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A 'third force' awaits US in Iraq

By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, 1 March 2003

KARACHI - As the United States squares off against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein there is not much doubt as to whom the winners and losers will be. But if one looks a little closer at Iraq and beyond, there is evidence of a third element, an Islamic movement spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, that could also be a winner.

After Iraq's bloody nose in the 1991 Gulf War, the dynamics of the country's religious society underwent a change, out of which emerged growing support for the Brotherhood. The government is well aware of this, but desperate to cover it up.

On the surface, today's Iraq is Saddam's fiefdom. He is everything: the army, the jury, the judge and the executioner. Hospitals, universities and even a mental hospital are named after him, and what he dictates constitutes the country's religion. To go against Saddam's writ is to invite detention and even death.

In the post-Cold War environment and after the rap on the knuckles he received over his ill-conceived invasion of Kuwait, Saddam realized that he needed an ideology to prop up his authority and his regime. He used Islam to do this.

He had hundreds of mosques built all over the Iraq. He established a fully-fledged Islamic university, called, of course, Saddam University, where only Islamic theology is taught and where Sunni Islam is promoted, while the beliefs of the majority Shi'ites are ignored. Dancing clubs were closed, casinos were shut down, prostitution was strictly banned and bars became a part of history (liquor shops are still allowed, but drinking at public places is forbidden). In a parliament of 250 members, 12 Islamic scholars were inducted.

With these steps Saddam strengthened his political empire, but he still felt that the country was vulnerable to external and undesirable Islamic ideas and influences. So he took steps to plug this potential gap. In particular, all literature of the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Iraq. It remains so, even at Saddam University, even for reference purposes.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist group in the Arab world, founded as a religious and political organization in 1928 in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in opposition to secular tendencies in Islamic nations and in search of a return to the original precepts of the Koran.

It grew rapidly, establishing an educational, economic, military and political infrastructure in Egypt and then in other countries, such as Syria, Sudan and Arab nations, where it exists largely as a clandestine but militant group, marked by its rejection of Western influences.

In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood$(B!G(Bs political arm, the Islamic Action Front, is an important opposition party. The Muslim Brotherhood has given rise to a number of more militant and violent organizations, such as Hamas, Jamaa al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad.

Despite the best efforts of Saddam's security apparatus, including monitoring all those who attend mosques, the Brotherhood has managed to plant seeds in the minds of many Iraqis.

For example, although Dr Yusuf Al-Qardawi is no longer a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, he is recognized as a leading Islamic scholar in the Middle East. His books are included in the syllabus of Saddam University. Similarly, the seminal Koranic commentary written by Syed Qutub is also included as a reference book.

According to a teacher at Saddam University, a student reading these books will gain an insight into the philosophies and ideas of the Brotherhood. At the same time, the books' footnotes give references to other important firebrand literature relating to the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, a demand has been generated, and these books are now smuggled into the country, mostly from Syria.

Over the past few years some suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested, and simply disappeared from sight, along with their families. In the past six months, however, after crackdowns at Saddam University where suspected Brotherhood members were arrested and literature seized, the suspects were subsequently freed with warnings after a few weeks in detention.

The reason for this, apparently, is the realization that the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq is now not limited to a few individuals. They exist in many underground groups from north to south, and authorities fear that any repressive action will generate a fierce reaction.

Saddam faces problems in the north from the Kurds and in the south from Shi'ites. He does not want any problem with the Sunni population, which up until now has been stable and in his favor.

Beyond Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood is also gaining strength. This correspondent was in Jordan, for example, when the Islamic Action Front declared a jihad in favor of Iraq and Palestine if the US attacks Iraq. In Jordan's capital, Amman and elsewhere in the country, despite the existence of a clearly pro-US monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front are registering volunteers at colleges and universities to go and fight against the US in Iraq and against Israel in Palestine.

Any war against Iraq, then, is likely to further strengthen the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region in general, and within Iraq in particular, making them yet another complicating factor in the post-Saddam world.