshrine this proposed constitution largely in its present form.

MA: Being as specific as possible, what exactly in the constitution do you object to?

FS: On sectarian issues, we object to the vilification of so-called sectarian and racist policies by the former Iraqi government. We also reject the clause that stipulates: “We Iraqis are choosing to unite.” This suggests that Iraq has been divided until now, which is wrong.

MA: What other points do you object to?

FS: The constitution, as it stands, does not categorically state that Iraq is part of the Arab world. Article 3 should make it clear that Iraq is an inseparable part of the Islamic and Arabic worlds. Moreover, Article 4 has to make clear that Arabic is the official language of all Iraq. Another major issue is natural resources. The document refers to them as “gas and oil extracted up to now;” this makes no mention of resources that are discovered and exploited in the future. Therefore, according to Articles 109 and 110, if the Kurds or the Shi’as discover new resources in the future, they could claim it in the name of their local governments, not in the name of the Iraqi government. This is an extremely serious issue. Furthermore, the document only refers to oil and gas and does not mention other natural resources like uranium, gold and phosphates. Iraq is rich in these resources.

MA: Any other objections?

FS: Article 118 says the National Guard can be controlled by local governments. This lays the foundation for local armies and it is therefore very dangerous.

MA: And presumably you object to the whole notion of federalism.

FS: We would like the next assembly to decide on this issue as we do not think a referendum is the best way to determine this matter.

MA: But you realize that there is basically no way you can stop Iraq from becoming a federal state as powerful interests in the country and of course the Americans want a federal solution, no?

FS: Clearly the Americans and the parties who rode into Baghdad with them want Iraq to be federal and divided, but the majority of Iraqi people reject federation. The government is projecting federalism as a means of uniting Iraqis, but in actual fact it will have the opposite effect.

MA: Do you have any other objections to the constitution?

FS: We reject to the clause that stipulates re-distribution of resources to regions damaged under Saddam’s rule. We want this to be modified to take into account the damage inflicted on areas most affected by the occupation. We have whole towns like Fallujah and Ramadi that have been massively damaged. Moreover we need to change Article 123 which stipulates that the constitution can only be changed after 8 years and only after a referendum and subject to the approval of two thirds of the national assembly and the president. This article basically makes it impossible to change the constitution and it needs to be revised. We want this to be changed to 4 years and we can do away with a referendum. Furthermore, we object to nationalization clauses which stipulate that anyone who is born to either an Iraqi mother or father is an Iraqi. We feel this is too inclusive and want it changed to stipulate both parents being Iraqi.

MA: Do you think the constitution will be approved?

FS: The Americans and the Iraqi government have far too much to lose and will therefore use any ploy, fair or foul, to ensure its passage.

MA: If this constitution is approved as it stands—and no modifications are made by the next national assembly—what will be its repercussions?

FS: It could very well set the stage for the emergence of 3 or maybe even 4 countries from the carcass of an occupied and murdered Iraq.

MA: Do you think some Iraqis are consciously working to break up the country and see the constitution as a decisive instrument?

FS: Some Kurds have openly said that they want independence in 7 years. Also we know that some Shi’as in Europe have called for an independent Shi’a state in the south.

MA: Who are these Shi’as?

FS: There are a few individuals. I’d rather not go into the details, especially since these individuals are connected to organizations inside Iraq. Also they are supported by powerful institutions in the United States. But we know that the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’as are wholeheartedly committed to the Iraqi nation-state.

MA: Do you think Iraq is moving towards civil war?

FS: The fabric of Iraqi society is so tightly interlinked that an all out civil war is highly unlikely. There are clearly significant tensions between the communities and these will create tragedies and atrocities from time to time, but we don’t really envisage a civil war in the conventional sense. If civil war was to take place, it would have started months ago.

MA: But these daily attacks against Shi’as are bound to lead to a tipping point. The Shi’as have shown remarkable fortitude and restraint so far, but how long can this continue? One assumes that every attack creates massive stresses and grievances.

FS: But those people who are targeting Shi’as are not Iraqis…

MA: But that is an assumption on your part.

FS: No, it is not an assumption. Every Iraqi organization and constituency has condemned these attacks in the strongest terms possible. The only beneficiaries of these attacks are the occupiers and Israel.

MA: So civil war will simply not happen in Iraq?

FS: No, Iraq is not Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia. But the instability will continue. One of the main problems is the current Iraqi government which does not reflect the Iraqi character.

MA: What is your assessment of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari?

FS: He has not been an effective leader. He has been so ineffective that even Islamist Iraqis are beginning to say they prefer the ultra-secular Iyad Allawi over Ibrahim Jaafari.

MA: Is the IIP still clamoring for an immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces?

FS: Yes, but this does not mean that we demand they leave tomorrow. We are calling for a clear timetable for withdrawal. We also want the occupation forces to be replaced by a United Nations force or armies from Arab and Islamic countries.

MA: But is this really feasible? Can you honestly imagine UN forces keeping the peace in Iraq? Do you honestly think Iraqis would look favorably on Saudi, Turkish or Iranian troops in their country?

FS: Why not? A contingent from Islamic countries is realistic.

MA: Which country would even want to send forces to Iraq?

FS: Look, this would have to be in the framework of an agreement between Iraqis and this can only be done once the occupiers give a firm date for withdrawal.

MA: Ok, let us discuss Iranian influence in Iraq. What do you make of recent British allegations that the Iranians have been helping to kill their troops in and around Basra?

FS: First of all this needs to be analyzed in the context of the nuclear issue. Other than this we don’t have any information on the accuracy of the British allegations.

MA: More generally do you think that Iran’s influence in Iraq has now reached very dangerous levels (as far as the west and the Arab regimes are concerned) and if it deepens even more, it will change the strategic balance in the region?

FS: I think since the very first day of the invasion the Iranians have been working very hard to develop their influence in Iraq. We hope our Iranian brothers will apply their influence for the good of Iraq. We also hope they refrain from actions that exacerbate community tensions in Iraq.

MA: Do you think Iranian influence will increase beyond its present levels?

FS: Of course it will. The Iranians clearly want the south of Iraq to be in their sphere of influence.

MA: There are increasing signs that Shi’as in the south are at least beginning to consider fighting the occupation militarily. What do you make of these reports?

FS: I concur with these reports. Iraqis from all communities are beginning to understand the magnitude of the damage caused by the occupation. The Shi’as are no exception and there is now a very real prospect of widespread Shi’a resistance against the occupation. And if this happens the occupiers of Iraq will be in a very difficult situation indeed.

MA: Do you have any information on the Imam Hossein Brigades, an allegedly Shi’a insurgent organization operating in areas immediately to the south of Baghdad?

FS: No, we have no information on that. But it seems credible, as Shi’as have been attacking occupation armies for some time, but not with the consistency and effectiveness of the Arab Sunnis.

MA: One of the problems of Iraq is that there does not seem to be any credible national leaders to unify the country during these very testing times.

FS: Yes, and this is the product of 15 years of constant western propaganda against Iraq. The west attacked Iraq on the basis of its so-called ethnic or sectarian divisions and the imbalance in the distribution of power among the communities. This has been the main obstacle to the emergence of credible national leaders.

MA: Many would say the main obstacle was Saddam Hussein!

FS: But they never presented Saddam Hussein as a tyrant per se, they presented him as the persecutor of Shi’as and Kurds. The reality is that Saddam persecuted all Iraqis.

MA: Can you envisage Muqtada al-Sadr ascending to a national leadership position?

FS: He is very young but he has real potential. And he has also successfully bridged the sectarian gap.