The struggle for control of religion in Iraq led by the Muslim Brotherhood

The position of head of the Sunni Endowment, which gives access to $6 billion, is vacant
A Sunni mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, June 4, 2019

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   A Sunni mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, June 4, 2019

The Egyptian-born Muslim Brotherhood organization aims to expand an Islamist agenda throughout the MENA region - Middle East & North Africa. It is known for its activity in countries such as Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen; its collaboration with Turkey and Qatar; and its designation as a terrorist group by its home country and a number of other states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. However, his ambitions in Iraq seem to have gone more unnoticed. The organization entered Iraqi soil in the early 1940s with a specific program called the "Manifesto of the Iraqi Islamic Party" that was presented in the 1960s. However, this first attempt to penetrate the layers of Iraqi society was not successful until 1991, after the invasion of Kuwait, when its presence began to flourish with the resurgence of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which was Sunni in style and had a number of concrete objectives: the establishment of an Islamic state; the defence of pluralism as long as it respects Islam; the adoption of values such as freedom, tolerance of different opinions and consultations (shura) for the decision-making process; and the promotion of political elections and abstention from political violence, as stated in his book 'The Muslim Brotherhood: Genesis and Development' (2002) by the expert Basim Al-Azami. 

In 2003, after the US invasion, it managed to position itself as an effective force on the Iraqi political scene, becoming the largest Sunni Islamist political party in the country today. And as such, following the precepts of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is eager to have increasing influence among the Iraqi people, for which it needs to control religion and, specifically, the Iraqi Sunni Endowment Office, an administration created by the Governing Council after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This entity, as the analyst Hamman Latif explains in The Arab Weekly, "is not only an important financial source, but an important key for political manoeuvres within the Sunni house and in the context of relations with the other sectarian components of Iraqi society and the countries that sponsor them, including Iran, Turkey and Qatar".

Clérigos en una conferencia de prensa de la Oficina de Dotación Suní de Irak
AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - Clergymen at a press conference of the Iraqi Sunni Endowment Office

The last head of the "Sunni Endowment Diwan", Abdul Latif Al Hemyem, left office in "mysterious circumstances" this February, being replaced by Undersecretary Saad Kambash, who is currently in charge. In one of his last actions, Kambash met with Iraqi President Barham Saleh on June 10, who stressed the "importance of promoting values of tolerance and cohesion among the Iraqi people, as well as addressing extremism and radicalization, with a view to creating a generation that is aware of its duties and capable of taking responsibility," according to a statement from the Office of the President. The Iraqi leader also reminded the acting head of the Diwan "of the important role that leaders play in protecting national cohesion and peaceful coexistence among the components of Iraqi society.

The post therefore remains vacant pending the appointment of the new leader by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi, and the struggle between the various Iraqi factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni circles in the country, has intensified. But what does it mean to hold that position?

According to Latif, "The position of the head of the Sunni Endowment Diwan is functionally equivalent to that of a minister, except that whoever sits in that chair manages a tremendous financial empire [...] since he controls the income generated by thousands of religious shrines throughout the country, to which visitors donate millions of dollars annually, as well as a large amount of real estate, leased land and investment assets". According to The Arab Weekly, the Bureau's income is estimated at about $6 billion a year.

El expresidente de la Dotación Suní iraquí, Abdul Latif Al Hemyem, en la mezquita Hajj Diab al-Iraqi en Mosul, Irak, el 10 de febrero de 2017
PHOTO/REUTERS - Former President of the Iraqi Sunni Endowment, Abdul Latif Al Hemyem, at the Hajj Diab al-Iraqi Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, on 10 February 2017
Who is vying for the job?

Latif offers in the same publication an analysis of the main candidates for the career of head of the Diwan, which "is facing the various wings of the Iraqi Islamic Party", since the candidates belong to different branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq. 

The first candidate is the Secretary General of the Islamic Party himself, Rashid Al-Azzawi, who has the support of the Shiite parties linked to Iran, to which he has been linked for most of his career.

Another candidate is Salim al-Jabouri, former president of the Iraqi Parliament between 2014 and 2018. Originally, he was a member of the Islamic Party, but in recent years he withdrew from the political life of the formation along with another group of leaders, although without breaking his ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

A third candidate, Salahuddin Fleih, who belongs to the political formation and is the nephew of the chief investigator of the Council of Jurisprudence, Ahmed Hassan al-Taha, was forced to withdraw his application after a campaign was launched against him for alleged conflict of interest because of the position of his uncle, who, however, would now have entered the race for the position in his place.

"According to political sources, none of the candidates for the post has any political advantage over the others," the analyst reveals. "This open competition between the wings of the Islamic Party is another sign of the deep crisis that is paralysing the Brotherhood in Iraq [...] The Diwan is the last chance for the Islamic Party to organise its ranks in the country, amid expectations that the wing that will end up presiding over the Diwan will be the one to represent the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq," concludes Latif.

El expresidente del parlamento iraquí Salim al-Jabouri
AP/KARIM KADIM - Former Iraqi Parliament President Salim al-Jabouri
The different Endowments of Iraq

It is worth recalling at this point that in addition to the Sunnite Endowment, in Iraq there is also the Shiite Endowment, headed by Ghani Zghaier Atiyah; and the Christian Endowment, headed by Eng. Raad Kajeji. The three chiefs recently met with President Barham Saleh, who, in the face of growing tensions involving the Brotherhood, urged them to "unify religious discourse and improve unity among Iraqi components to confront violence and extremism," according to the Office of the President.

All this is framed in a convulsive scenario, structured by, besides the internal tensions in the Sunni Endowment, the lack of support from Turkey to the Iraqi Brotherhood, unlike other countries like Syria, Libya or Yemen. "Its strategy to infiltrate Iraq differs due to the absence of a strong branch of the Brotherhood that can be trusted," alluding to the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has been unable to play a key role in the formation of Iraqi governments due to the strong hegemony of Iranian-backed Shiite parties and their monopoly on state institutions, The Arab Weekly explains.

Another factor defining the complex chessboard is the open confrontation between Sunnis and Shias, which intensified last year. At this point, it is worth remembering that during June 2019, Shiite authorities began to seek "to formally take over state lands and properties that they say are historically Shiite", something that "outraged" Sunni officials, since the "Iraqi Shiite groups were trying to deepen their control in strategic Sunni areas", according to analyst John Davison at the time in Reuters. The "hidden" objective of this movement, according to the expert, was to provide a "strategic corridor" for Iran, which was seeking to compensate for the US economic sanctions. Thus, and as it has happened repeatedly during the last months, Iraq is again becoming the battlefield of the confrontation between the two superpowers, Washington and Tehran, whose interests have penetrated all the layers of the Iraqi people, even religion.