Iraq’s late sheikh and the years of rejection

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Sheikh Harith al-Dhari - a national and religious leader in Iraq during the American occupation and in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime – died earlier this week without accomplishing any of his aspirations. Like many of the Sunni leaders, he emerged after the invasion due to the leadership vacuum that became very clear after Saddam’s long-held dominance over the political stage. But Sheikh Harith could not understand the changes taking place in Iraq and the region after Saddam’s fall.

He led a lost battle against the U.S. occupation, causing serious damage to his community, the Sunnis, and all of Iraq.

I was at odds with him, but that did not prevent me from hosting him at our Al Arabiya offices in Dubai. I did not mind him criticizing me and the channel during our meeting. Yet he did not hesitate to help us in difficult times when our colleagues were kidnapped; he deployed all possible efforts and even saved their lives.

Despite all that, there was always a disagreement between us regarding political concepts and what I personally write. This is something that I totally understand, because I believe - and so did he - the old adage that “you cannot guide whom you love.”

Not surprising

It was not surprising that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursued and threatened to imprison him. Maliki used his powers to hunt down his opponents, whether Sunnis and Shiites. He labeled all those who disagree or compete with him as terrorists. This is why Sheikh Harith spent most of his last years in exile between Qatar and Jordan.

He did not hesitate to help us in difficult times when our colleagues were kidnapped; he deployed all possible efforts and even saved their lives

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

What he was unable to understand, along a large number of Sunnis in Iraq, is that there is a new regime under construction after the fall of Saddam and he cannot stop it. Sheikh Harith was not affiliated with Saddam’s regime; he had many sheikhs affiliated to him. He considered that he was descendant of a family of national history.

It was expected that Saddam and his regime would be out of the game after his defeat in Kuwait and the implementation of international sanctions that lasted for 13 years. The fall of the regime was almost inevitable, and Saddam accelerated his fall with his internal and external activities, which resulted in a direct occupation.

The real goal of the U.S. was to change the regime and establish an alternative one. Some Sunnis - and they are few - understood the situation and agreed to get involved in it. Some others, including Sheikh Harith and at a later stage an association of senior Muslim scholars association, thought that they were able to stop the change and thus they opposed it.

What happened is that a world power decided to establish a new regime; community leaders had limited options: either work with it and seek changes from the inside, or reject it. Those who decided to resist had no authority or regional support.

Sole support

The sole support was from Assad’s regime in Syria, which had different purposes when he took advantage of the Iraqi resistance and received thousands of al-Qaeda fighters and brought them to Iraq. Dhari had no sectarian tendencies, as his opponents claimed. He initiated his anti-American activity in 2004 through a visit to Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

His decision to support the resistance was emotionally subjective, so he missed the opportunity of the Sunnis to participate in building the new Iraq, the chance to achieve their rights in the Constitution, and their chance to politically participate in the parliamentary elections. Consequently, others managed to marginalize the Sunnis’ role and build unbalanced institutions that triggered injustice and limited the authority to few people, especially during Maliki’s recent years. Despite all what Sheikh Harith – may he rest in peace – witnessed and was accused of, he was one of the first who criticized and refused to accept the declaration of the ISIS “caliphate.” He considered it to be against his Iraq.

Maybe if there was some alertness regarding the nature of the change in the country and its inevitability, and maybe if Sunni leaders had the wisdom in perceiving what was happening, history would have changed instead of wasting years in rejecting and boycotting the inevitable. It’s in everybody’s interest to establish a new regime in Iraq that should be based on participation rather than ethnic and sectarian rivalry.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on March 14, 2015.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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