The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) has played a significant role in shaping Iraq’s political process. For a time, it was the de facto representative of Iraq’s Arab Sunni community after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. However, the IIP has also fallen victim to the complexity of Iraqi Sunni politics and to the pitfalls of functioning in an increasingly polarized ethnosectarian environment.
Unlike most other Sunni organizations, the IIP did not endorse armed resistance against the U.S.-led occupation and maintained good relations with its Shia and Kurdish counterparts. This facilitated the IIP’s role in governing Iraq (albeit secondary to leading Shia parties). Yet the party paid a price, even before its significant decline among Sunnis in the May 2018 elections, because it failed to deliver on promises of services and security. The IIP has demonstrated resilience, but unless it can increase its popularity, it is unlikely to regain a meaningful role in governing Iraq.
The IIP’s Ideological and Political Roots
The IIP is widely regarded as a front organization for the Muslim Brotherhood, even though officials in the party have denied this.1 Its similarity to the Brotherhood can be seen in their shared approach toward an Islamic governance model.2 However, IIP leaders also borrowed new ideas from functional democratic societies, gathered during their years of exile in Europe.3 That helps explain why the party adopted a more institutional approach to politics in the post-2003 period, which pushed it to participate in Iraq’s governing institutions.
The Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928, and soon after began spreading its ideology throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In 1944, the first Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood cells were created by several Egyptian university lecturers in the Adhamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad. They recruited well-educated young members who could disseminate the Muslim Brotherhood’s message. By 1948, the members had become publicly active, mobilizing Muslims to fight in Palestine, calling for Muslim unity, and promoting Islamic morals.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Iraqi monarchy allowed members to officially register the Muslim Brotherhood as a political entity. However, Iraqi law at the time did not permit political groups to register as branches of entities founded or operating abroad. The Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood instead registered under a different name, the Islamic Brotherhood Organization. It was able to function peacefully under the monarchy—to the Brotherhood, this period represents a golden era for freedoms in Iraq’s recent history.
Until the 1960s, the Iraqi Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood viewed each other as existential threats. The Communist Party’s popularity drew the attention of all Islamist groups, including the highest authority of the Iraqi Shia, the Marjaaiya. After the July 14, 1958, overthrow of the monarchy, leftist parties, including the Communist Party and Baathist elements, attacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Baghdad and pushed its spiritual guide, Sheikh Mohammed al-Sawwaf, into exile.4 To avoid further attacks and arrests, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to go underground.
On January 6, 1960, then prime minister Abd al-Karim Qassem issued a new law on the establishment of political parties. Just over a month later, on February 12, 1960, Sayyed Muhsin al-Hakim, a prominent Shia cleric, issued a fatwa prohibiting membership in the Iraqi Communist Party. On April 26, 1960, a group of twelve Muslim Brotherhood members, realizing that the new law and Hakim’s fatwa against a major political rival had created a propitious moment, founded the Iraqi Islamic Party.5
The IIP’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood is ambiguous. According to Muhsin Abdul Hamid, the former president of the IIP’s Consultative Council, the IIP was set up as a front for the Brotherhood. As he described it, the Muslim Brotherhood’s central committee registered the IIP as a political party, while other senior members remained underground in case the Iraqi government arrested IIP leaders with the aim of disbanding the Brotherhood.
This version of history has been disputed by Ayad al-Samarrai, the IIP’s current secretary general.6 According to him, the party’s policies are not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and 90 percent of IIP members are not Brotherhood members. Whatever the extent of its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the IIP did emerge from the Brotherhood, advocates the same ideology, and is widely perceived by Iraqis as a facade for the organization, even if the IIP today prefers to describe itself as an offshoot.
In 1961, the IIP’s activities were suspended by the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood overtly pursued its social and religious proselytizing activities. Iraq’s ruling Baath Party, which had taken power in the 1968 coup, became increasingly apprehensive of the Brotherhood’s activities. Between 1970 and 1987, it monitored the group and began arresting members. To avoid persecution, the Muslim Brotherhood and IIP leadership went underground again.7 In December 1987, the Baathist government identified and arrested many senior Muslim Brotherhood and IIP members,8 while others fled Iraq. Many of these members sought refuge in Europe—far from the long arm of the regime’s. This put a temporary end to the party’s activities in Iraq.
In 1992, a year after the first Gulf War, the IIP resumed its political activities in exile.9 The party also participated in humanitarian efforts to assist Iraqis suffering from postwar United Nations sanctions.10 While the IIP sought regime change, it opposed the economic embargo imposed on Iraq and the plans to invade the country. In 2002, as the United States laid the groundwork for invasion, it organized a conference in London to prepare the opposition for the day after the regime’s removal. The IIP, in line with its stance, refused to participate.11 However, after the United States and its allies took control of Iraq in 2003, most of the IIP’s senior members returned home to play a part in political life.
The IIP’s participation in politics was a departure from its previous model for Islamic governance that it shared with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both had advocated a bottom-up approach to governance. In contrast to other schools of Islamic political thought, the Muslim Brotherhood and the IIP believe that creating an Islamic society will inevitably produce an Islamic government.12 Other schools of political Islam, such as Salafi jihadism or several groups of Twelver Shia, advocate a top-down approach. The IIP’s participation in Iraq’s post-2003 government was a departure from its bottom-up beliefs and created a divide between the IIP and its Sunni electorate.
The Path From Exile to Governance
The IIP played a significant role in defining the post-2003 political environment by initially being one of the sole representatives of Arab Sunnis. The community found itself at a crossroads when the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) initiated a postwar political process based on an ethnosectarian quota system, known as muhasasa in Arabic. Forming the Governing Council, National Assembly, and Iraqi Interim Government on the basis of this ethnosectarian system confirmed Iraqis’ worst fears about the disintegration of their country’s governance. Between 2004 and 2018, IIP members were given senior positions under this system, including the speakership of parliament and the vice presidency, and others were appointed ministers or deputy ministers. The IIP had transitioned from an Islamist opposition party in exile to one involved in national decisionmaking.
During this period, the party faced several challenges that have continued to shape the way it is viewed by its community. First, between 2003 and 2011, many Sunnis resisted the U.S.-led occupation through force, which the IIP opposed. Instead, the party often acted as a mediator between the Sunni resistance and U.S.-led coalition forces, attempting to mitigate the potentially devastating outcomes of military confrontation. Second, the environment of occupation and armed resistance allowed extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and, later, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, to anchor themselves in the Sunni community. These groups denounced the IIP as a puppet of the occupying powers and a weak representative of Sunnis. And third, despite Sunni displeasure, the IIP participated in the Iraqi Governing Council created by the U.S.-led CPA.
The IIP’s decision to join the Governing Council and oppose armed resistance set it apart from other Sunni groups—such as Baathists and army officers from the former regime, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), and Salafis—who all supported taking up arms.13 The party’s adversaries accused it of joining the government to further its own interests and, in doing so, legitimizing the occupation.14 Defending itself, the IIP described its political participation and endorsement of a new constitution as necessary steps to building a new Iraqi state.
That disagreement over whether to use military or political means to end the occupation continues to polarize Arab Sunnis. Despite the fact that coalition forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Sunnis are still divided between those who joined the political process begun by the CPA and those who regarded the process as illegitimate and rejected it. The IIP’s opponents point to the party’s declining popularity in Sunni-majority cities as proof that it does not reflect the will of its community.15
One example of the intra-Sunni fractures provoked by the IIP’s positions is its relationship with the AMSI. The IIP claims that it founded AMSI in 2003, right after the invasion, to act as a Sunni entity that could counterbalance the Shia Marjaaiya.16 However, the IIP’s Consultative Council recommended that it not be led by an IIP member to avoid potential conflict with theMarjaaiya. Instead, AMSI’s diverse electorate chose a Salafi cleric, Harith al-Dhari, to lead the association, handing power to an opponent of the IIP, given the ideological differences between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. The gap between the IIP and AMSI grew. One IIP member—Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, who had hosted the first meeting of AMSI’s executive committee at his home17—split from the party, allied himself with Dhari, and established an armed group called Jaish al-Rashideen (Army of the Guides) to fight coalition forces. AMSI disputes the claim that it was even founded by the IIP,18 though it admits that some early members came from the IIP and Muslim Brotherhood.19 Ultimately, AMSI failed to serve its intended purpose of uniting and mobilizing Sunnis around a common social and political agenda. Instead, it only further polarized the community.20
Intra-Sunni divisions were caused by more than just disagreement over participation in the post-2003 political process. There were also ideological divisions—as Salafi-IIP hostility in the context of AMSI reaffirmed—and regional components. Iraq’s new reality affected countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, which all have a similarly mixed ethnosectarian composition. Outside actors intervened or interacted with Iraq’s political system to protect their own strategic interests and make sure that changes in Iraq did not spill over its borders.
These regional rivalries further weakened the IIP inside Iraq. After 2013, the IIP’s ideological leanings toward the Muslim Brotherhood placed the party at the heart of a conflict involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Turkey. The IIP aligned with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood against the military-led regime in Cairo that had overthrown the elected Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, who was backed by Turkey and Qatar. However, after a number of Arab and other states severed relations with Qatar in June 2017, the IIP found itself more isolated and was unable to secure support from Gulf countries, undermining its domestic standing and influence.
The IIP’s Future in Iraqi Politics
The rifts within the Sunni community have negatively affected the IIP’s electoral performance. Sensing its declining popularity in Sunni-majority cities, the party changed its strategy for the May 2018 elections. Whereas previously it had participated under the IIP label or led electoral lists, its members participated in the latest elections as independent candidates, not IIP members, in the coalition lists of other political parties. IIP officials say the party won fourteen parliamentary seats out of 329, which was fewer than the seats it won in the 2005, 2010, and 2014 elections.21 (However, this figure is difficult to confirm since not all parliamentarians who obey the IIP are necessarily party members.)
Nevertheless, the IIP will most likely survive its waning popularity and the consequent loss of government positions because the party has an important advantage over its rivals. Contrary to most of its Sunni counterparts, who depend on buying loyalty, the IIP is a hierarchical organization with a solid organizational core united by a common ideology. Although the IIP has had its fair share of internal rivalries, its ideological cohesion and consultative mechanisms for resolving internal disputes have kept the party together thus far.22
The IIP acknowledges the decline in its support. However, it believes that this is not linked to its performance but rather reflects a broader trend affecting the popularity of major political parties globally. The Iraqi public is frustrated with the IIP and the dominant Islamic Dawa Party because of their failure to provide security, essential services, and jobs—a phenomenon seen elsewhere.23 At the same time, Arab Sunni representation in government has been declining due to the growing influence of Shia parties. However, despite Iraqis’ rising frustration with corruption, Islamist parties accused of corruption were on winning electoral lists in the 2018 elections. This dissonance can be ascribed to the lack of resources and organization of the Islamists’ opponents, as well as the fact that political elites have engaged in widespread patronage, placing clients in the civil service and resulting in a system poorly equipped to counter abuses.
Regardless of how the IIP interprets its lower standing among Sunnis, it has indeed suffered from a failure to deliver on promises to protect the Sunni community and provide services and better governance. Sunni critics of the IIP blame the party for failing to protect Sunnis during the sectarian violence between 2006 and 2009. After the al-Askari shrine in Samarra was bombed in 2006, thousands of Sunnis were summarily executed by government-affiliated Shia militias and tens of thousands were internally displaced, leading to significant demographic changes in major provinces like Baghdad and Diyala. During that period, the most senior Sunni government official was the IIP’s secretary general, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was serving as one of Iraq’s vice presidents.
At the same time, Sunni-majority cities lack basic services such as clean water, health services, and 24/7 electricity. While unemployment rates are generally high in Iraq, Sunni-majority cities have the highest rates of unemployment. Consequently, the IIP’s opponents have successfully convinced an increasing number of Sunnis that the IIP is dishonest, self-serving, and incompetent. Making things worse is the perception that the IIP has failed to effectively influence government policies, undermining its strategy of seeking to share power with the leading Shia political parties and protect Sunnis from excessive violence directed against them by the authorities.
In the coming years, the IIP is likely to reflect on its performance in parliamentary elections, identify its weaknesses, reevaluate its relationships with local and regional stakeholders, and, more importantly, assess its participation in the post-2003 political process. The party’s pragmatism and organizational cohesiveness means it will continue to be active in Iraqi politics for the foreseeable future, even if its ability to match its ambitions remain uncertain.
It took the Muslim Brotherhood and the IIP almost sixty years to reach power, from when the first Muslim Brotherhood cells were formed in Iraq to the invasion of the country in 2003. The two organizations were able to survive Iraq’s monarchy, the rise and demise of the Baathist regimes, and the post-2003 ethnosectarian and terrorist violence. Yet the IIP’s record has been mixed. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, IIP officials were given the opportunity to participate in postwar governance, holding senior positions in the state. However, by approaching the U.S.-led occupation with an attitude contrary to a majority of Sunnis, the IIP lost support within its own community.
This was exacerbated by the inability of members to perform their governing tasks successfully and the IIP’s regional isolation due to its association with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, by moving away from the bottom-up strategy devised by the Brotherhood and relying more on its status within Iraq’s discredited political class, the party lost ground. Unless these trends change, the IIP will be unlikely to regain an important role in the governance of Iraq.
In light of this, the IIP’s current trajectory suggests it seeks to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood in order to improve its relationship with local, regional, and international political actors. However, detaching itself from the Brotherhood need not mean rejecting all its ideas. A main challenge the IIP will have in the next four years is reconciling its institutional and ideological approaches to governance—in other words, participating in government institutions while also pushing for a bottom-up approach that would help rally its established base. By reconciling these aspects of its postwar political identity, the IIP might again enhance its role in Iraq’s power structure.
1 Author interview with Ayad al-Samarrai (IIP secretary general), Leeds, August 2, 2018.
3 Author interview with Fareed Sabri (IIP representative in the United Kingdom), London, August 5, 2018.
5 Author interview with Fareed Sabri, London, August 5, 2018.
6 Author interview with Ayad al-Samarrai, Leeds, August 2, 2018.
8 Author interview with Fareed Sabri, London, August 5, 2018.
13 Author interview with Muthana al-Dhari (secretary general of the AMSI), Amman, January 26, 2016.
16 Author interview with Fareed Sabri, London, August 5, 2018.
18 Author interview with Abdul-Hamid al-Ani (director of the information department at the AMSI), via Twitter direct messages, July 18, 2018.
20 Author interview with Muthana al-Dhari, Amman, January 26, 2016.
21 Author interview with Fareed Sabri, London, August 5, 2018.
22 Author interview with Omar Abdul-Sattar (former member of the Iraqi Parliament and IIP member), Istanbul, December 13, 2016.
23 Author interview with Fareed Sabri, London, August 5, 2018.