Religious extremism in post-Saddam Iraq

As a result of the US-lead invasion of 2003, religious extremism has become prominent in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein religions were oppressed and all voices of opposition silenced. Religious extremism did not have a chance to receive the popular support it claims today (2006). Under the Coalition occupation much of Baghdad has fallen under the control of religious extremists, as has much of the Shiite-dominated south.

In other parts of Baghdad “neighbourhood watch” groups and resistance fighters’ man checkpoints to deter militiamen and “government forces” (23) from entering the area. Some of Islam’s worst extremist groups including “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” managed to infiltrate the resistance under the guise of fighting the occupation. However their strategy of targeting Iraqi civilians made them extremely unpopular.

It was only by standing against the occupation that these religious extremist groups managed to establish themselves in Iraq. Given Iraq’s complex multi-cultural history, it is likely that had the occupation brought progress or not occurred at all these groups would never have risen to the level of prominence they hold in Iraq today.

Before continuing with this debate it is important to understand that Iraq has been central to the development of religion through-out history; in particular Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Holy-sites around Iraq have attracted tourist for centuries and date back to the dawn of civilization. Chaldean, Assyrian and Yazidi Christians have maintained religious communities in Iraq for centuries with few troubles particularly in the northern Nineveh Province. (Wikipedia: Iraqi Christians).

Though Christian’s received little trouble in Saddam’s Iraq things were different for the majority Shiite. After surviving a Shiite uprising during and after the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam turned to tribal and religious sheikh’s to re-assert his personal power. He began recruiting his personal guard, the notorious “Saddam’s Fedayeen” from religiously extreme Sunni groups in order to ensure their full co-operation in plots to assassinate prominent Shiite resistance leaders.

The resulting tension between Sunni and Shiite lead both groups to begin becoming polarized in their views about one another; however this never lead to open conflict between Sunni and Shiite during Saddam’s rule. The reason for this is that both sects of Islam are deeply integrated amongst one another in Iraqi culture; it is impossible to draw a line between them and say these people are Sunni, these are Shiite. Such a line would cut brothers from sisters, wives from husbands, fathers from sons, so on and so forth.

The Sunni and Shiite populations of Baghdad had lived peacefully together, intermarried, used each others Mosque’s and were often secular in their views before the fall of Saddam. All this has been confirmed to me by many of the Iraqis with whom I speak to regularly as editor//founder of an educational Iraqi Group blog, The Olivebranch Network. However, in Iraq today things are very, very different.

Revolutionary Shiite extremists poured across the Iraqi border immediately after the invasion and capitalized on the poor security situation; beginning to spread their field of influence far and wide on the street. Then, when opportunity arrived, they seized the chance to play a prominent role in Iraq’s new political system. The most powerful political party in both the January and December 2005 Iraqi elections was the “Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq” (SCIRI).

In its origin SCIRI was an extension of the “Da’awa Party” a populist Shiite group based out of Iran. (See Wikipedia:Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq). SCIRI shares ideology with the “Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iran”, which overthrew ShahMohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed Ayatollah Khomeini as supreme leader of Iran in 1979. Though SCIRI had existed across the border in Iran for decades before the fall of Saddam, it had never reached a high level of influence in Saddam’s Iraq.

Under SCIRI’s doctrine Iraq would become an Islamic Theocracy where religious leaders and Islamic Law (Sharia) are to become the ultimate authority; so it is easy to understand why Saddam did not allow them any influence in his Iraq. Officially however their aims had to be watered down even after the fall of Saddam, in order to appease Iraq’s largely secular population. The armed wing of SCIRI, known as the “Badr Organization” has also existed in Iran since the 1980’s and was trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Initially the Badr Organization met tough resistance from within Iraq’s Shiite community as it tried to establish dominant influence amongst Baghdad’s Shiite majority. (See Wikipedia: Badr’s Brigade).

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia Jeish al-Mehdi achieved a stunning rise to prominence after they fought US forces in Najaf, April 2004, which resulted in Sadr supporters and the Badr Brigade becoming locked in competition for influence amongst Iraqi Shiite’s. Despite their internal quarrels Al-Sadr supporters, SCIRI and other prominent Shiite religious groups established the “United Iraqi Alliance” (UIA) in order to win dominance over their common adversaries in Iraq’s new permanent government; which was decided upon in the December 2005 elections.

Now, in 2006 as the new permanent Iraqi Parliament is sworn in; the influence of Shiite extremist groups is the strongest it has been in more than a century as Shiite militia’s patrol the streets of Baghdad and infiltrate the new Iraqi security apparatus.

While politician’s from the UIA positioned themselves carefully in advantageous political posts, their armed militias seized upon the poor security situations after the fall of Saddam (April, 2003), taking control of volatile parts of Baghdad. Al-Sadr’s Jeish al-Mehdi initially gained huge popularity in Sadr City (named after al-Sadr’s revered anti-Saddam fatherGrand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr) by providing basic municipality services and preventing looting; a clear example of how the Coalition’s failure allowed for religious extremists to thrive. The Coalition failed to produce the reconstruction and security it promised to Iraqi civilians before the invasion, a fact which still stirs anti-occupation sentiments to this day (21st July, 2006).

Electricity services in Baghdad (outside the Green Zone) in 2006, three years after the invasion are at an average of 6 to 8 hours per day, less than half of what they were under Saddam after 12 years of sanctions. In the northern city of Mosul middle-class families receive 3-4 hours of electricity on a good day, (just ask Sunshine and Mama), while poor areas receive none.

Under Saddam the area had received decent medical services though supplies were limited due to import sanctions; but now dentists are being left without even the most basic medicines. Because of this, many who were once optimistic and imagined the situation could change for the best are now loosing faith and wanting to leave. Some even say life was better for them under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship; at least they could go to and from work without fearing for their lives every second of the way.

In the past there were even mosques in Iraq which would accept visitors regardless of religious sect; these are now quickly becoming exclusive to Sunni or Shiite. In fact, whole areas of Baghdad are becoming exclusively Sunni or Shiite and sectarian warfare has seen thousands dead in recent months. A diverse range of groups are involved in this conflict and it is hard to draw any lines between them.

Foreign fighters have played a key role in fermenting pre-existing tensions on the streets of Baghdad; in the hope of winning dominant influence in post-Saddam Iraq. They are well funded and pro-dominantly come from Saudi Arabia or Iran and use money and violence to play Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite against one another. They then use this distrust to attract support and prevent resistance against them from within Iraqi communities. (WikipediaIraq Insurgency- Foreign Fighters). After the al-Askari Shrine bombing on the 22nd of February, 2006, warfare between religiously extreme groups has dominated the streets of Baghdad. (See for example, Baghdad Treasure’s coverage: 1 2 ).

The al-Askari shrine is considered a holy place by all Muslims, with the exception of hardline Salafi extremists. However it is particularly important to the Shiite, since it is part of the same complex from which they believe the 12th Imam, al-Imam al-Mehdi (“The Hidden Imam”), will re-appear.

The bombing of this Shrine is consistent with the doctrine of “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia”, who are followers of the Salafi interpretation of Islam. Salafi’s believe that the Shiite are traitors to Islam, and that buildings built on a burial ground (such as the al-Askari Shrine) are Haram, or against Islamic law. In addition to this belief the ideology and origins of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, though proclaimed to be “Sunni”, greatly differ from those of Iraq’s Sunni.

The term “Sunni Extremist” is used by extremist Shiite’s to describe Salafi groups such as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia with the knowledge that using this term would inflame hatred towards Iraq’s Sunni amongst its’ Shiite. By repeating this term the Iraqi and global media played into the hands of those who wished to fuel the tension between Iraq’s mixed Sunni and Shiite population. Since day one of the invasion Coalition forces and the international media focused too much on the “Sunni resistance” and “ex-Baathist elements”, painting them as the number one evil in Iraq. As al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia became prominent the media painted him with the same brush and, whether accidentally or intentionally; this inflamed hatred toward Iraq’s Sunni.

The base of support for Salafi extremists comes from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and despite many attempts by the Bush administration to tie Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda together prior to the invasion of 2003; no proof of any connection between Saddam’s Iraq and Salafi extremists has ever been uncovered (see Washington Post: “al-Qaeda – Saddam link dismissed”).

After the fall of Saddam foreign fighters poured across Iraq’s uncontrolled borders, and foreign extremist groups like al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia quickly rose to a level of prominence in the Iraqi resistance.

However it was not long before their strategy of targeting Iraqi civilians ostracized them from the Iraqi resistance which then turned upon them, particularly after al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia declared a holy-war against Iraq’s Shiite in 2005. (See al-Jazeera Online’s: “al-Zarqawi declares war on Iraq’s Shia”). So it can be seen that foreign extremists used the occupations failings as method of gaining popularity and support; a fact which is resented by the Iraqi victims of this sectarian battle.

Had the Coalition Forces managed to secure Baghdad and produce the conditions necessary for “reconstruction”, religious extremism would not have had the fuel required to reach the prominence they hold in Iraq today. Foreign fighters would not easily have found a home and new battleground in Iraq.

Al-Sadr’s militia may never have existed and almost certainly would not have risen to the level of popularity it sees today. Religious extremism will always exist as it is a natural tendency for nations during times of war; however, Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious history has held the population together for centuries, despite many wars, uprisings and internal struggles. How much longer this can last given the current conditions is questionable, as it is obvious that religious extremism has become a dominant force in the new Iraq.

Author note: please take the time to go look at the The Olivebranch Network, today is Six months since the first post and I am extremely impressed with where we are today- however the dialogue between the Middle East & the West cannot move forward without your support.

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