Top Sunni Muslim clerics in the Middle East on Wednesday condemned Islamic State extremists as enemies of God who deserve to be crucified for burning alive a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, breathing new life into U.S. attempts to increase Sunni Arab participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the extremists.
Administration officials and private analysts say they see gathering signs of a regional shift, particularly on the ground inside Iraq, where Sunni tribal groups this week announced the formation of an alliance to fight the jihadi movement that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Many of the tribes had been torn between their fear of the Islamic State’s advances and their distrust of the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Reacting to a wave of revulsion expressed in his country and across the region, Jordan’s King Abdullah II pledged to wage “relentless war” on the Islamic State and step up his country’s role in the coalition’s war after the brutal slaying of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kassasbeh.
“We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles, and our war for their sake will be relentless and will hit them in their own ground,” the king told Jordanian state television after cutting short a trip to Washington to deal with one of the worst crises of his reign.
But critics say the White House’s strategy is chaotic at best. Also, it was revealed that at least one Sunni ally, the United Arab Emirates, discreetly disengaged from the coalition’s air campaign in December, when the Jordanian F-16 was shot down in northeastern Syria.
UAE officials were reportedly dismayed by the lack of U.S. search-and-rescue cover for Arab pilots flying sorties against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. There are also concerns among officials from Saudi Arabia and Qatar about the Obama administration’s seeming willingness to coordinate strategy with Iran, the region’s leading Shiite Muslim power, in the fight, U.S. sources said Wednesday.
There is clear concern in Sunni states that Iraq’s government has been given a lead role in the anti-Islamic State strategy. A report by the Congressional Research Service maintained that “relations between Iraq’s government and the Sunni Arab Gulf States have been consistently strained in the post-Saddam Hussein period, in part because Iraq’s government has been dominated by Shiite factions politically close to Iran.”
Strategic location
U.S. officials welcomed Jordanian pledges to engage more deeply in the military campaign, particularly given the kingdom’s strategic location in the fight.
Violence in Syria and Iraq has for years created instability along Jordan’s borders. An Islamic State incursion into Jordan would be a key step toward a land bridge between the Middle East and North Africa, where the extremist group has sought to expand its presence during recent months.
But there is resistance from Jordanian citizens, who question whether the U.S.-led campaign is really their fight and who are wary of inciting Islamic State attacks inside their country. Reuters has reported that the al-Kasaesbeh tribe, from King Abdullah’s own core constituency, staged a protest against Jordan’s role in the war last week. Before the pilot’s grisly death, many also questioned whether Jordan was participating in a war that largely served Western interests.
But the gruesome video has prompted outrage among even conservative Sunni Muslim religious leaders, including Saudi Arabia’s prominent cleric Sheik Salman al-Oudah, who cited words attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which reserves for God alone the right to punish by fire, The Associated Press reported.
From the world’s most prestigious seat of Sunni Islam learning, Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb said the Islamic State militants deserve the Quranic punishment of death, crucifixion or the chopping off of their arms for being enemies of God and the Prophet Muhammad.
“Islam prohibits the taking of an innocent life,” the imam said. By burning the pilot to death, he added, the Islamic State militants violated Islam’s prohibition on the immolation or mutilation of bodies – even during wartime.
Whether such condemnations will add momentum for wider Sunni Arab participation in a U.S.-led coalition is not certain yet, analysts said.
Despite the UAE withdrawal, U.S. officials insist they are getting strong cooperation from Mideast Sunni allies in the Islamic State fight.
“There have been ongoing efforts by a range of Sunni Arab countries to not only conduct military operations but to take a range of steps to delegitimize [the Islamic State], to crack down on foreign fighters, to do more to crack down on their financing,” said State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. “These are all essential components of what we’re doing here, and they all fit together. Without all of them, we won’t be able to degrade and defeat ISIL.”
“The United States is not going to buckle in the face of demands or horrific actions of ISIL,” she said. “And we don’t expect other countries will either.”
Separately, another U.S. official who spoke with The Times said Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq’s Anbar province have begun conducting offensive operations against Islamic State targets. The official framed the development as a “huge turnaround” for an Obama administration push to recreate the so-called “Sunni Awakening” that drove al Qaeda-aligned extremists from the province during the mid-2000s.
However, administration-backed plans for a new Iraqi National Guard to provide benefits, weapons and support to the tribal fighters are still struggling to win support from Baghdad.
Asharq Al-Awsat reported Tuesday that tribes in Anbar announced a new joint coalition to fight the Islamic State, which is said to control as much as 85 percent of the territory in the province. But the Mideast-based newspaper also said tribal leaders were making the move out of anger over what many see as a lack of support from Baghdad and the U.S. led anti-Islamic State coalition.