Prague, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The continuing fighting and kidnappings in Iraq are forcing new political players to emerge on the Iraqi political scene. The Association of Muslim Clerics, a Sunni religious organization, is one of them.
The Association of Muslim Clerics was reportedly active in helping to broker the fragile truce between U.S. troops and Iraqi Sunni rebels in Al-Fallujah. It also helped to free seven Chinese nationals who were kidnapped in Iraq and has issued an edict condemning all hostage taking in the country.
Shaykh Harith al-Dhari, one of the leaders of the Baghdad-based organization, told RFE/RL: "The organization is a legitimate religious, political, social, but also a patriotic, organization. It fulfills its duties under the circumstances through which our country is going through. It has its point of view and opinions and has an interest in what's going on in the country. It declares what it believes in and it declares what it finds to be suitable and takes necessary political or social and even economic steps because it has a duty to do that. It was established on 14 May 2003."
"They don't say they are a political party, but actually what they are doing is politics because they say they represent the interest of the Sunni people and sometimes they say they represent the interests of Muslims in Iraq."
Mustafa Alani is an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Britain's Royal United Services Institute. Alani told RFE/RL that the Association of Muslim Clerics was formed in response to a power vacuum among Sunnis. After the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the country's Shi'a majority was well represented by political parties and also by the clerical hierarchy in the holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala. He said the Association of Muslim Clerics aimed to mobilize Iraq's Sunni minority, which had been left with almost no political voice in the wake of the invasion.
Alani said the initiatives of the Association of Muslim Clerics are based on a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism and in a desire to see Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds united against the U.S.-led occupation.
Alani said the Association of Muslim Clerics includes many Sunni religious leaders, such as Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi and Abd al-Satar Abd al-Jabar. "This institution basically contains a number of people who are famous as Sunni ulama [religious scholars] -- the imams of Abu Hanifa Mosque and Abd Al-Kadr Gailani Mosque," he said. "So, those people were known before, but nobody knows them as a part of a political movement or political structure. So, the institution, because it contains the names of these famous people, has become very influential."
According to Alani, the association is not represented on the Iraqi Governing Council because it does not recognize the legitimacy of the U.S.-appointed body. Fuad Husayn, an Iraqi adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, noted, however, that the Association of Muslim Clerics enjoys good relations with many Sunni political groups and especially with the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is represented on the Iraqi Governing Council.
Husayn also said both the Association of Muslim Clerics and the Iraqi Islamic Party have common ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni political movement well known in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood was active in Iraq in the 1950s and '60s until Saddam Hussein pushed it underground. Many members of the Association of Muslim Clerics were for many years persecuted by Hussein's regime.
Husayn believes the Association of Muslim Clerics is becoming increasingly involved in politics, although it insists it is not a political grouping. "They don't say they are a political party, but actually what they are doing is politics because they say they represent the interest of the Sunni people and sometimes they say they represent the interests of Muslims in Iraq," he said. "So their activities have to do with politics, while they are saying they are not a political organization."
Alani of the Royal United Services Institute said the Association of Muslim Clerics consists of two branches -- a Sunni Arab division and a Sunni Kurdish one. He said these divisions -- determined according to ethnic lines -- clearly indicate the association's pan-Iraqi political aspirations.
"It is an entity or institution, which has a political objective, as well. They think that in the new Iraq, there will be a need for some representation of Sunni Arabs and Kurds, especially the Islamist movement of these two communities, and they want basically to play this role," Alani said.
Alani said the Association of Muslim Clerics also has good relations with the Shi'a, especially with the followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s followers have instigated much of the recent unrest in Iraq.
Alani said the influence of the organization seems to be on the rise in Iraq. He said its efforts at brokering a cease-fire in Al-Fallujah and securing the release of some of the foreign hostages in Iraq have been a help both to the U.S.-led administration in the country and also to the militants.
(Sami Alkhoja contributed to this story from Baghdad.)