Iraqi Arrest Warrant Revives a Sunni Cleric's Fortunes

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Association of Muslim Scholars leader Harith al-Dari is wanted by the Iraqi authorities

Harith al-Dari is a wanted man — and the warrant for his arrest is the best thing that could have happened to him. By issuing the warrant Thursday, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has turned the dimunitive Iraqi cleric into a Sunni hero and a symbol of his community's angst and anger.

Even for a government that has shown all the political subtlety of a rampaging rhinoceros, this was an especially maladroit maneuver — and al-Dari's clerical organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has moved swiftly to capitalize on it. The Association's spokesmen have accused the Shi'ite prime minister of deliberately stoking sectarian tensions by singling out a 65-year-old Sunni cleric for arrest when tens of thousands of murderous Shi'ite militias and their leaders enjoy the protection of the government. They have also pointed out that a 2004 warrant for the arrest of radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr was never executed, even through he lives in plain sight in Najaf.

In practical terms, the arrest warrant is unlikely to threaten al-Dari's freedom: He spends much of his time shuttling from Amman, Jordan, to other Sunni Arab capitals, none of which are about to seize him and hand him over to the Iraqis. In political terms, the warrant gives the cleric a gilt-edged opportunity to stage a dramatic comeback after a long spell in limbo.

The Sunnis do not have a single dominant cleric in the way that the Shi'ites have in the person of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Al-Dari may head the AMS, which claims to include the imams of over 3,000 mosques, but unlike Sistani, he has never been able to mobilize the Sunni street. Despite the AMS's call for a boycott of the general election last December, Sunnis voted in large numbers. And even though al-Dari has heaped condemnation on the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), it has emerged as an important force in Sunni politics. An IIP leader, Tariq al-Hashimi, is one of Iraq's two vice-presidents and the senior-most Sunni in the government.

Since the general election, the AMS has seemed in a limbo. With Sunnis inclined to give their newly elected politicians a chance to protect their rights, the clergy lost much of their clout. "[The AMS] played an important role in the past, but now they have to sit back and let us do our job," al-Hashimi told TIME in the summer.

The growing sectarian violence — much of it perpetrated on Sunnis by Shi'ite militias — led to disenchantment with the political process, but that didn't automatically translate into a revival of fortunes for the AMS. Many Sunnis turned instead to the insurgency, reasoning that the best protection against armed gunmen would come from other armed gunmen. It didn't help the AMS's cause that its top leadership, including al-Dari himself, has spent much of the past year outside Iraq, trying to rally support among the governments of Sunni Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait. The Association seemed rudderless and out of the mainstream of Sunni politics.

Now, the warrant against al-Dari has returned him to the front and center of Sunni politics, earning him sympathy and support even from those who have long disagreed with his political views. Most of the prominent Sunni politicians in the government — people al-Dari scorns for having collaborated with the U.S. — have denounced the warrant as an affront to the community. The two Sunni blocs in parliament have demanded the warrant be withdrawn. Adnan al-Duleimi, who leads the larger of the two groupings, has called for a formal government apology to al-Dari.

Ordinary Sunnis, too, are rallying to al-Dari. Many feel victimized by the Shi'ite political establishment and now see al-Dari as the personification of their community's predicament. On Sunni TV channels, newspapers and Internet bulletin boards, there is an outpouring of vitriol against the government and support for the cleric. A typical message reads: "We are your swords, O Lion Sheikh — From the people of Adhamiya." (Adhamiya is a Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Baghdad.) Several Sunni groups — insurgent, political and social — have paid "homage" to him, which is akin to naming him their spiritual leader.

That is precisely the role al-Dari has sought since his return to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Having spent much of the adulthood teaching Islamic law and history in various Arab universities, he was nonetheless able to adjust quickly to the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. As an Islamic scholar of note, few questioned his right to lead the AMS, and he organized the clerics' body into a stridently anti-American organization that gave voice to the Sunni community's anxiety and resentment over the loss of their centuries-old grip on political power.

The Association dismissed Iraq's fledgling political process as illegitimate since it had been nurtured by an occupying power. But al-Dari rarely articulated a political vision for Iraq, speaking only in broad terms about an Islamic state governed by the just. In conversations with TIME, he said he didn't want any political office for himself, and that the future shape of the Iraqi government could only be determined after U.S. soldiers had departed.

It was clear al-Dari reveled in his role as the rebellious outsider; it was, after all, the part he was born to play. In a society where family background is often the main measure of political legitimacy, al-Dari's credentials are impeccable. His grandfather was Sheikh Dari, a tribal leader who killed a British colonial officer and set off the 1920 Iraqi rebellion against British rule. U.S. and Iraqi government officials believe the powerful insurgent group named after that uprising — the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution — is led by Harith al-Dari's son Muthanna. Father and son both deny this, but fighters from the group have told TIME they regard the al-Daris as their leaders.

Despite his harsh anti-American rhetoric, U.S. officials have made at least two clandestine attempts to negotiate with Harith al-Dari; the talks never got very far because the cleric could never trust the Americans, and they believed he was actively involved in the insurgency. The U.S. was also never fully convinced that al-Dari would be able to rally the entire Sunni community behind him.

Now he has an opportunity to do just that. If al-Dari plays his cards right in the next few weeks, he could emerge as the single most influential Sunni figure in Iraq. And the Americans will undoubtedly come calling again.