Question is not whether but how to defeat U.S. aims
Baghdad — If Sunni clerics are a window into the soul of the violent resistance to U.S. aims in Iraq, the picture they reveal could not be bleaker.
For Sheikh Mohammad Ali Mohammad al-Ghereri, a Sunni Muslim cleric, the question is no longer whether his followers should fight the Americans — that is a given — but how to wage the war properly.
“The holy warriors should have a clerical leader with them to advise them on all points, such as how to properly treat the Americans they capture,” he said just days before militants beheaded two American hostages.
For Sunni cleric Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar, the question is no longer whether his followers should kidnap foreigners, but which ones.
“Isn’t the trucker who brings supplies for the Americans and helps the occupation also part of the occupation? I think so,” said Abdul Jabbar, a member of the Association of Muslim Clerics, the country’s largest Sunni religious group.
Although Sunni religious authorities — including the sect’s highest authority, Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar University in Cairo — have condemned the beheading of captives, they have no such qualms about advocating violent warfare, including kidnappings and suicide bombings, in the battle to vanquish the Americans and their Iraqi allies.
Among Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, the United States can count on a few high-ranking moderate clerics to counter rabble-rousing preacher Muqtada al- Sadr’s incendiary calls for holy war. But among the ulema — the clerical leadership guiding Sunnis, who make up about a third of the Iraqi population – - calls for armed opposition to the United States have become increasingly strident.
“There is no discussion,” says Imam Mahdi al-Sumaydai, a high-ranking Sunni cleric who was jailed for six months by the Americans for his inflammatory teachings. “Jihad is a must in the religion to defend your property, your honor or your religion. How can anyone deny our right to jihad?”
On the streets, the calls for jihad by clerics are rising and spreading into the mainstream. Young people are turning to popular media to learn more about the long-standing Islamic tradition of jihad — a holy war waged to protect one’s people or one’s land. Videos of armed mujahedeen battling Americans sell briskly at CD shops and in bazaars. At Internet cafes, young people scan jihadi Web sites for news.
The U.S. military and Bush administration officials, as well as interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, describe the jihadis as “dead-enders,” criminals, gangsters and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s government who are making a last desperate stand.
“The insurgents see a successful Iraqi interim government taking control of the country,” said Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and all soldiers in the Baghdad area. “They see improvement of basic services. They see their power base slipping away. They see elections on the horizon. If you’re a terrorist, that must be your worst nightmare.”
But the clerics maintain that force is the only language the Americans understand. They argue that the rebellion in the Sunni triangle led to the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council, that the April uprisings in Fallujah led to Allawi’s interim government and that only more violence will guarantee elections set for January.
“Those who called for political solutions have been repeatedly embarrassed and outdone by those wanting military solutions,” said Mohammed Amin Bashar, a Sunni cleric and professor at Baghdad’s Islamic University.
Sunni clergymen who oppose violent resistance are few and far between. Sheikh Adel Khalid Dawoud, a follower of the Salafi tradition, which spawned the Wahhabi sect that influences Osama bin Laden, originally heeded senior clerics and urged his followers to wage war on the Americans.
But as more Iraqis died and suffered in resistance strongholds like Fallujah, Dawoud began to question the value of violent resistance.
“The jihad itself is meant to remove injustice and harm from the backs of the people,” he said in his tiny mosque in Baghdad’s Karada district. “If the jihad brings more harm to the people, then it is not justifiable.”
Indeed, even the clerics are not immune from the violence spreading across Iraq. Two Sunni clerics were gunned down in Shiite neighborhoods this week, raising fears of a sectarian war.
Most Sunni religious authorities argue that those who question the righteousness of jihad are at odds with Islamic teachings in the Quran or the Sunna, texts written by Muslim scholars after the religion’s founding. The clerics’ message is finding an eager audience, especially among the young.
“Jihad is a necessity for each Muslim,” said Ziad Farhan, a student at Islamic University in the Khadimiya section of Baghdad. “The prophet gave up everything for elevating the religion. In Islam there is either death or jihad. There is no other way.”
Muslim clerics rarely speak directly, often looping vague religious references and poetic verses from sacred texts into their conversations. But in discussing what they see as the justification for jihad, they mince no words. They cite of a litany of American missteps, from the stalled reconstruction to the killing of innocent Iraqis during combat operations and the abuse and sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
“The Americans have crossed thousands of miles to come and occupy our land,” said al-Sumaydai. “The Americans have lied throughout the ages. They lied to the Native Americans. They are now lying to us.”
They also tick off a list of perceived slights to their religion, from soldiers entering mosques without taking off their boots to patrols entering women’s quarters during house raids and patting down female detainees.
“Either the Americans are totally ignorant and do not know anything about state management, or they want to burn the whole area from north to south,” said Bashar.
Ghereri, who ministers to poor people from an austere mosque in Baghdad’s Zafarenieh district, often sees the suffering caused by the insurgency and the U.S. response — destroyed houses, maimed children, dead fathers. But despite the toll, he tells his followers that the holy war must continue.
“No price is too high pay to regain our lost glory,” he said.