By William Van Wagenen
In late 2015, the New York Times published a curious opinion piece by Middle East blogger and graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Kyle Orton, arguing that the US invasion of Iraq was not to blame for the rise of the radical terror group known as the Islamic State (IS), but rather that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein laid the groundwork for the rise of IS by promoting what Orton refers to as “Ba’athi-Salafism” in Iraq as part of an Islamization campaign meant to shore up support for his rule.
There is absolutely no basis for Orton’s claims however. Iraq scholar Samuel Helfont from the University of Pennsylvania quickly rebutted Orton’s claims in an article in Foreign Affairs, noting that, “These depictions are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, as documents in the Iraqi archives and at Hoover Institution’s Baath Party records make clear. Our rigorous study of those records has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.”
Not only are Orton’s claims not factually true, they are in fact completely fabricated. Orton’s claim that Saddam promoted anything that can be called “Ba’athi-Salafism” is pure propaganda. In this essay, I will give evidence as to why.
In the NYT op-ed, Orton writes, “WHOM should we blame for the Islamic State? In the debate about its origins, many have concluded that it arose from the American-led coalition’s errors after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In fact, the groundwork for the emergence of the militant jihadist group was laid many years earlier by the government of Saddam Hussein.”
Orton relies heavily in his writings on a book entitled “Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003” written by Israeli scholar Amatzia Baram, who had access to secret internal Ba’th party documents through the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University.1 .
Orton quotes Baram in the NYT piece as saying “On the eve of the American invasion in 2003, Iraq was a new country.” It was “no longer a moderately religious society with a large number of secular individuals and a modernizing secular ruling elite, but a country on the way to deep religiosity.”
In his book, Baram discusses in depth Saddam’s decision to pivot away of the traditional secularism of the Ba’th party and to instead promote Islam both within the party and in Iraqi society as a whole. This pivot towards Islam began in the 1980’s, during the Iran-Iraq war, and culminated in the “faith campaign” launched by Saddam in 1993, during which the regime undertook the large the scale building of mosques, and introduced the study of the Qur’an and the Hadith for students in Iraqi schools and universities, and for senior Ba’th party officials.
Orton goes on to draw a connection between this increased Iraqi religiosity as a result of the faith campaign and the rise of the IS: “The Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it is the afterlife of that regime,” he writes. This is because, according to Orton, “Mr. Hussein did not hold down religious militancy and sectarianism, but incubated them and prepared the ground for an armed Salafist movement” after the fall of his regime, which provided the foundation for al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and later for IS.
A close reading of Baram’s book however, does not suggest that Saddam’s faith campaign or Islamization efforts played any role in the rise of IS. In fact, Baram’s book suggests the exact opposite, that although Saddam did attempt to Islamize the regime, he made every effort to suppress Salafist and Wahhabi thought, which form the foundation of the ideology of IS. At the same time, according to Baram, Saddam promoted an “ecumenical” version of Islam that was relatively moderate, and which, despite a Sunni tilt, attempted to promote religious unity between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’i citizens.
Did Saddam Make Iraqis Religious?
When discussing Saddam’s faith campaign, it is important to note that although the Ba’th party believed in and promoted a secular world view, the Iraqi population itself was still rather religious.
Baram acknowledges this when he writes that, “while attached to Islamic Arab history, they [the Ba’th] were not religious in any sense of the word, but they had to pretend to be religious for public consumption. They were practical men and therefore recognized that the Arab public was religious (pg 133).”
Further, religiosity in Iraq increased, independent of Saddam’s Islamization effort, as a result of the difficult circumstances Iraqis encountered, both as a result of Saddam’s terrible war against Iran during the 1980’s, as well due to Saddam’s war against Kuwait, and the subsequent destruction the United States and its allies unleashed on Iraq during the first Gulf War and subsequent embargo and sanctions.
Baram notes that, “Under the international embargo in the early to mid-1990’s the Iraqi middle class was crushed. People sold their furniture and other household items, sometimes even their homes, to pay for food and meet other basic needs. This was one reason for a new wave of religiosity (pg. 252).”
It is in this context that Saddam launched the faith campaign in 1993. In a sense, the Ba’th regime was simply catching up with the views of most ordinary Iraqis regarding religion, in an effort to maintain power, rather than the Ba’th regime attempting to Islamize a previously secular society. Since the Ba’th took power, Iraq was always a mix of religious and secular values, which created a society very different from that of Saudi Arabia, for example, which has for a century preached a very intolerant and extreme form of Islam, namely Salafism/Wahhabism.
Baram notes that as a result, in Saddam’s “interpretation of Islam he tried to steer a middle course between the secular worldview of his youth and his secular party elite and security establishment, on the one hand, and the growing religiosity of the Iraqi people (and himself) on the other (pg 344).”
What Kind of Islam Did Saddam “Have in Mind”?
“But what kind of Islam did the president have in mind?” Baram asks. Baram is very interested in answering this question, and devotes considerable time to it. At no point does he suggest that Saddam promoted Salafism. Rather, Baram claims that Saddam promoted an “ecumenical Islam” that attempted to be inclusive of Iraq’s various Muslim sects, Sunni, Sufi, and Shi’i.
At this point it is helpful to remember that, according to Islam scholar Jacob Olidort, Salafism “has sought to ‘purify’ Islam of Western influence and centuries’ worth of ‘deviant’ digressions from the true Islam (which, according to its practitioners, includes Shiism, Sufism, and even non-Salafist Sunni). “
In its “creed and path,” IS makes clear its belief that, “The rejectionists [i.e. the Shi’a] are a group of idolatry and apostasy.” Such a view has undergirded Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s rationale for declaring “total war” against Iraq’s Shi’a in 2005. It has also led some prominent Saudi clerics to declare over the years that the Shi’a are not Muslims, but rather polytheists deserving of death.
In contrast, Baram writes that “Saddam’s role as he saw it was the renewal and revival of Islam by way of the Arabs, Sunna and Shi’a alike, the role of an Arab Mahdi. This is an Islam more open to the world, more modern and flexible, in which the ‘ulama will not be as central as in the “petrified” version (pg 296).”
Baram writes that during the faith campaign, “In addition to the frenzied construction of new mosques, Saddam also made sure that a few new churches were built and others were repaired. In that as well as in a few other important aspects, he was very different from people like Banna, Qutb, Mulla Omar, or Osama bin Laden. Saddam expressed his wish to demonstrate that he was not a Muslim bigot also by delivering a special speech every Christmas (pg 263-264).”
Though Saddam committed many crimes against the Shi’a population over the course of his rule, as is well documented, he did not do so out of a hatred for Shi’a as Shi’a as such or out of hatred for Shi’a religious traditions. Baram writes that “During his rule, Saddam tried to balance terror with temptation: he recruited many Shi’is to the party and elevated Shi’is to senior positions. . . . Saddam even tried to promote an ecumenical Sunni-Shi’i Islam (pg 45).”
Saddam actively tried to incorporate Shi’a religious symbolism into the Islam he promoted. This included a profound respect for the foremost historical figures of Shi’i Islam, namely Imam Ali (the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law) and Imam Hussein (the Prophet’s grandson). Baram notes that Saddam’s “manifestations of love for Imams ‘Ali and al-Husayn and the revulsion he expressed toward ‘Ali’s nemesis Mu’awiya the Umayyad caliph, in addition to his fascination with ijtihad, leave little doubt that as part of his role as mujaddid al-din [renewer of the religion] he was trying to create an ecumenical Shi’i – Sunni Islam (pg 255).”
Further, Baram writes that, “On ideological and possibly emotional levels, from 1979 on, Saddam demonstrated in public speeches and private meetings his whole hearted support for the first and third Shi’i Imams in their historical battles against their enemies, whom the Sunnis regard as legitimate rulers (pg 101).” Such support for the historical figures of Shi’ism would be impossible for someone with a belief in Salafism.
It is widely assumed that Saddam persecuted Iraq’s Shi’a for religious reasons, and that this is why he banned certain Shi’a religious ceremonies, such as acts of public flagellation and funerary processions during the Shi’a holy day of Ashura marking Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. Baram notes however, that Saddam’s “demand of the Shi’i clerics was limited to preventing religious riots and anti-regime incitement in the mosques and husayniyyat (Shi’i congregation halls) and during the festivals and commemoration days (pg 254).” Allowing the large funerary processions during Ashura was something that Saddam felt posed too great an opportunity for mass unrest and demonstrations against the regime.
Rather than attempting to oppress Iraq’s Shi’a for their religious views, Baram notes that Saddam instead tried to convince the Iraqi Shi’a that “regime and the party had gone Islamic, and that the president’s Islam was ecumenical because it incorporated much Shi’i symbolism into the national pantheon and because he was a great supporter of the shrines of Najaf and Karbala (pg 254).”
While Saddam horribly oppressed Iraq’s Shia in many ways, this was not for religious reasons. He oppressed the Kurdish minority, fellow Sunnis, in equally brutal fashion over the course of his rule. Saddam did not attempt to promote an anti-Shi’a version of Islam such as Salafism. Instead, he attempted to promote an “ecumenical Islam” inclusive of all of Iraq’s religious communities, and which was “more open to the world, more modern and flexible.” This makes sense from the perspective of a dictator trying to hold on to power at all costs. Promoting an anti-Shi’a (and anti-Christian) version of Islam such as Salafism/Wahhabism, would have immediately created mass resistance from over half of the Iraqi population, and put Ba’th party rule further in jeopardy. Saddam was trying to shore up his rule, not undermine it. Further, promoting a version of Islam that is more in line with secular values would be more acceptable to the Ba’th party cadre long steeped in secular ideals, and who would not have been initially welcoming of a tilt toward religion.
Did Saddam “Incubate” Religious Militancy?
As mentioned above, Orton claims in the NYT piece that Saddam “incubated” religious militancy (Salafism/Wahhabism) and sectarianism. Further, in an article entitled “Saddam’s Salafists and laying the foundation for ISIS,” Orton also writes that “Saddam never made any serious effort to check the growth of the Salafi Trend,” and that the development of a Salafist underground was “partly allowed and even encouraged by the regime.”
Orton also makes the shocking claim, echoing discredited Bush Administration propaganda that, “the foreign-led Salafi-jihadists, including Al-Qaeda, who had already been brought into Iraq under Saddam coalesced to fight the Americans.”
In contrast, Baram writes that “The religion of the bearded, dishdasha-wearing Salafis was a Sword of Damocles hanging over [Saddam’s] head (pg 326)” and that, “All the Islamists – real and perceived – were under constant surveillance, and many were banished, arrested, tortured and killed. This remained Saddam’s hallmark until 2003 (pg 319).”
Baram notes further that, “The [Ba’th] party’s security organs were even concerned with Salafi groups in [Iraqi] Kurdistan, an area much of which since 1991 was de facto independent under American and British military protection. Their activities were reported in detail. . . The security bodies were clearly concerned about a spillover from Kurdistan into Iraq (pg 269-70).”
This means that when the Bush administration was touting the presence of Abu Musa’b Al-Zarqawi and other militants from Al-Qai’da affiliated Ansar-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan as proof of Saddam’s collusion with Al-Qai’da (a claim echoed by Orton), in fact Saddam was worried about a “spillover” of Salafism and extremism from American-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan into the areas of Iraq actually under his own control.
Orton also claims that, “The Salafi Trend was seen as a helpful complement to Saddam’s Faith Campaign.” In contrast, Baram states the exact opposite. He makes clear that Saddam saw Sufism (a variant of Islam which is anathema to Salafism, as noted above) as the being a “useful tool” in the faith campaign, as a way of counteracting Salafism. Baram writes, “When Saddam embarked on his faith campaign, part of this campaign was support for Sufi orders. . . . Indeed, Sufi Islam was seen as a counterweight to the Salafis and Wahhabis and as such a very useful tool in the faith campaign. . . The rejuvenation of Sufi life was overseen by ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, vice chairman of the RCC, who was a member of the Qadiriyya and Rifa’iyya Sufi orders (pg 311).”
Baram notes further that,“The regime’s attitude toward Sufi Islam may serve as further evidence that Saddam’s interpretation of Islam was very different from Salafi or Wahhabi Islam (pg 308),” and that, “Because under the faith campaign the political atmosphere was Sufi-friendly even more than it was orthodox Islam-friendly, Sufi influence was everywhere in Sunni areas (pg 312).”
In the NYT op-ed, Orton cites Saddam’s 1986 decision to form a tactical alliance with the Sudanese and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as evidence of Saddam’s eventual turn toward Salafism. Orton writes, “In a few tactical instances during the 1980s, Mr. Hussein allied with Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to destabilize his regional rival in Syria, but these were limited, plausibly deniable links. In 1986, however, the Pan-Arab Command, the Baath Party’s top ideological institution, formally reoriented Iraq’s foreign policy toward an alliance with Islamists.”
However, Baram explains that this alliance had nothing to do with promoting either Salafism or a Muslim Brotherhood version of Islam at home among Iraqis. Baram writes, “Even though he aligned himself with the Syrian and Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, Saddam’s newfound Islam was not similar to theirs, let alone that of the Wahhabis, al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, or any other Salafis (pg 297),” and that “on the Sunni side the 1990’s saw the slow rise of Iraqi Salafi circles, which represented a long term threat to the regime. The regime was aware of it and monitored the clerics and religious groups, but was unable to put an end to it (pg 315).”
Orton notes in another piece that future IS leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi attended the Saddam University for Islamic Studies, which was established as part of the faith campaign, insinuating that Baghdadi’s attendance was proof Saddam promoted Salafism. However, according to Baram, at Saddam University, “The subjects studied were Arabic language, Qur’an sciences, jurisprudence, and ‘Islamic thinking,’ designed to undercut the opposition Sunni-Salafi trends (pg 264),” meaning that Baghdadi’s embrace of Salafism and the ideology of al-Qai’da was in spite of any religious training he would have received at the university.
Baram notes as well that Saddam took great pains to ensure that Wahhabism (a term the Ba’th regime used interchangeably with Salafism) was suppressed. Baram writes that, “In the same vein, in 2001 the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (the establishment of which in itself had been one of the signs of Islamization) held a conference for academics and clerics as well as security analysts to discuss how to fight Wahhabism. The fear that Saudi Arabia was financing Wahhabism in Iraq was real, and, as always under the Ba’th, it trickled down to the level of the individual citizen. A presidential order sent to all party branches in 2001, when the faith campaign was in full swing, instructed them to obtain from every mosque imam in their area a signed document declaring Wahhabism an infidel movement. Anyone who refused to sign was promptly removed from his job (pg 268).”
Saddam Introduces Shari’a, but Shari’a “Lite”
As further proof of Saddam’s attempt to promote Salafism, Orton notes that, “The [Iraqi] government imposed a version of Shariah law: Thieves had their hands cut off, homosexuals were thrown from rooftops and prostitutes were beheaded in public squares,” creating an image reminiscent of life in Raqqa or Mosul now under IS rule.
Baram acknowledges the introduction of some aspects of Shari’a law by Saddam, but provides some crucial context. Baram specifically states that these changes were not representative of a shift toward promoting Salafism.
Baram writes, “Then came the imposition of shari’a law in many walks of life. At the same time, however, the regime still allowed non-shari’a freedoms that other Islamic reformers, such as Banna, the Wahhabis, and Sayyid Qutb, strongly denounced and would never have allowed (pg 255)” and that “what [Saddam] considered to be shar’i obligations that had to be enforced by the government was different from the interpretation of the Muslim Brotherhood, and very different from that of various Salafi groups (pg 298). . . One difference between Saddam’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islam was that Saddam, while extremely proud of the myriad mosques he had ordered build, also boasted that he had built new churches (pg 298). . . Another difference was that while imposing meaningful limitations on the sale of spirits, he still allowed it (pg 298).”
Perhaps most revealing is Saddam’s views toward women’s dress and the wearing of head scarves (hijab). Baram writes, “In one of his first salvos in his faith campaign he called on the Popular Councils (majalis al-sha’b), party affiliated bodies spread across the country, to use their influence to persuade young women to dress in modest fashion. However, as befitting a perfectly democratic leader, he made suggestions but refrained from imposing them. . . there was no imposition of any particular rules regarding dress code: under Ba’th rule Baghdad never saw Iranian-style morality police. . . . scantily dressed foreign female film stars and fairly open discussions of sex issues, all those continue to appear in the regime’s media (pg 299). . . [Saddam] did not force women to wear the hijab not only because the party might have protested, but because he considered it a primitive and backward practice (pg 322).”
The attitude of Saddam’s wife toward wearing hijab was indicative of Saddam’s moderate approach to the issue. Baram writes, “Since the mid-1990’s, the president’s wife, too, appeared regularly wearing a scarf. However, in all those cases, the scarves were merely symbolic. They left the hair at the front of the head fully exposed, as if to say, ‘See, I am covering my hair to demonstrate piety, but Iraq is not Iran; here, a woman’s hair should be seen (pg 302).’”
Further, in stark contrast to the Taliban and the Saudis, Baram writes that, “He did little to enforce his view that women should stay home, because the Iraqi economy needed the work force (pg 322)” and “Saddam also ridiculed the Saudis for prohibiting women from driving cars (pg 299).”
What Kind of Insurgency Did Saddam’s Faith Campaign Produce?
In another piece by Orton, “The Riddle of Haji Bakr,” Orton notes that Bakr, a former Ba’thist joined AQI in its formative stages, shortly after the 2003 US invasion, and later became a top leader in IS, being responsible for planning the group’s expansion into Syria in 2011. Orton suggests that because Haji Bakr had become radicalized before the fall of Saddam’s regime, that this proves that Saddam promoted Salafism, and thus is responsible for the rise of IS.
Once again, however, Orton contradicts Baram’s conclusions. Orton takes the example of Haji Bakr to be representative, while in fact it is exceptional. It is natural that some former Ba’thists would be true-believing Salafis even before the fall of Saddam’s regime. There were of course Salafists in Iraq, as there are in every Muslim country, largely thanks to the proselytizing and funding of Salafi groups globally by the Saudi Government.
As noted earlier, Baram writes that, “The fear that Saudi Arabia was financing Wahhabism in Iraq was real, and, as always under the Ba’th, it trickled down to the level of the individual citizen (pg 268).” Of course a small handful Ba’thists who had converted to Salafism despite the best efforts of Saddam’s regime would gravitate towards AQI once Zarqawi established a presence in the country, and use their intelligence and military skills for the benefit of the organization. But this does not mean that Saddam “prepared the ground for a Salafist insurgency” or even that every Ba’thist who joined IS must have done so for religious reasons.
A more likely explanation for why many Ba’thists joined al-Qai’da soon after the US invasion is provided by Iraqi journalist Mustafa ‘Ali al-‘Obaidi, who worked for CBS News and was able to interview many Iraqis from the areas where al-Qa’ida first appeared. He concludes:
The main motivation for the response of Iraqis to al-Qa’ida is its religious and jihadist proposals calling for resistance to the American occupation of Iraqi land as an enemy of Islam and the Muslims. The organization of al-Qa’ida in Iraq expanded and spread very quickly, especially due to the great financial capabilities lavished on the activists of the organization to buy cars and weapons and providing large financial rewards to them, which encouraged many of the youth to join those organizations. The Occupation Forces and the government in Baghdad also hunted down and prosecuted members of the Ba’th party and the leadership and officers of the former Iraqi Army and disbanded intelligence agencies. This contributed to many of them joining al-Qa’ida to obtain protection and revenge on the Occupation and government, especially after the increase in violations committed by soldiers of the occupation against civilians and the torture of detainees and the policy of killing innocent Iraqi civilians and the burning and destruction of the cities which every day create more enemies of the occupation forces and the government. 2
In short, if not for the US occupation of Iraq, Iraqi’s would have had little reason to join an organization like al-Qa’ida.
Here we may also recall the case of Abu Omar al-Shishani. Al-Shishani was a member of the US-trained Georgian Special Forces, before deserting to join IS in Syria. The expertise he gained through his military training and combat experience with the Georgian Army during the 2008 war with Russia soon allowed him to become the Islamic State’s supreme military leader in northern Syria and Aleppo. Al-Shishani later helped IS to defend Shirqat, a strategic town near Mosul, before being killed in a US airstrike in Qarrayah, also near Mosul.
Though al-Shishani was a member of the Georgian Special Forces, and though he put this training to work for IS, it would be incorrect to blame the Georgian government, or the fact he received training from US military advisors, for al-Shishani joining IS and furthering its cause with the skills he learned. In the same way, it is incorrect to blame Saddam’s regime for Haji Bakr and other Ba’thists joining IS, regardless of when they joined.
Baram also discusses the cases of various Sunni insurgents that, post-2003 fought against the US military, and the new US-backed Iraqi Government. Baram notes how Saddam’s peculiar version of Islam influenced many of these insurgents, and how this led to them to reject the ideology of AQI/IS, in particular the idea of “takfir,” which holds that the Shi’a should be killed because they are, according to Salafists and Wahhabis, “unbelievers” (kuffar). He discusses two particular cases, which he feels are representative of the Iraqi insurgents as a whole (in contrast to foreign fighters from Al-Qa’ida).
Baram writes, “A typical product of his faith campaign and of the general trend toward Islamization was ‘Abu Muhammad,’ a nineteen year old anti-American insurgent from Tikrit who in 2004 claimed to be leading twenty fighting men. As the young fighter put it, all of them believed in “a mix of Islam and pan-Arabism.” Even though he was affiliated with a clear-cut Sunni insurgent group, one of whose goals was to prevent a Shi’i takeover under the American wing, ‘Abu Muhammad’ did not mention the sectarian issue. In other words, he internalized Saddam’s new semi- or quasi-ecumenical Sunni-Shi’i Arab Islam that was de facto preserving Sunni Arab hegemony (pg 296).”
Baram also discusses the case of an in Iraqi insurgent name “Abu Dhi’b,” who worked for years in Saddam’s feared General Security (al-Amn al-Amm), and later took a four-year leave to study at an Islamic religious school, becoming, after 2003, “a Salafi of sorts.” Of Abu Dhi’b, Baram writes, “Probably the most telling part of the discussion between the insurgent and the journalist was when the former, despite his admiration for al-Qa’ida foreign fighters in their struggle against the Americans, also admitted that differences between them and most of the Iraqi insurgents were deep. As he put it, ‘Al-Qa’ida believes that anyone doesn’t follow the Quran literally is a kafir [apostate or infidel] and should be killed . . . . This is wrong. We can’t take Islamic theory from the time of the Prophet and implement the same rules in the twenty first century.’ This view is strangely reminiscent of Saddam’s 1977 ‘shari’a is passer de mode’ lectures. Much has changed since then, but the rejection of Salafi-style shari’a imposition remained. Now it was yes to Islam in politics, but no to its more extreme forms (pg 317).”
Baram also references the views of counter insurgency expert Ahmed Hashim, as Baram notes that, “some Ba’this who drew closer to the ‘nationalist-Islamists and even to some Iraqi Salafists’ still objected to al-Qai’da’s wanton killing of Shi’i Iraqis as well as to their goal of ‘creating a Sunni theocracy.’ All of this sounds much like Saddam’s interpretation of Islam (pg 328).”
Baram also notes the presence of many Sufis among the Sunni Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah, which would not be possible if Salafism/Wahhabism was the prevalent ideology of most insurgent groups. Salafis and Wahhabis consider Sufis polytheists and unbelievers just as they do the Shi’a. Baram writes that, “According to an April 2004 report from Fallujah, one of Iraq’s most orthodox Sunni Iraqi cities, along with the strength of orthodox institutions there one could also find strong Sufi networks. The London-based newspaper al-Hayat found that most of the Fallujah anti-American insurgents were affiliated with the orthodox Muslim Brotherhood, and some with the Wahhabi trend, but in addition the Sufi orders of the Qadiriyya, the Naqshbandiyya, the Rifa’iyya, the Shadhiliyya, the Darqiyya, the Badawiyya, and the Halabiyya were represented among the insurgents. There was no contradiction between orthodoxy and Sufism there . . . implying that the purist Wahhabi total rejection of Sufism has little sway in town (pg 309).”
Baram notes as well that, “Insurgents belonging to a variety of small Sufi groups were individually involved in anti-American operations in al-Anbar already by 2003. . . . In February 2007 another Sufi insurgent group declared itself the Army of the Naqshbandi Order (pg 313).”
If Saddam had prepared the ground for a Salafist insurgency, the largest and most powerful insurgent group(s) after the 2003 US invasion would have been Salafi in orientation, with no tolerance for the Shi’a or Sufis. Rather, the largest and most powerful insurgent groups were National-Islamist in orientation (namely, the Islamic Army, Army of Muhammad, and 1920 Revolution Brigades), and initially welcomed cooperating with Sufi’s and Shi’ites. Zarqawi’s group was able to appear larger and more powerful than it in fact was because it committed high profile suicide attacks against Shi’a civilians that caught the attention of the Western media and were highlighted by Bush administration officials who hoped to frame their attempt to suppress Iraqi resistance as a fight against terrorism. While AQI’s foreign fighters carried out brutal suicide attacks against soft civilian targets, the National-Islamist insurgent groups focused on carrying out well-planned and orchestrated guerilla attacks against much more difficult targets, namely well protected US soldiers and (less well protected) Iraqi security forces. These attacks did not lead to mass casualties and were largely ignored or downplayed by the Western media and in public statements by US officials.
Moreover, if Saddam had prepared the ground for a Salafist insurgency, it would have been impossible for a foreigner, Zarqawi, to enter Iraq and so quickly take control of such a group with already existing infrastructure, leadership, military and intelligence expertise, weapons, and local support.
Finally, given the hatred of Salafists for the Shi’a, Iraq would have seen sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi’a from the early days of the US occupation if Orton’s claims were accurate. Instead, there was initially some cooperation and solidarity between Sunni and Shi’a insurgents fighting US forces, before Iraq finally erupted into sectarian/civil war in 2006.
In the spring of 2004, Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), led by Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was sending aid to Sunni insurgents in Fallujah,3 who were besieged by US forces and preparing for a major US military assault on the city, at a time when JAM itself was fighting a major battle with US forces in the massive Najaf cemetery. In addition, Sunni insurgent groups in Fallujah were sending fighters to the Shi’ite slum of Sadr City to help train JAM fighters confronting US forces there. Such cooperation and solidarity between Sunni and Shi’a fighters would have been impossible during the early days of the occupation, if the insurgency was Salafist in origin from the beginning, as Orton’s claims imply.
This early Sunni-Shi’i cooperation must be contrasted with the efforts of the Salafi/Wahhabi-influenced foreign fighters, many from Saudi Arabia, who began arriving in Iraq to fight under the leadership of Zarqawi after the 2003 US invasion. Zarqawi quickly started a campaign of mass violence against Shi’a civilians as a part of his strategy to ignite a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, in order to force Iraq’s Sunnis to rally to his side for protection. For example, in the spring of 2004, three al-Qa’ida suicide attackers targeted the Imam Musa al-Khadam shrine in the Khadamiya district of Baghdad, killing 140 Shi’i worshipers celebrating Ashura. Such spectacular and bloody attacks continued for the next two years, culminating in the bombing of the Shi’i al-Askari mosque in Samarra in 2006.
While AQI’s attacks against Shi’a civilians were pulling at the sectarian fabric of Iraqi society from 2003 onward, US-backed Shiite death squads were doing the same. In an effort to suppress the Sunni insurgency, the US turned not only to torturing Sunni detainees (as in Abu Ghraib) to obtain better intelligence, they also sped up the training and deployment of the new Shi’ite dominated Iraqi Army and Police. In particular, by 2004, US-death backed death squads, such as the Wolf Brigade and other units from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, rampaged through Baghdad and elsewhere, torturing and murdering Sunnis, many of them civilians. The US allowed Bayan Jabr, the head of the Badr Brigade (a Shi’ite militia founded in and backed by Iran) to become Minister of Interior. Jabr filled the ranks of the police commando units with Badr militia members who held a strongly sectarian, anti-Sunni outlook. Further, under the direction of US advisor James Steele, US forces began turning over detainees to Ministry of Interior police units such as the Wolf Brigade to have them tortured in an effort to extract additional information during interrogations. In 2005, the activities of these US-backed death squads, US military operations, and insurgent attacks caused Baghdad’s morgues to overflow with bodies.
When AQI bombed the al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006, Iraqi society finally came apart at the seams. Zarqawi was finally successful in igniting a full scale sectarian/civil war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a. It is then that JAM fighters began to rampage through mixed Sunni-Shi’a areas in Baghdad and elsewhere, kidnapping and murdering Sunnis, while even Sunni insurgents not affiliated with AQI quickly returned the favor, subjecting any Shi’a they could lay hands on to the same. Now, after so much tit for tat violence, Sunnis began to hate the Shi’a because they were Shi’a, while the Shi’a now hated Sunnis because they were Sunni. This led to the targeting of many of Iraq’s mixed families, where one parent was Sunni, the other Shi’a. The Washington Post reported how by 2007, “mixed couples who symbolize Iraq’s once famous tolerance are increasingly entangled by hate. Forced by militias or insurgents to leave their homes because one partner is from the wrong sect, they find few havens because of the other partner’s affiliation. These strains, fueled by displacement, separation and fear, are beginning to tear apart such families, weakening bonds that for many Iraqis hold the hope of sectarian reconciliation.”
To claim that Saddam Hussein is responsible for IS, with its unquenchable hatred for the Shi’a, is to suggest that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the hundreds of thousands of violent deaths that subsequently resulted, somehow did not affect Iraq in any way. However, as one long-time observer of Iraq and Syria has noted, “The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the geopolitical equivalent of the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs,” which caused Iraqis, in particular Sunnis, to re-define their identity in a specifically sectarian way.
As Fanar Haddad notes, “prior to 2003, Sunni Arabs did not perceive themselves to be victimized on the basis of their sectarian identity and barely had a sense of themselves as a sectarian group, there was little awareness of, or concern for, issues relating to sectarian identity among them. In the 20th century, many Sunni Arab Iraqis saw themselves as ‘simply Iraqis’ whose viewpoint . . . was not that of a Sunni Arab one but rather a universally valid one. In other words, they were ‘sectless’ in a manner similar to the ‘raceless’ whites [in the United States].” However, “the weight of 11 years of violence and division [after the US invasion] have effectively forced Arab Iraqis to view themselves primarily as members of sect a or b for practical reasons of self-interest and self-preservation if for no other. . . . Just as in many Shia minds Sunnis came to be associated with the Ba’ath, terrorism, and extremist Islamism, in many Sunni minds – in Iraq and beyond – the Shia came to be associated with the occupation, the post-2003 state, and sectarian oppression. The cycle of violence, mobilization, fear, and revenge that unfolded after 2003 created a reality of sectarian division that has been deepening ever since with only brief periods of respite.”
It is this “sectarian awakening” among Iraq’s Sunnis as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that is responsible for some Sunni Iraqis embracing the rabidly anti-Shi’a ideology of the Islamic State, not Saddam’s preaching of an ecumenical version of Islam as part of his faith campaign.
In conclusion, Orton’s claims run so contrary to those of Baram, who Orton cites repeatedly in his articles, that it seems likely that Orton either did not read the book he claims to base many of his conclusions on, or that he deliberately misconstrued Baram’s basic findings. In particular, there is no basis to conclude that Saddam promoted anything that can be termed “Ba’athi-Salafism.” Instead, despite his many crimes against Iraq’s Shi’a, Saddam promoted an ecumenical version of Islam friendly to both Shi’a and Sufi Muslims and attempted to suppress Salafi/Wahhabi activities and thought.
Orton’s op-ed in the NYT attempts to promote an idea that Orton, and the NYT editors, likely know to be quite false. This is not surprising, given that Orton works for a British based neoconservative think-tank, the Henry Jackson Society. It is in the interest of both the neoconservative community and the NYT to white wash their role in starting a war of aggression that led to the deaths of some 160,000 Iraqis and the deaths of some 4,826 US/UK soldiers, and which has destabilized Iraq and led to the rise of the Islamic State. Orton’s piece in the NYT helps with this goal.
Saddam Hussein is responsible for many crimes and deserves to be demonized for the many thousands of innocent Iraqis he either had killed directly, or as result of his wars of aggression against both Iran and Kuwait. The shocking crimes of the Islamic State, however, cannot and should not be attributed to Saddam. For this, it is indeed the United States that is responsible, as they opened the door to the establishment of the AQI and later IS through their 2003 invasion. The US has also opened the door to the rise of IS in Libya and Syria, through its overt (in the case of Libya) and covert (in the case of Syria) interventions in those countries. Further, Saudi Arabia, which functions as America’s junior partner in implementing US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, bears great responsibility for the rise of IS as well, as Saudi Arabia is the main promoter of Salafism/Wahhabism, which forms the ideology of IS and its forebears, and promotes intolerance and hatred towards the Shi’a. It is this hatred and intolerance, which has now spread not only to Iraq and Syria, but across the Middle East and South Asia, that is the hallmark of IS. And it is the United States and Saudi Arabia that Orton, quite deliberately it seems, has left out of his sham analysis of who we must blame for the rise of the so-called Islamic State.
1 All quotes attributed to Baram are taken from “Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith,” by Amatzia Baram, John Hopkins University Press, Washington, D.C., 2014. Page numbers provided in parentheses.
2“Safahaat Ahtilal al Iraq: Mushahidaat Sahafi min Harb la Tintihi 2003-2007,” by Mustafa ‘Ali al-‘Obeidi, Arab Scientific Publishers, Inc, First Edition, 2008, pg 163-164. Translation is mine.
3 “Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, ‘Study of the Insurgency in Anbar Province, Iraq (Secret),’ 13 June 2007, as cited in “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barak Obama,” By Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, Vintage Books (Random House), New York, 2012, page 72. Gordon and Trainor write, “Sadr, according to an American intelligence report, dispatched weapons and supplies in mid-April to the Sunnis fighting in Fallujah, veiling its as ‘humanitarian assistance’ for the trapped residents of the cities.”