By Fr. George Welzbacher
September 16, 2007
General David Petraeus was the target of a ham-fisted effort to impugn his veracity in a full-page ad paid for by MoveOn.org in the September 10th edition of The New York Times: "Is it General Petraeus? or General Betray Us?" MoveOn.org's soporific attempts at humor to the contrary notwithstanding, the general was impressive in testifying before Congress for ten long hours this past week. Confirming what a short parade of senators and congressmen had themselves reported recently as they returned from trips of inspection to Iraq, the general made one thing very clear: the newly implemented counterinsurgency plan, carried out with troops that in their numbers are at last sufficient for the task, has been remarkably successful in bringing security (and thus stability) to important sectors of Iraq, most notably to the vast province of Anbar, which only six months ago was the most prone to violence and the most anti-American of all the provinces of Iraq. But what is equally clear from the testimony both of General Petraeus and of Ryan Crocker, America's ambassador to Iraq, as is also clear from the comments of many independent observers, is that on Iraq's political front we are faced with lots and lots of "bad luck and trouble." The present Iraqi government seems to be all but paralyzed by factional conflict. What is needed above all else is a major effort at reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shia, though the spiral of atrocity followed by retaliation has made such reconciliation very difficult to achieve.
That is why a meeting this past August in a suburb of Cairo attended by Iraq's most prestigious religious authorities from both the Sunni and the Shiite camps could be of great significance, even though the media by and large gave the meeting a pass. Why was this meeting so significant? Because if reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite is the indispensable precondition for the kind of cooperation between parties that an effectively functioning government requires, then, the key to a successful future for the central government of Iraq is in the hands of Iraq's religious leaders. And at this top-level meeting of Iraq's religious leaders a joint appeal was issuedfor the very first time to all of their followers to renounce violence and to enter into a dialogue marked by mutual respect. Such a call provides the only grounds for hope that political cooperation might after all be within reach. Let us pray that the call will be heeded.
The initiative, by the way, in organizing this conference of Muslim imams came from a Christian clergyman, an Anglican priest, Canon Andrew White. If the conference that he worked so hard to convene should prove to be a turning point in the reconciliation of Islam's two major factions, Father White, it seems to me, would be a worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Robert McFarlane, who years ago served with distinction as President Reagan's National Security Advisor, wrote a report on this conference at Cairo. The report appeared in the weekend edition (for August 25 & 26) of The Wall Street Journal May I share it with you here.
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A Fatwa Against Violence
By Robert McFarlane
Last week I participated in a three day meeting here that included six of the most senior Iraqi Sunni and Shia religious leaders. At the meeting, held at a Marriott hotel in a Cairo suburb, they formally agreed to "end terrorist violence, and to disband militia activity in order to build a civilized country and work within the framework of law."
This gathering was a truly historic event, given the authority of the participants-including Sheikh Ahmed at Kubaisi, acknowledged by all Iraqis as the senior Sunni religious authority (the weekly audience for his Friday sermons, broadcast from Dubai, numbers 20 million), and Ayatollah Sayyid Aman Abu Ragheef, chief of staff for Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the acknowledged leader of the Shia community in Iraq and beyond. One has only to consider the power of these specific religious leaders, and the instruments at their disposal for getting results, to grasp the gathering's enormous potential importance.
How does this relate to the Iraqi government and coalition forces? Can these clerics achieve anything concrete? If so how soon? And will it be enforceable?
Simply stated, these men-all self-interested stewards of their separate Sunni and Shia constituencies - - have seen that their government's failure to act could lead Iraq into an irretrievable situation. They feel a moral imperative to fill the power vacuum As for whether their actions will be taken seriously and be enforceable, the affirrnative answer lies in the acknowledged role of the mosque, and of the grand ayatollahs and imams of the seniority represented here in Arab societies.
As additional evidence that Iraq's most senior religious leaders see the potential for catastrophe in prolonged violence unabated by government action, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani has reached out to the most senior Sunni Imams and asked that they meet with him as soon as possible in Najaf, Iraq, to focus on peacemaking. Such an invitation by the most senior Shia for a meeting with the most senior Sunni is unprecedented in Iraq's history.
It was also noteworthy that these leaders included Sheikh Abdul Lateef Humaeeym, the former personal imam to Suddam Hussein. Welcoming Mr. Humayeem to this very elite circle-a religious board of directors in Iraq-is a clear signal to former Baath civil servants and military officers that they will be welcome in the new Iraq.
Here in the West we tend to discount the role of religion in resolving disputes. Indeed our diplomatic tradition eschews involving religion--or even mentioning it-in diplomatic discourse. Clearly, however, its role is central in underpinning the sectarian violence in Iraq. U. S. Ambassdor to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, understands that, as well as the powerful role that religious leaders could play if they chose to do so. He has been a strong supporter-as has the U. S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus--of the painstaking process that preceded this meeting in Cairo. Nothing like this has ever occurred in Iraqs history--and yet it is happening.
Going forward, the key leaders have agreed to a calendar of concrete actions starting with the unprecedented meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani in Najaf within two weeks. If that meeting goes well, it could lend momentum to the early development of the planned joint Sunni-Shia fatwa. Such a fatwa would stand as a historic milestone with profound meaning and effect on the Iraqi people.
To be fair, it was clear that one of the factors which motivated these very senior leaders to come together was their common goal of getting the U.S. out of Iraq-obviously a goal we share, assuming we can achieve an acceptable degree of security before leaving. Just as important, however, was their alarm over growing Iranian influence in southern Iraq and the common sentiment among them that they do not want to be dominated by Iran.
This process of nuturing reconciliation by bringing Iraqs religious leaders together- gradually in small groups leading to a conference this past June involving over 70 leaders, and devolving now here in Cairo to the six most senior clerics in all Iraq-has been led by Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest who has established his contacts and credibility with Iraqi leaders during more than nine years of service in Baghdad. Father White is a commanding presence and a man who deserves our prayers and support. The process he has organized and set in motion could mark a turning point in the wretched history of Iraq.