Despite its dwindling fortunes elsewhere, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan, continues to thrive in Iraq. Their North African counterparts have not fared so well since the Egyptian army ousted President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, and set about detaining thousands of members of the group in Egypt. Many thought that the Brotherhood as a group could not sustain such a blow; deemed a terrorist organization by the government despite its populist appeal, its nerve center was based in Egypt itself. Brotherhood members in Iraq, however have lived to tell a different tale, and have now formulated a clear plan for survival.
On December 4, hundreds of armed Turkish troops crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border near Ba’ashiqa, around a hundred kilometers into Iraqi territory. Baghdad regarded this as little more than an incursion onto sovereign territory, and called for the immediate withdrawal of troops.
Ankara held firm and argued its troops were deployed north of the Daesh-held Iraqi city of Mosul for several reasons; in response to an invitation by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi to staunch militant activity—and later to train Mosul’s soldiers.
Iraqis were deeply divided over the Turkish presence; some supported their involvement whilst others were less keen. But the ardent support of Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood members for the Turkish deployment, despite Baghdad’s opposition, led some to question the intent behind the troops’ deployment and who might benefit from the spoils of a Mosul liberation.
In March 2003, the U.S.-led international military coalition invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. Three months later, the Unified Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer, formed the Governing Council of Iraq, the first body to take over the country’s affairs after the occupation. The 25-member council was entirely decided upon sectarian or confessional lines. It lasted no more than 10 months, but came to symbolize the end of Ba’ath domination in Iraq.
De-Baathification followed suit, which sought to cleanse the new government of senior members of the former Baath regime. The new power-sharing complex crippled the Iraqi judicial system, and sectarian divisions mounted apace. Brotherhood members felt that they were now second-class citizens.
“Those who observe the current government’s approach, that is run by Shiites, would know of its policy to target Sunnis by marginalizing them, limiting (their roles), in educating them and in making them second-class citizens,” Adnan Al Dulaimi, a leading Iraqi Brotherhood member, wrote on his Facebook page.
But in that first governing council post-war, the participation of several political parties went unnoticed. Among them was the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), formed in 1960 and revived in 2003, the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, formed in 1994 in the Kurdish region and the Iraq Turkmen Justice Party, formed in Kirkuk in 2004. The three parties came to represent the political front of the Brotherhood in Iraq, in addition to several other religious, cultural and political institutions.
The Brotherhood was established in Iraq in 1944, after two leading Egyptian Brotherhood members, Mohammed Abdulhameed and Hussein Kamaldeen joined the teaching staff of Iraqi universities. Both men focused on recruiting young Iraqis and swiftly building up a support base across the country. The Iraq group officially formed in 1949 as “The Islamic Brotherhood” and was organized by Mohammed Mahmoud Al Sawaf. By 1960, the group had evolved into IIP, its first formal political front, only to be banned in 1961 after the government of Abdel Karim Qassim restricted its political activities. They continued to be proscribed under Baathist rule.
After 2003, the Brotherhood, as with other Iraqi political parties and groups, returned to the Iraqi fold, and revived its institutions. One group was the IIP, which was then headed by Mohsen Abdulhameed, another leading Brotherhood member. IIP’s participation in the first government post-invasion stirred dissent between the Brotherhood and its political arm. “Ikhwan and IIP were one organization in Iraq until Ikhwan-Iraq adopted armed resistance against Americans and Shiites. Their armed wing was Kataib Salahudeen,” a senior IIP member told Newsweek Middle East on condition of anonymity. “[The armed resistance] embarrassed us in front of Shiites, Americans and Iranians, so we administratively broke with them,” he said.
Despite the disagreement, the IIP ran Brotherhood candidates in Iraq’s national parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2010 under the umbrella of Al Tawafiq (Accordance) Front. In 2005, the front was headed by the Brotherhood’s Al Dulaimi, and in 2010 by Iyad Al Samarraie, the head of the IIP.
Several Brotherhood members also made the cut, such as Tariq Al Hashimi, the former head of IIP who in 2010 became a vice president in 2010, Osama Al Nujaifi-the younger brother of Mohammed Al Nujaifi, a leading member of the international Muslim Brotherhood organization-who became speaker of parliament in 2010 and vice president in 2014. Rafei Al Essawi was also made finance minister in 2010 and ran in the elections under lists such as Iraqiya and Mutahedoon.
“After what happened with the [IIP], the Brotherhood pushed Rafie [Al Essawi], Osama [Al Nujaifi] and Mohammed [Osama’s brother] to the front to ensure that they would win the competition with the rest of the political parties,” the IIP leader said.
The Brotherhood found support elsewhere. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Brotherhood roots have had a bearing on Iraq. After the 2003 invasion, Ankara hosted and sponsored political and religious meetings of Iraqi pro-Brotherhood factions.
In 2012, the Brotherhood took in Osama Al Nujaifi as a member. Al Nujaifi belongs to a well-known and wealthy family in Mosul and has historical ties with the Turks; he was soon viewed as a defacto representative to Turkey.
The Brotherhood in Iraq reacted strongly to the new Iraqi constitution. The group rejected a vote towards federalism, adopted by the new political system after 2003. On December 13, 2006, Turkey hosted a “Conference for the Support of the Iraqi People,” which highlighted the systematic marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq causing sectarian tension among Iraqis attending the conference.
The conference was attended by dozens of Iraqi politicians, clerics, scholars and heads of tribes, but also most prominently by Brotherhood figures, who made an unprecedented call for the formation of a Sunni province.
Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood organized dozens of similar conferences—mostly sponsored by Ankara—in Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and other Muslim and non-Muslim countries, where the group is influential. In January 2014, Osama Al Nujaifi, then the vice president, met U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington.
“Osama has no interest but [to establish] the ‘Sunni Province’ and [be its] president,” a senior IIP member, who declined to be identified, told Newsweek Middle East.
In May 2015, Dulaimi, who was living in Amman and has been on Iraq’s most wanted list since 2009 on “terrorism charges,” described what he called “the Sunni Province Project”—but it would be perhaps better described as a “Brotherhood Province Project,” as it comes with questionable support from Sunni factions.
The plan, a record of which was obtained by Newsweek Middle East, aims to unify all Iraqi Sunnis, including Kurds and Turkmen, under a single umbrella and establish the “Sunni Province…which provides a safe haven for the millions of displaced Sunnis,” inside and outside Iraq.
The proposed province is to be self-governed by the Sunnis in a manner that further feeds Iraq’s already sectarian division. Armed factions, according to the project, would be merged with officers of the former Iraqi army and anti-Daesh tribes, forming the core of the Sunni Provincial Guard troops.
“After the Brotherhood lost Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, they found that it is difficult to control any Arab country, so they decided to resort to other options such as the formation of regions or [the] support [of] chaotic democratic regimes,” Abass Al Yassiry, an Iraqi independent political analyst, told Newsweek Middle East in an interview. “Forming a region would provide for them a wide space to move around and gradually build their own regime,” he added.
The Brotherhood’s Iraqi members have recently circulated a map of the proposed Sunni province on their social media accounts and web pages.
The map shows the borders of the new province and the six areas that are to be included. Major cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk, Salahudeen, Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad are all featured as part of the new territory.
The draft proposal assumes that the majority of Iraq’s Sunnis, including Kurds and Turkmen, would automatically fall in line and join the Brotherhood in their envisioned state. The project is slated to begin immediately after Daesh militants are driven out of their strongholds.
Al Dulaimi, Al Hashimi, Al Essawi, Al Nujaifi, and his third brother Atheel Al Nujaifi, the former governor of Mosul, in cooperation with the international organization of the Brotherhood in Turkey, Qatar and Europe, have launched an intensive campaign to defuse tensions between Iraq’s Sunni parties, as a first step towards the project’s implementation. A second phase would be to create a detente between Arabs and Kurds. Several conferences were held in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Erbil late last year, to ramp up the project’s aims. Delegations headed by Al Essawi and Al Nujaifi’s brothers have travelled extensively to win international backing, and at the same time negotiations with Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, began in August 2015.
“Our top priority is to strengthen our relationship with our brothers, the Kurds,” reads a copy of the project. “We have to agree with our Kurdish brothers on the land, and beneficiaries. We must cooperate to push back the danger of the Safavids (the Iranians),” the copy states.
The Brotherhood has so far proposed two scenarios: The first is to create a new region and attach it to Kurdistan, forming a larger Sunni territory, with Barzani at its helm for a two-year transitional phase, after which a new president would be elected and a new government formed.
The second scenario sees the creation of a province that includes Mosul, Anbar, Salahudeen, Diyala and Baghdad, with the fate of the oil-rich northern province of Kirkuk decided afterwards.
The Brotherhood’s project assumes that the biggest challenge to surmount is Kirkuk, so they suggested giving it to the Kurds. “We do not care if Kirkuk is within the Kurdistan Region or within the Arab Sunni Province. What the free people of Kirkuk will decide, has to be accepted,” the proposal says.
“There were many meetings [with Barzani] to discuss the first scenario, but I do not think it will work,” a senior member of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party told Newsweek Middle East, on condition of anonymity.
“Most Sunnis do not agree on this (adjoining Sunni areas with Kurdistan). Christians and other minorities will not accept this suggestion and even Kurds themselves have not agreed to it,” he said.
Mosul, Diyala, Salahudeen, Kirkuk and Baghdad are mixed-population provinces and many religious and ethnic minorities such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Shiite Turkmen and Shiite Kurdish are indigenous inhabitants.
On September 2, 2015, Doha hosted a conference attended by dozens of Iraqi Brotherhood politicians, lawmakers, former Baathists, heads of tribes, clerics and commanders of insurgent groups, including the Islamic Army and the Naqshibiniya Army, among others. The Province Project was discussed, while Osama Al Nujaifi tried to convince them to agree on the best means of implementation. However, the Association of Muslim Scholars, a leading Sunni religious body in Iraq, as well as the banned Baath Party, rejected the formation of seperate regions.
The Nujaifi brothers, Essawi and Dulaimi have led efforts to unify Brotherhood factions with other Sunnis in order to form a solid front to negotiate with Washington.
Getting Sunnis across the board, including the Kurds and Turkmen, to unite, would provide the required majority to win back a measure of power.
The fall of some cities to Daesh and the Iraqi army’s inability to retake them gives weight to the Brotherhood claim that Baghdad has failed the Sunnis, and has expanded the scope of its alliances and strengthened the regional support for the envisioned Brotherhood Project.
Atheel Al Nujaifi formed his own Sunni militia in Mosul in January 2015, when he was governor, to “liberate” the city. He also established a camp named “Zelikan” to gather and train his fighters, mainly local policemen, former Iraqi army and volunteers. Nujaifi had asked Baghdad to fund and equip his militia, but the government stipulated that the fighters, based at the Speicher Base in Salahudeen, ought to be under its supervision, a condition he rejected.
The Brotherhood has betted on armed factions such as the Naqshibindia Army, the Islamic Army and the Mujahdeen Army, the anti-Daesh Sunni tribes and the Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) combatting Daesh and trying to regain control over Mosul. Retaking Mosul, without the help of Baghdad, would assure them that they would have the upperhand in the city, but the lack of recruits, equipment and U.S. weight may have required the Brotherhood to seek Turkey’s support.
On December 10, Erdogan said the Turkish troops were sent to Iraq “following a request from Mosul’s (former) governor.”
“The participation of Turkey in combating Daesh and liberating Mosul, would have a significant impact in showing the international role of Sunnis to eliminate Daesh,” Athil Al Nujaifi wrote on his Facebook account on January 23, 2016. Hope of a safe haven remains a dim prospect however, notwithstanding that Sunnis in Iraq hail from a myriad of political views, backgrounds and tribal affiliations. The Brotherhood may have failed to take this into account in their ambitious plans.