Iraq’s insurgency has drawn from many different groups in Iraq, but two major ones were the tribes and Salafis. Many sheikhs turned against the United States in 2003 due to the actions of the military and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). In the 1990s Saddam Hussein started his Faith Campaign, which led to the growth of Salafism in the country. That ideology fueled many to join Islamist insurgent groups later on. To help explain these two phenomena is Dr. Amatzia Baram Professor Emeritus at the Department of History of the Middle East and Director of the Centre for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa. He has authored several books on Iraq, his most recent being Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith
1. Few expected the secular Baathist regime in Iraq to turn to religion but it did in the 1990s with Saddam’s Faith Campaign. Since then historians have disagreed whether this was just an operational move to shore up support for the regime when it was struggling under sanctions or whether there was true belief behind it. Where do you stand on the issue?
The process of Islamization and what it meant is described in my book in some detail, based on a combination of open and internal Ba’thi documents. The last party congress convened to combat al-tadayyun (religious devotion, piety) was convened in June 1982. The first (secret) meeting of the party’s Regional-Iraqi and Pan-Arab leaderships designed to legitimize a 180-degree about-face took place in July 1986. Since then, Saddam pushed the party leadership (less so the rank and file) relentlessly to Islamize itself and with it the whole state system. Upon his death in 1989 the party declared Michel Aflaq, the party’s founder, to be a convert to Islam. This was the first public sign of the new party-line. Affixing allahu akbar to the national flag on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War came next, and other steps followed in rapid succession. There may be no doubt that the “return” to Islam was at first a cynical, utilitarian policy designed to win the regime support at home and in the Islamic-Sunni world in time of crisis (the war with Iran was going very badly). Saddam was saying as much. Many Ba’this remained more-or-less secular even today, in 2015. However, there are three developments that need to be understood and appreciated.
1. In Islam, like in Judaism, rather than believing in a doctrine, the public demonstration of religiosity, i.e: fulfilling certain precepts, is the most important component. Those precepts are mainly the five arkan al-islam or “al-ma’ruf”, “thou shalt do”(in Hebrew: mitzvot) and fulfilling them has the highest value when a person’s religiosity is considered. Nearly the same applies to the public avoidance of “al-munkar”, “the forbidden”. Thus, not touching liquor in public for example is seen by one and all as a sign of religiosity. Likewise, praying in the public eye serves as an indicator of faith, certainly at the Friday public prayers, at least when it comes to the Sunna. The Ba’th regime went through these and other motions and therefore it created the impression of going Islamic. This was accepted by many Sunnis in Iraq though not by the Shias. Over time (1986-2003) Islamic practices in the public domain brought many Ba’this closer to religion even though, as pointed out above, they did not necessarily become mutadayyinin (deeply religious or pious).
2. Some party members who were fairly religious to begin with (Izzat Ibrahim al-Dury for example) but who still believed in the principle of a secular state became overtime more religious once leader and party encouraged it. Furthermore, the regime supported intellectual-academic circles that gradually became Sunni Salafis. In the 1970s they were persecuted and even eliminated, but in the 1990s they thrived. As long as they did not come out against the regime and did not establish opposition parties they were between tolerated and encouraged. Abu Bakr al-Baghdad (Ibrahim ‘Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarra’i) is himself a product of such a circle in Baghdad University.
3. Most importantly: until the early 1980s the Ba’th party’s approach to religion and even more so to the religious establishment was scornful and disrespectful. Very religious people and the clerics were seen as primitive, a remnant of the backward past. Saddam defined the shari’ah publicly as irrelevant to modern life. The new policy eradicated this attitude altogether. Moreover: the Ba’this recognized the power of Islam as a legitimizing force. Later on, after 2003, Sunni Islam became an important banner that proved useful to attract supporters in Iraq, Syria and abroad. Traditional party discipline and the proven utility of religion has been sufficient to keep even unhappy Ba’this in line behind Saddam. After his demise Islam’s usefulness was even more obvious. At the same time, though, as pointed out above, some party members, especially the younger generation, were more deeply influenced. Finally: drawing upon recorded secret meetings and the private diary of Saddam’s half-brother, Barazan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, there are a few indications that Saddam became personally a born-again-Muslim of sorts. He still consumed alcoholic drinks, but he prayed, and his 2002 personal secret letter to God is strengthening this impression.
2. How did the Faith Campaign create a pool of people that would later join the insurgency?
The main contribution of the 1990s towards the post 2003 era is the fact that even secular army officers who remained essentially secular identified the power of Islam as a magnet that later became crucial for recruiting supporters. Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri influenced many army officers to join Sufi-mystical orders, mainly the Naqshbandis who are combining Sufism with Orthodoxy. The army officers, having been dismissed from the military, joined the insurgency, forming a number of groups, some with perfectly secular, even all-Iraqi ecumenical names like, “The 1920 Revolution”. Some joined the radical Salafist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. As far as I know, though, in most part people joined an organization based on personal friendships and family-tribe relations rather than on their level of religiosity. In 2006 the Naqshbandis joined the fray in protest against Saddam’s execution. By 2009 AQI (or the Islamic State of Iraq) was essentially defeated by the American Surge and the Tribal Awakening (al-sahwah) and most of these officers fled to Syria. There they established ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) which came under a unified leadership that was definitely Salafist.
Many of these Salafis were themselves the fruits of Saddam’s Faith Campaign part of which was transforming Iraq’s whole educational system from secular to religious. Not only in universities but also children between the first and twelfth grades were now encouraged to spend time in the mosques, something the Ba’th of the 1970s would see as a calamity. They were taught more hours per week Islam, including Quran and Hadith, Islam teachers became the most prestigious in school and the whole atmosphere became quite religious. More profoundly, Saddam attempted to create a kind of a Sunni-Shi’i ecumenical Islam but failed: what he created was in fact a soft Islamic-Sunni educational system. This prepared a whole generation of Sunni children for ISIS (Daesh). Also: in the 1990s all Islamic interpretations other than those approved by Saddam were suppressed, this time not as before, in the name of Ba’thi pan-Arabism, but in the name of Islam. This included the practice of giving Saddam a bay’ah, an oath of allegiance, as was the practice under the caliphate. The latter-day caliph Abu Bakr, too, demands absolute allegiance and strict adherence to his version of Islam.
Last but not least: to Saddam, Islamization also meant brutalization. Severing hands and feet for any financial crime (defined as “theft”) became quite widespread, and beheading “prostitutes” was practiced as well. These practices paved the way for even more fiendish practices by ISIS. The main contribution of Saddam’s Faith Campaign may be seen therefore in three respects: 1. Demonstrating religiosity became bon ton or “in vogue” and no longer was a source of embarrassment even for secular officials and officers. 2. Islam was recognized as a useful tool to attract new recruits, and 3. The penal code went through a brutal quantum leap.
3. Besides Islamists, Iraq’s tribes have been another fertile recruiting ground for militants. From 2003 to the present the country’s tribes have been divided into three major groups. Some are with the insurgents, some are with the government, while others are sitting on the fence. What are some factors that have led to this three-way divide?
A few Sunni tribes approached the American military commanders as early as 2005 for cooperation against AQI. Each had its own reasons. For example, by the spring of 2005 Albu Mahal near al-Qaym on the Syrian border approached the Marines for cooperation against AQI because the latter denied them reasonable profits from their traditional smuggling operations (“import-export business”). A few months later they were joined by a section of Albu-Nimr a little further south east. It may be that the latter had similar reasons but they had definitely an additional one: in 1995 Saddam cracked down severely on Albu-Nimr and they could not forget nor forgive it. Joining hands with the Americans against the pro-Saddam insurgency was one way to get their revenge. By September-October 2006 Albu-Risha in Ramadi joined hands with the American brigade there against AQI for a different reason: even though beforehand they had collaborated with AQI, they experienced a fall-out as a result of some disagreements and immediately suffered casualties at the hands of AQI. Among those assassinated were also members of the shaykhly family. Albu Risha killed a few AQI operatives in revenge and accepted an American offer to join hands. Many other tribes joined in as they became profoundly disillusions about AQI and the US offered them military and financial support. Even Baghdad eventually agreed to “hire” the Sunni tribes of al-Anbar. In other parts the Sunnis remained connected to the Americans.
Today, all the first three Anbar tribes that had initiated the cooperation with the Americans are still supporting Baghdad: they are paid from Baghdad, but I am not certain about support in weapons and ammunition. A minority, a few sections of tribes (even a small section of Albu-Nimr and another of the super federation of Shammar Jarbah) are supporting ISIS, either because they have been coerced, or because they are being offered deals, or because they are more hostile to Baghdad, that oppressed them under an American-sponsored Nuri al-Maliki, or all the above. The majority however are still waiting for an American-Iraqi offer that will not leave them again at the mercy of a bigot and hostile sectarian government in Baghdad once ISIS is driven out.
4. Finally, part of U.S. strategy in Iraq is based upon the belief of creating not only a new Sahwa of tribal fighters but to recruit more Sunnis into the security forces. Prime Minister Abadi seems to support this idea as well as he’s backed Sunnis joining the Hashd for example. What needs to happen to make this successful, and what kind of affect would it have on the war against the Islamic State?
The tribal troops of Albu-Nimr and Abu Risha are already considered part of al-Hashad al-Sha’bi, but this is purely symbolic because they are operating under their own command and there is no mixing between the two sects in the Hashad. Abadi is indeed ready to integrate Sunni officers into the national army as he is ready to provide the neutral Sunni tribes and the rest of the Sunnis with guarantees that they will be properly integrated into the Iraqi political and bureaucratic system. He is even not opposed to change radically the de-Ba’thification laws so as to enable Sunni ex-Ba’this to be reabsorbed into the professional and bureaucratic system (many Sh’is have already been integrated). Indeed Abadi is not even clearly against the Sunni demand for autonomy including National Guard units. The demand to change the de-Ba’thification laws while acceptable to some Shi’is, came up against objection not only from the pro-Iranian Shi’i militias and politicians but also from certain Sunni quarters. One such group is the Iraqi Islamic Party (The Muslim Brothers). A few senior Sunni politicians too are against it for fear that the rehabilitated Sunnis will eclipse them and, in some cases, due to inter-Sunni grudges. The autonomy demands met with strong opposition on the part of the pro-Iranian Shi’i militias and politicians (the latter led by the former PM Maliki) and has even been opposed by Muqtada al-Sadr and his political party, even though they are relatively independent of Iranian tutelage.
The US administration has been trying to influence PM Abadi to accept the Sunni demands but he proved unable to “sell” it to the various Shi’i political circles. Unless he manages to do it, the prospect of liberation or “conquest” of Mosul, Falluja, Ramadi and other parts of the Sunni area from ISIS by Shi’i troops under Iranian command is far from being a good solution. The US will have to provide air support for the Shi’i troops and the Hashad in reoccupying the Sunni areas. This, too, is problematic because they will appear as allies of Iran and enemies of the Sunna. NATO troops doing the same work (however unlikely such a development is) will be accepted more readily by the Sunni population, but without guarantees from Baghdad for Sunni political rights, as soon as the foreign troops leave another insurgency will erupt. The US needs to take advantage of the fact that Iraqi Shi’is prefer that the Iranians stay in Iran, and to bear in mind that it has pressure points in Baghdad. It needs to apply much more pressure to meet the Sunnis’ (and Kurds’) minimal demands. After ISIS conquered Mosul from Maliki’s corrupt and degraded Iraqi national military it became clear that the highly-centralized Iraq was dead. The question is: can a decentralized Iraq still survive. The answer is to be found in Baghdad and in Washington, DC.