According to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Harith al-Dari has “nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition.” Al-Dari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), has been an outspoken critic of the Shiite-led Iraqi government and is rumored to be affiliated with the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an indigenous Iraqi insurgent group. In November, the Iraqi Interior Ministry issued a warrant for the arrest of the controversial Sunni leader for “inciting terrorism and violence among the Iraqi people.” The Iraqi government has been critical of him in the past and it is unclear what finally triggered the Interior Ministry to issue a warrant for his arrest. Al-Dari’s published statements and numerous interviews, however, give us a clear window into his attitudes and actions regarding the insurgency. He is certainly a supporter of what he labels the “resistance” and what others label as “terrorism.”
Arrest Warrant Issued
Harith al-Dari was believed to be in Jordan when the arrest warrant was issued on November 16. The surprise announcement of the warrant was made by Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq’s Shiite interior minister. He stated that it is “the government’s policy that anyone who tries to spread division and strife among the Iraqi people will be chased by our security agencies…We have to prove to everyone that the government…is going forward with major steps to achieve security.” Al-Bolani even stated that the government was asking international police to arrest al-Dari if he does not return to Baghdad. Yet, according to al-Dari and his supporters, the arrest warrant has nothing to do with the Interior Ministry’s desire to achieve security in Baghdad, but rather it was an attempt to silence and marginalize the cleric. The AMS, which al-Dari leads, issued a formal statement on its website on November 17. The statement read: “The warrant issued by the Interior Ministry against Dr. Harith al-Dari…is clear evidence that this government has lost its balance and declared its bankruptcy.” Al-Dari flatly denied the accusation of inciting terrorism. He speculated that the timing of the arrest warrant had to do with his visit to Saudi Arabia, which angered Shiite members of the Iraqi government. He has also repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of any government that was formed “under the occupation,” which has further encouraged the government to come out against him.
The political timing of the announcement for his arrest is certainly controversial. It has elicited a strong backlash among Iraq’s Sunni community. Faced with overwhelming evidence implicating Shiite militias attached to the government with sectarian violence, the arrest warrant was viewed as a sectarian attack by a biased government—regardless of the objective justifications for the arrest warrant. After the initial outcry against the Interior Ministry’s announcement, the ministry quickly softened its stance and announced that the government did not issue an “arrest warrant” but an “interrogation warrant” (al-Arabiya, November 17). Harith al-Dari remains outside of Iraq, traveling in the region. He was last seen in Syria.
There is no doubt that Harith al-Dari has made public statements against the government and called on all Iraqis to resist the occupation and its Iraqi partners. He is also reported to have ties to certain groups that make up the indigenous Iraqi insurgency such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army in Iraq. The question, however, is whether he has directly supported or directed the violent insurgency, rather than simply made public statements encouraging resistance. Is he a vociferous advocate of Sunni rights and anti-sectarian tendencies? Or is he a rejectionist with links to the insurgency, as many U.S. and Shiite leaders claim? Who is Harith al-Dari? Where did he come from and can he claim to represent Sunni and Iraqi interests?
Al-Dari’s Past and the Role of the AMS
Harith al-Dari was born in Baghdad in 1941 and hails from a prominent Iraqi family of the al-Dari clan. He is considered Iraq’s most notable Sunni scholar with degrees from Cairo’s al-Azhar University. He is related to the famous Sheikh Dari who became a national hero when he killed a British officer in 1920, sparking a revolution. He spent much of his adult life teaching Islamic law and history at various Arab universities. Harith al-Dari organized the AMS, also referred to as the Muslim Ulema Council or Muslim Scholars Association, on April 14, 2003 as an anti-occupation movement, as a nationalist force and as a nucleus for Iraq’s Sunni religious authority (al-Manar al-Yawm, September 5, 2004).
The AMS is largely a response to the marginalized role of the Sunni community. It has a strong nationalist bent but its message mostly resonates with Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis. It is a clerical body, but has been vocal on political issues and has provided religious cover for the resistance. Yet, because of its refusal to fully enter the political fray due to al-Dari’s opposition to the occupation and the U.S. sponsored political process, the AMS’ political influence is limited. The coalition has tried repeatedly to negotiate with the AMS, but it has remained adamant that it will not engage substantively with the United States while the military occupation remains. It did, however, negotiate in ending the siege of Fallujah in 2004. The fact that Harith al-Dari has mediated with certain insurgent groups for the release of hostages and mediated to end the siege of Fallujah suggests that he has strong ties to elements in the insurgency. Nevertheless, he insists that “we did not negotiate or mediate because we have no links to those parties. We only appealed to them and our appeals succeeded in freeing the hostages” (al-Dustur, November 2, 2004).
Harith al-Dari’s son, Muthana Harith al-Dari, is also an active member of the AMS. He serves as the organization’s spokesman. He is reported to be the leader of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, but he publicly denies this. The AMS, through both father and son, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraqi resistance and has defended Iraqis’ right to resistance and has even stated that it is a religious duty that needs no fatwa for justification (al-Manar al-Yawm, September 5, 2004). The AMS has repeatedly called on the government to resign. Al-Dari has made a link between occupation and sectarianism in Iraq—two developments that have weakened the position of the Sunni minority. Since he has rejected political participation, however, all that is left is promoting the resistance. It is this support of the resistance that prompted the arrest warrant.
While promoting resistance, al-Dari has also discounted the political process in all its forms. He has rejected the constitutional process, boycotted elections and disparaged participation in government. Al-Dari has stated, “The political process, irrespective of the way they describe it, has brought nothing good to Iraq…they have divided Iraq on a sectarian and ethnic basis…Iraq today belongs to the occupation, to those who benefit from it, who serve it and who are collaborating with it to oppress their Iraqi brothers” (al-Jazeera, November 25).
The Islamic Army in Iraq, the Islamic Front for Resistance and the 1920 Revolution Brigades have all condemned the arrest warrant against Harith al-Dari, all groups that the Iraqi government claims he supports. It is not clear whether he directly leads or supports Iraqi insurgent groups, but al-Dari is certainly an articulate spokesman for their cause.
Resistance or Terrorism
Harith al-Dari has made an effort to establish a clear distinction between resistance and terrorism—which he claims the Iraqi government, the United States and the media have lumped together to further their aims. According to al-Dari, “The resistance is the party that targets the occupation, the occupation alone. It has not harmed any Iraqis because it is a rationalized resistance and is defending something called the liberation of Iraq” (al-Quds Press Agency, April 26). Terrorism, on the other hand, is something entirely different according to al-Dari. He blames the occupation and the ineffective Iraqi government’s security policies for terrorist activity. During an interview published earlier this year on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s website, al-Dari outlines which Iraqi groups he considers part of the resistance and which he does not. He divides the resistance into several groups, the most important of which he says are the Islamic Army, the Islamic Resistance Movement, the Mujahideen Army and the Islamic Resistance Front.
He also classifies the Mujahideen al-Shura Council, an umbrella group of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, as part of the legitimate resistance. Other groups which he labels as part of the legitimate resistance are the Iraqi Mujahideen and the al-Rashidin Army, among others. He explains, “I must point out that these factions attack the occupation forces and do not target the civilians because it is a resistance that broke out immediately at the beginning of the occupation. These factions do not receive support from any foreign party” (Ikhwanonline, March 6). He has gone so far as to say that actions known to be taken by Sunni insurgent groups—such as the attack on an Egyptian diplomat and violent bombings that killed Iraqi civilians—were not the responsibility of the insurgency, but instead the work of intelligence agencies (Ikhwanonline, March 6). He also believes that the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in 2004 was either the work of the “occupation” or groups they encouraged.
He has admitted that members of the resistance have made mistakes, but is more forgiving of their actions and blames “media exploitation” for the distorted image of the resistance. He has stated that tactics like kidnapping and car bombings were exploited especially by the U.S. media to tarnish the resistance (al-Misri al-Yawm, July 9, 2005). In an article published in the Baghdad newspaper al-Zawra, he writes, “Some Iraqi resistance factions have made mistakes that gave a faulty impression about the resistance as a whole. This is not strange. What is strange is to expect the resistance to be perfect and free from error at all times. No resistance movement has succeeded in doing that.”
Al-Dari has tried to avoid characterizations of him as a spokesman for the resistance, preferring to be considered as a representative for national Iraqi interests. “The voice of the Association is not a voice that speaks on behalf of the resistance. It is the voice that speaks on behalf of all of Iraq and on behalf of all those that reject the occupation.” He also states, however, that he seeks recognition of the resistance. “The resistance should not be disregarded. It should be recognized as an effective party that has its weight in Iraq. The problems of Iraq cannot be resolved without listening to the resistance and involving it in the affairs of the country” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 13).
Al-Dari has given religious cover to many insurgent tactics. He has justified kidnappings by saying, “Many scholars, including [Yusuf] al-Qaradawi, have issued fatwas sanctioning the kidnapping of combatants in times of war because it is permitted by religion and according to the practices of the Prophet Muhammad.” He asserts that kidnappings are akin to taking prisoners of war and that their killing is justified if the “commander of the people deems those prisoners war criminals and sentences them to death” (al-Dustur, November 2, 2004). Even though al-Dari has recognized the legitimacy of the Mujahideen al-Shura Council, he has also stated that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s importance, when he was alive, was exaggerated by the United States to justify its occupation of Iraq. Al-Dari accuses the United States and the Iraqi government of building a myth around al-Zarqawi in order to hijack the resistance, attributing it only to al-Qaeda so that when al-Zarqawi was killed, they could claim they killed off the resistance (al-Dustur, November 2, 2004).
Al-Dari’s ability to unify the Sunni community in a constructive way has certainly been hampered by the arrest warrant and by his own tactics. He has alienated an important tribal constituency—the al-Anbar tribes who are now committed to fighting against al-Qaeda and the insurgents. They have even gone so far as to ask the AMS to remove him as leader. They have even filed a lawsuit against him. In an announcement on al-Iraqiyah, “In the name of the al-Anbar Chieftains Council, we tell Harith al-Dari that if there is a bandit, it is you. If there is a murderer or kidnapper, it is you.” While some other Iraqis have rallied around him, he is not in Iraq to lead them and has rejected government participation. His voice is limited by the arrest warrant since this prevents him from returning to Iraq, unless he is willing to face arrest, and by his own refusal to support the government so as to change its policies from within.