Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 5 Table of Contents
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May 2004 


interview Interview: Ghanem Jawad
Head of the Culture and Human Rights office of the al-Khoei Foundation
Ghanem Jawad
The Imam al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation is an international charity established in 1988 by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abdul Qasim al-Khoei, the highest ranking cleric in the Shiite seminary of Najaf until his death under house arrest in 1992 and the architect of a distinct school of Shiite theology emphasizing tolerance, nonviolence, and social egalitarianism. The foundation, which moved its headquarters to London following the failed Iraqi Shiite uprising of 1991, was directed by al-Khoei's son Taqi until his death in 1994 and then by his second son, Abdul Majid. It expanded rapidly in the 1990s, establishing schools, hospitals and other charitable institutions across the globe from India to Africa. Shortly after returning to Najaf in April 2003, Abdul Majid al-Khoei was murdered by followers of radical Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr.

This interview was conducted by Mahan Abedin on May 13 at the al-Khoei Foundation complex in west London.

Apart from its core mission, which is the provision of educational and charitable services, does the Al-Khoei Foundation represent a distinct political ideology?

No. We have been careful not to present ourselves either as a political party or movement. However, this does not mean that we have no influence on politics as we are engaged in defending the rights of Muslims.

Do you sympathize with Shia Islamic parties in Iraq?

No, we do not sympathize with any political Islamic party. The late Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei did not believe in velayat-e-faqih [ed: the theological concept underpinning Iran's Islamic Republic]

Does Hezb al-Daawa believe in velayat-e-faqih?

Of course. All Daawa factions believe in velayat-e-faqih. You have to understand the fundamental split in the Shia community - the majority of Shias are quietists and do not believe in intervening directly in politics, while a minority wants to create an Islamic state with velayat-e-faqih as its cornerstone.

Where would you place the slain Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr in this divide?

Well, Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr always regarded himself as a student of the late Grand Ayatollah Khoei.

Does velayat-e-faqih have deep roots in Shia jurisprudence?

Yes, it does. It certainly predates the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini by several centuries. The first person who invented this theory was Ayatollah Narraghi during the Safavid period.

What was the late Abdul Majid al-Khoei's role in the foundation?

Majid al-Khoei was the second general-secretary here in London and he was the most articulate voice of the foundation. Sayyid Majid had a good knowledge of the West and firmly believed that Muslims have a lot to learn from the West.

Why did he venture into Najaf in April last year at such a dangerous time?

Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoei wanted to build a modern civil society for the Shias in Iraq.

Only a day after the fall of Baghdad?

Well, he ventured into Najaf because he was keen to start this project as soon as possible. Moreover, as the son of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei he was well known in Najaf.

Did you see him immediately before his departure for Iraq?

Yes, we were working together on his projects.

Some people have claimed that Majid Khoei was on some kind of Anglo-American inspired mission. How credible are these allegations?

This is rubbish put out by those who are against Majid Khoei and his ideas.

But he had links with the British government here in London.

What do you mean links? Even those who are against the United States maintain links with the Americans. Look at the Iranians - they claim they are against the Americans, yet we all know they have secret meetings with the Americans in Geneva every three months. The real issue is that nobody could have prevented the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Was the al-Khoei foundation against the war?

We were against the war, as we do not believe in violent policies. However we also saw the urgent need to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We were also realistic enough to realize that nobody could have prevented this war. People around the world demonstrated against the war and their efforts came to nothing in the end.

Going back to Majid Khoei, what were the circumstances behind his murder in Najaf last year?

Because he had an open mind and was tolerant, he was hated by the prejudiced and ignorant people in Najaf and other areas. He represented a real danger to these people. These people have the same tyrannical mindset as Saddam Hussein; Saddam managed to implant a part of his own character inside every Iraqi.

Muqtada al-Sadr
Who are these ignorant people?

Well, we can't accuse people outright. That is not really our job.

Everybody seems to be pointing the finger at Muqtada al-Sadr.

There is a lot of evidence supporting this thesis. However a committee formed by the Coalition Provisional Authority started its investigations into this matter within 3-4 months of the murder. They have interviewed more than 30 people and they have gone to great lengths to establish the facts. They even came here to London 2 weeks ago to interview some people.

Who are these investigators?

There is an Iraqi judge called Raed Johee.

Does he work for the CPA?

Yes, he was appointed by the Americans. There is also an American lady.

Which institution did she work for before joining the CPA?

I don't know.

Do you have faith in this committee?

Well, they have taken the investigation seriously and they have reached the conclusion that 25 people participated in the murder of Majid Khoei. Arrest orders were issued for these people last August. They have told us that Muqtada al-Sadr has been mentioned in the testimonies of eyewitnesses.

Based on their findings, do you think it can be concluded that Muqtada al-Sadr ordered the killing?

I have no idea. As I said we are not the judges, but we know that during the time they were assaulting Majid al-Khoei they dragged him from the holy shrine to the residence of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Why were they doing that?

We don't know. But also as they were killing him they were chanting "long love Sadr."

How did they kill Majid Khoei?

It was a real tragedy. They started stabbing him in the back, then they tied him to a car and dragged him along, then they started a fire and subsequently stabbed him some more and finally killed him.

Why were they using such ferocious levels of violence? Did they hate him that badly?

They had been told that he is an agent of America and the British. As I told you they are ignorant people . . .

But you need much more than ignorance to do something like that.

Of course. There were political aims behind the murder. The people who gave the order knew what they were doing.

Do you think the brutal manner of his slaying was intended to send a message to certain people?

What do you mean?

Maybe they were trying to send a message to people they call the "imported politicians." Maybe they were saying, look we stayed inside Iraq during the long years of oppression while you sought sanctuary in the west or Iran, and now you want to come back and usurp our rightful inheritance.

Well, some people say things like this. But Iraq is not exclusively theirs, we all have to share and build the new Iraq.

What do you think of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement?

You have to distinguish between two important factors. Firstly, there is the movement associated with Muqtada's father, which is a deep-rooted movement and has many supporters in the Shia community. This movement split after the murder of Sayyid Abdul Majid Khoei. The people who split from Muqtada al-Sadr were led by Mohammad Yaqoubi. They established Hezb al-Fazilah. We can say these people are more educated and tolerant. However Muqtada al-Sadr is a youth . . .

How old is he exactly?

He is around 28. However, he does not have a strong religious or secular education. It is obvious when you listen to his speeches that what he says is not very sophisticated. He is trying to occupy a position that does not suit him.

Why has this young man assumed such a prominent position in a relatively short space of time?

As you know, this movement is a minority in the Shia community. Most of their supporters are young people with tribal roots. Therefore they have youthful energy aplenty. Moreover the legacy of Muqtada's father confers upon them a lot of power and legitimacy.

What do you make of Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr?

Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr was a great mujtahid and as you know he became famous for valorizing the tribal people. He also had this theory that the problems of Iraqi Shiaism stem from the Marjayeeat. He was critical of the quietists (the Saketeh) and accordingly called his school the Natiqah (i.e. the vocal one).

What is Sadr hoping to achieve from this ongoing confrontation with the US led coalition?

He wants to be part of the political process. He knows he can't defeat the Americans militarily, but he can create a headache for them. His main demand is to be recognized as a political leader.

Who provoked the confrontation, the Americans or the Sadrists?

The Sadrists. We were informed that Sadr wanted one of his people to be placed on the presidential council that is to be created after 30th of June. When this was refused, he demanded that his people should be given control over the Ministry of Defense, and when this was also rejected, they decided to raise the stakes.

But reports suggest that violence started when the Americans closed down his paper.

That was not the main cause of the confrontation. Al-Hawzah was a low-profile newspaper. Its journalistic quality was not very good. It spread rumors about the situation in Iraq and basically lacked credibility. I really don't think it was a decisive factor in propelling the Sadrists into a confrontation with the United States.

How can the confrontation in Najaf be resolved?

According to our information Sistani's office will issue a statement in the coming days asking the two sides to leave Najaf. Sistani is gradually isolating Muqtada al-Sadr. The Hawzah Ilmiyah [ed: Najaf seminarians] is also adopting a strong position and we believe it will declare in a few days that if Muqtada al-Sadr does not leave Najaf he will be deemed to be outside the Shia religion. This will strip Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers of all legitimacy. This is likely to constitute the first big step in resolving the situation. Moreover it should encourage the tribes around Najaf and the Najafis to eject the Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army). I think the intervention of the tribes will prove decisive in this crisis. This crisis should be resolved within weeks and in any case before the June 30 handover.

How would you characterize Shia-US relations over the past year?

You can say it has been quite good. The Shias were certainly pleased by the American intervention in Iraq. Nevertheless the Shias lack experience in managing strategic relations of this kind and this has prevented the deepening of relations. Nevertheless you can say that the major Shia political leaders, Like Bahr-ol-Oloom, Abdel Aziz Hakim and Izeddin Salim have gone out of their way to find some kind of accommodation with the Americans. However Ayatollah Sistani - whose influence is greater than these men - has tended to maintain his distance from the US led occupation. This ties in to the central problem, which is the leadership vacuum in Iraqi Shiaism.

On that point, do you think we can expect a central leadership to emerge in the decisive months ahead?

The crisis of leadership reflects the ideological diversity of the Shia community. Not all Iraqi Shias are religious; on the contrary in fact many are secular. The Iraqi Communist party recruited heavily from the Shia population as its message found greater resonance there than amongst other communities in Iraq. There are also plenty of Iraqi nationalists and Arab nationalists in the Shia community.

But on the question of leadership, leaving aside all these differences, do you think a central or unifying leadership can emerge to properly represent the collective Shia interest in Iraq?

I think within weeks or certainly months we can expect a unified Marjayeeat to emerge to better represent the interests of Iraqi Shias.

You sound very confident. Will this Marjayeeat be led by Sistani?

No, Sistani dominates the religious sphere and tends to avoid getting directly involved in politics. This unified Marjayeeat will be collective in composition and will not be dominated by any one single individual. Negotiations are continuing to form this Marjayeeat Council and we expect some kind of breakthrough in the near future.

On the question of Ayatollah Sistani, do you think his influence has been overstated?

Sistani has huge influence not only amongst Iraqi Shias, but all Iraqi communities and moreover he has a lot of influence amongst Shias outside Iraq. Although Sistani is not a political man, nevertheless his influence does extend to the political sphere as well. But it is important to stress that this is the result of the complex nexus between the Hawzah and the Iraqi society, rather than the personal intentions or ambitions of Ayatollah Sistani. You can characterize Sistani's influence along the lines of the Pope in the Catholic communion.

Would it be fair to say that Sistani is an influential leader rather than the influential leader?

Ayatollah Sistani is not directly involved in the process but he exerts strong influence on this process from the outside. Many of the people who are involved in developing the new Iraqi polity are followers of Sistani; therefore this gives you a fairly good insight into Ayatollah Sistani's clout in the new Iraq.

How strong is Iranian influence among Iraqi Shias?

Certainly Iran has huge influence in Iraq. Most of this influence is natural and historical. The Iraqi Marjayeeat is predominantly Iranian in origin. The best example is Ayatollah Sistani himself; he is the most influential leader in Iraq and he is in fact Iranian. Moreover significant numbers of Iraqi Shias are also Iranian in origin. But when discussing Iranian influence the most important factor to bear in mind is that Iraqi Shias are very receptive to traditional Iranian influence but they reject the ideological influence of the Islamic Republic on the grounds that it is divisive.

Please elaborate on this.

In Shia discourse theories on Islamic government invariably revolve around the concept of velayat-e-faqih. This is after all the cornerstone of the Iranian regime. Although velayat-e-faqih has plenty of supporters in Iraq, it is nevertheless a hugely divisive concept. Its introduction anywhere in the Shia world immediately causes divisions. The Iranians have to understand this and if they are clever they will rely on their traditional influence to protect their interests in Iraq.

But the Iranians would argue that they can deploy both traditional and ideological influence to gain maximum leverage in the new Iraq.

The Iranians are increasingly aware that pursuing ideological objectives in Iraq could in fact imperil their legitimate interests in the country. Therefore I think they are far more likely to fall back on their traditional influence. This is also likely to accentuate the convergence between Iranian and US interests in Iraq. Both sides have an interest in sidelining the Arab nationalists in Iraq.

Is Shia dominance in the new Iraq now largely assured?

The Shias are not sectarians. On the contrary they like to find an amicable coexistence with all the other components of Iraqi society. The Shias do not subscribe to sectarian policies, as they were themselves victims of sectarian policies for decades, if not centuries. Moreover to answer your question more directly I should say that the Shias will only be able to realize their full potential in a plural Iraq that is firmly premised on the rule of law and which does not discriminate against anyone.

What about the Sunni Arabs; do you think they can be successfully integrated into the new Iraq?

It will not be easy to integrate the Sunni Arabs into the new Iraq. The Sunni Arabs feel they have an historical right to rule Iraq and all Arab countries actually support this idea. My advice to the Sunni Arabs is that they should recognize that the situation in Iraq has now been changed beyond recognition; therefore they should try to be part of the solution and not the problem. They should not try to over-complicate the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. We are ready to live with them in harmony and we recognize the disorientations to which they have been subject over the past year.

What do you mean by them not tying to be part of the problem? Are you trying to say that they should not rely on other Arabs to support their historical claim to an unjust dominion in Iraq?

Well, a lot of Sunni Arabs firmly believe they have a perennial right to rule Iraq and maintain that nothing should interfere with this right. The rest of the Arab world supports them because they are suspicious of Iraqi Shias. The rest of the Arab world does not want to see the demise of the Arab cultural order in Iraq. You should note that this Arab cultural order is not based on humane principles. On the contrary it oppresses all minorities. Look at the Arab world; do you see any minorities, like Kurds, Maronites, Copts or Berbers in positions of real influence? Of course you don't; because the Arab political culture is decrepit and inhuman and needs to be overhauled.

How would you characterize the month-long standoff at Fallujah - was the insurgency primarily indigenous or was it led by foreign fighters?

It was a mixture of remnants of the former regime, indigenous and foreign Arab nationalists and Islamist Mujahideen. They claim they are fighting the American occupation but in fact they are fighting to restore the old regime. Look at the outcome in Fallujah, the fighting only subsided when the Americans, unwisely, reconstituted elements of Saddam Hussein's army.

Are these foreign fighters who have flooded into Iraq in recent months primarily Arab nationalists or are they al-Qaeda linked Islamic militants?

They are a mixture of both. There are reports that 15,000 Mujahideen have streamed into Iraq from Arab and Muslim countries in recent months.

Are most of them infiltrating into Iraq from Syria?

Not only from Syria, we have credible reports of significant levels of infiltration from the Saudi, Turkish and Iranian borders.

Let us discuss the political process; what do you make of Lakhdar Brahimi's mission?

Unfortunately, it is not a good development at all. Mr. Brahimi is representing the Arab national/political order, which as I outlined earlier is not a humanitarian order by any stretch of the imagination. Lakhdar Brahimi is an Arab nationalist and most of his ideas are a smokescreen for restoring the old order in Iraq. Take, for example, Brahimi's insistence on a "technocratic" government in Iraq during the crucial transition period in Iraq; this is merely a ruse for re-consolidating the Sunni Arab hegemony in the country. The Shias, because of the sectarian policies of previous regimes, have not had any good experience in governing the country. They have simply not had the chance to acquire such experience. The Sunni Arabs, however, have had plenty of experience as they have dominated the country since its inception. And of course they were the favored elites during the Ottoman period as well. Of course Sunnis need a stake in the new Iraq but this has to be acquired as part of a legitimate process and moreover must reflect the limitations of their demographic strength.

Would you say all Shia political groups have seen through Brahimi's plans and reject them accordingly?

They reject his plans especially because Brahimi has surrounded himself with Arab nationalists. Moreover, Brahimi has gone out of his way to isolate the Shias. In a recent press conference in Baghdad he said that Israel has put obstacles in the way of his mission; what is Brahimi trying to say here? What is Israel doing in Baghdad? Is he equating the Shias with Israel? Furthermore the Shias are strongly against Brahimi's plans to revive elements of the old Iraqi army and security forces. This is yet another ruse for unfairly bolstering the position of the Arab Sunnis.

Judging by the unstable situation on the ground, do you think the 30th of June transition should be postponed?

No, it should not. The symbolic transfer of sovereignty is very important. Moreover the American led coalition should endeavor to transfer as much sovereignty to the Iraqi people as possible, thereby enabling them to acquire much needed experience in running the country. But this should not mean that the US-led coalition should pull out its forces from Iraq. As soon as they do that a civil war will break out and the Baathists are likely to re-emerge as a significant force in the country.

You should not forget that the Baathists remain very well organized and are awaiting an opportunity to re-establish their influence.

Do you have solid information to buttress your contention that the Baathists remain well organized?

Yes, of course. The Baathists have a lot of money and weapons and are being supported by powerful interests in the Arab world. The Baathists are using their money to buy influence in Iraq. They have gained leverage over the Islamic extremists. This is how the terrorist campaign works in Iraq: the Baathists plan and fund the operations which are then carried out by the Islamic extremists. We call this the tactical marriage between the Baathists and the Islamic extremists.

Some contend that a majority of Iraqis want an immediate end to the occupation.

The majority of Iraqis want an end to the occupation at some point in the future, but before that happens they want the Americans to complete their mission in Iraq, which is basically the reconstruction of Iraq. The Americans played a major role in destroying Iraq and they owe it to us to rebuild our country. Moreover, all the important institutions have been dissolved and we need the Americans to provide security for the foreseeable future.

But judging from the many crisis that is now engulfing the occupation, do you really think the Americans can complete their mission in Iraq?

They have no choice as the stakes are so high. This occupation has incurred huge costs for the Americans and they really can't retreat from their central objectives.

The people who are against the new Iraq will do their utmost to sabotage the process; for them the date does not really matter. Both the Arab countries and the Islamic extremists want to derail the process in Iraq and we have to move quickly to foil their plans.

What advice would you give to the Americans on disengagement?

I would advise them to try to understand Iraqi culture. As it stands the political officers who work for the CPA, let alone the American soldiers, do not really understand Iraqi culture and society and this has inflicted grave damage on the American mission. Moreover they have to speed up the process of transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people. Last but not least the Americans have to follow through with their promise to help Iraqis build a new society and political system. As I told you earlier the Americans have had a major role in the destruction of Iraq and they owe us our deliverance from the current trauma.

How long do you envisage the Americans remaining in Iraq?

It will certainly last for a few more years. As long as things go smoothly I envisage a significant American military presence until the end of 2006. One thing is certain: the Americans did not destroy the Saddam Hussein regime only to deliver the country to the Islamic extremists and Arab nationalists.

You mentioned Brahimi and Israel earlier; do you think the new Iraq should recognize the State of Israel?

As you know this is a hugely sensitive issue. But I would say that recognition of Israel is not really necessary. Iraq is a member of the Arab league and will inevitably have to coordinate its policy on this hugely sensitive issue with other Arab countries.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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