Counter-Terrorism: Paying Attention to Who Really Matters


March 10, 2006: Iraq is the scene of a quiet struggle for the loyalty, or at least neutrality of key religious figures. This is because the local media, and gossip, pay a lot of attention to Islamic scholars. Case in point is Harith al Dhari. He is the notable Arab Sunni scholar in Iraq. Born in 1941, he has an excellent education, holding a doctorate in Islamic law from al Azhar Islamic University in Cairo. Al Dhari is widely regarded as a major spiritual leader by the country's Sunnis. A member of the al Dhari clan, who live west of Baghdad, several of his kinsman played prominent roles in the anti-British uprising in Iraq during the 1920s, making them national heroes. In exile during the Saddam regime, Harith al Dhari returned after the liberation of Iraq.

Although al Dhari is referred to deferentially in literature and propaganda issued by Sunni insurgent groups, there is no evidence that he has any ties to any of them and is generally regarded as a voice of reason. This hasn't prevented some extremist Shia leaders, including some government officials, from trying to paint him as a supporter of the insurgency anyway. Considering the efforts of al Qaeda to spark a civil war in Iraq along religious lines, al Dhari's safety is apparently of great concern to high ranking government and Coalition leaders.

In contrast to al Dhari, there is the Shia extremist leader Muqtada al Sadr. He is a younger son of the highly regarded Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al Sadr, and son-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Sadr. Although he lacks the proper education, he has set himself up as a major force in the country's Shiite community by radical rhetoric and the control of a sizable militia, which he has several times used in opposition to Iraqi government and Coalition forces, usually to their loss.

Al Sadr's ability to control his supporters may be more apparent than real. It's believed that he's tapped into a pool of extremist sentiment and that he's essentially taking his followers where they already want to go. This could mean that if, in his efforts to secure a share in the country's government, he makes some compromises with more moderate forces, he may find that his supporters will not go along. This would lead to the collapse of his influence, which would not necessarily be bad, unless his erstwhile followers find someone even more radical to lead them.

What al Dhari thinks matters to a lot of Sunni Arab Iraqis, and his beliefs are rarely covered in the Western media. Al Sadr is more popular with Western journalists, but al Sadr gives the appearance of being someone who matters. But in terms of counter-terrorism efforts, it's been found more important to pay attention to the al Dharis, than to the al Sadrs.


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