Sunni Leader: America is 'Main Irritant' in Iraq
Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, is arguably one of the most influential Iraqi Sunni leaders today.
His unequivocal opposition to the US-led occupation and criticism of the Nouri al-Maliki government attracted threats against his life and forced him into exile.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, al-Dhari says the slight improvement in the security situation in Iraq "is due to a decision by the Iraqi government to reign in its death squads".
He concedes that the "resistance has temporarily" retreated in the face of US-funded al-Sahwa (Awakening Council) militias "but that the resistance is regrouping and will bounce back".
Al-Dhari, who hails from a family reputed for its role in the nationalist resistance against British occupation in the 1920s, says the US presence has allowed other powers to meddle in the country's affairs. He belives an US withdrawal will solve many of his country's present woes.
Ahmed Janabi: How do you view the recent US and Iraqi reports about the improved security situation?
Harith Al-Dhari: Yes, we can say the security situation has slightly improved. The reason for that lies in the fact that George Bush needs to present some sort of success to his people, and it is the same with the current Iraqi government. Both have realised that the tense situation in Iraq would do them no good. Hence, the Iraqi government ordered its death squads to halt their attacks on people. That's all.
Janabi: What is your evidence that the government operated those "death squads"?
Al-Dhari: We will reveal the evidence at the right time. However, the fact that those squads are the armed wings of ruling parties like the Islamic Supreme Council is evidence that the government backed them. The fact that they targeted neighbourhoods and specific people who oppose Nouri al-Maliki, should tell us something.
There are hundreds of witnesses who spoke to media about squads active during curfew hours and using police cars and equipment. How many people claimed their relatives were taken by men dressed in police uniforms and nobody saw them later on? We believe those are clear evidence of government support to the death squads which terrorised our people.
Janabi: How do you explain the security situation improving in areas like al-Anbar province and the lull in Iraqi resistance operations?
Al-Dhari: Al-Qaeda fighters have committed grave mistakes in Iraq; mistakes that were enough to create a backlash against them and initiate what has become known as al-Sahwa, where the US military and the Iraqi government offer three-month contracts to fund the greed of some tribal leaders, who in their turn arm and fund needy tribesmen to fight al-Qaeda.
The al-Sahwa phenomenon has been presented to the people as "tribal forces fighting al-Qaeda." But as they are US-funded, the tribesmen have been instructed to fight the Iraqi resistance as well. That is why resistance attacks against US forces have eased a bit.
Some al-Sahwa leaders like Ahmad Abu Risha and Hamid al-Hayes have bluntly said that they are against anyone carrying a gun, although al-Sahwa fighters themselves comprise the private militias.
I think the resistance has chosen to back off and not engage al-Sahwa militias to avoid internicine fighting. They are regrouping now and for sure will bounce back.
Janabi: How serious is Iranian influence in Iraq?
Al-Dhari: The US occupation is responsible for letting others meddle in Iraq's issues. There are many parties who stick their noses in our business one of whom is Israel, which works undercover in Iraq.
The other party is Iran. Iran's influence is cancerous. It meddles in every aspect of life in Iraq. Its influence on Iraq's ruling parties is not a secret. The Al-Daawa party of al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim], and Iraqi Kurdish parties are ruling parties and all of them were either funded by or established in Iran.
These parties are the pillars of a government formed under the occupation, so if the occupation goes all its allies will go with it.
Iran nowadays has the upper hand in determining who rules Iraq. Economically, Iranian goods have been flooding Iraqi markets. We have documented evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are working actively in Iraq through their Jaish al-Quds (The Army of Jerusalem) militia. Senior officers of the militia are based in the offices of pro-Iranian political parties.
Other regional parties are also involved in meddling in Iraq's issues but to a much less extent. But the US-led occupation remains the main irritant.
Janabi: As a US withdrawal appears unlikely in the near future, is there any alternative to save Iraq from bloodshed and chaos?
Al-Dhari: Based on what I said, we strongly believe that Iraq's ordeal will not end unless the occupation ends.
American leaders disappoint us. We hoped they would behave in a more responsible way after the failure of the political process they started in Iraq. We expected them to review the process to let all Iraqis participate and stop the bloodshed.
But sadly what happened was the opposite. We saw Bush and al-Maliki signing a non-binding agreement where the appointed Iraqi ruler signed over control of his country to Bush and in return the US president committed to provide the necessary support that the current Iraqi government needs.
This means Bush and those he supports do not have the intention to rectify things. Hence we must get rid of the occupation which is the cause of Iraq's misery and pain. It acts as a cover and fuel for outsiders to meddle.
Janabi: Despite their presence in the parliament and government, Iraq's Sunni Muslims have always complained they have been denied full participation in the political process. Why is that?
Al-Dhari: Our main concern lies in the fact that the elections were built on fallacies when they lied and deceived the world that the Shia population comprises the majority in Iraq. The number of Sunni Arabs is not less than the number of Shia Arab in Iraq, but the US and its allies in Iraq plotted against them for obvious reasons to deny them their actual size.
Three years ago, while the US was occupying Iraq, the ministry of planning under Mahdi al-Hafid issued a statistic stating Sunni Arabs constitute 42 per cent of Iraq's population and the Shia 40 per cent.
The occupiers have publically forged information to bring their collaborators to power. They said to us "you are only 20 per cent of the population and your representation should match that figure".
How are we to accept that? We have been eliminated from the political process on purpose.
It is no secret we did not support some Sunni parties joining the political process, but to be fair to them, the al-Tawafuq, the biggest Sunni Arab bloc in the parliament, had made a valid point when it withdrew from the government and suspended its participation in the political process unless its demands are met.
We have seen the demands, all of them were fair, but al-Maliki did not meet any of them. One of them was not even Sunni-specific - the demand for the release of all Iraqi prisoners held without charges. Al-Maliki just does not want to give Sunni parties any credit.
Janabi: You have been touring the Arab world and met many heads of state. Are they satisfied with the situation in Iraq?
Al-Dhari: I have sensed dissatisfaction among Arab leaders with the situation in Iraq, but none of them have showed a willingness to act.