Toward Iraq's Fifth Milestone

Speaking in Philadelphia Monday, President Bush pointed to “four major milestones” in the post-Saddam political development of Iraq: transfer of sovereignty, elections for a transitional government, approval of a constitution, and this week’s parliamentary elections.

But with his talk of “encouraging Iraqi reconciliation,” the President pointed toward a fifth milestone yet to be achieved: the successful romancing of Sunni Arab rejectionists by Iraq’s Shiite majority.

Brokering a Sunni-Shiite political marriage is crucial to establishing the stability in Iraq needed for our troops to come home.  It will be difficult, but it is not impossible.

A Western-style democracy won’t break out in Baghdad soon–or perhaps ever.  But that doesn’t mean Sunnis and Shiites cannot use the political foundation laid so far to establish an intra-Iraqi balance of power rooted in principles of representative government.

In recent speeches on Iraq, President Bush has described three enemies: Zarqawi’s terrorists, who must be killed or captured; “Saddamists” who can be “marginalized and defeated;” and indigenous Sunni “rejectionists,” the largest and most important adversary, who must be dealt with politically.  “We believe that over time most of this group will be persuaded to support a democratic Iraq led by a federal government that is strong enough to protect minority rights,” Bush said of the rejectionists.

The evolving declarations of leading rejectionists demonstrate some progress has been made in this tremendously difficult task.

Just as Shiites have generally followed the lead of Iraq’s preeminent Shiite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, many Sunnis have generally followed the lead of Sheik Harith al Dari, leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq’s Sunni clerical organization. While Sistani has thus far tacitly, if disdainfully, accepted the U.S. presence in Iraq, which he sees as advancing Shiite interests, al Dari has supported armed resistance.

Sistani called for the January elections; Dari called for boycotting them.  Shias voted heavily then; Sunnis didn’t.  Sistani endorsed the Iraqi constitution; Dari rejected it.  Shias voted overwhelmingly for it; Sunni Arabs, largely against it.  Where Sistani’s influence is greatest in southern Iraq, U.S. casualties are few.  In the Sunni triangle, where the influence of Dari and the AMS is greatest, U.S. casualties mount.

Were Sistani to start behaving like Dari, it would be a disaster for the U.S.  Were Dari and the AMS to start behaving like Sistani, it could pave the way for our troops to come home.

The AMS claims the insurgency primarily consists of Iraqi Sunni Muslims (as opposed to Zarqawi’s foreigners) and that it influences these fighters through religious authority.  “The Islamic resistance relies on youths who attend mosques and we, through our presence in mosques, have sensed a positive response on their part towards heeding our advice and guidance,” AMS spokesman Muthanna al Dari (son of Harith) claimed in the Jordanian newspaper Al Dustur on Nov. 2, 2004.  

The bad news following from this is that the AMS has justified fighting Americans. The good news is the AMS is beginning to change its tune.

As late as Sept. 2, Sheik Harith al Dari, in a TV interview translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, said, “[W]e support the resistance wholeheartedly.”

But, then, on Sept. 14, Zarqawi called for a sectarian “total war” against Iraq’s Shiites.  “There are only two camps,” said Zarqawi, “the camp of truth and its followers, and the camp of falsehood and its Shiites.”  Staring into the abyss of an al Qaeda-inspired religious civil war, AMS blinked.  It said in a statement: “We call upon Abu Musab Zarqawi to retract these threats since they damage the image of jihad, jeopardize the success of the plan of jihad and resistance in Iraq and lead to further bloodshed of innocent Iraqis.”

In an Oct. 11 interview on Al Arabiya, under questioning about the dangers of “interventions by Iran” in Iraq and the activities of Shiite militias, AMS spokesman Muthanna al Dari made a remarkable about face.  “[I]f the occupation forces leave Iraq all of a sudden,” he said, “then many problems will arise … And we don’t demand their withdrawal now in order not to show naiveté.  We want the occupation forces to leave in the fastest time possible.”

At an initial Iraqi reconciliation conference sponsored by the Arab League in Cairo last month, Sheik Dari met with Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jafaari.  The conference issued a Shiite-Sunni communiqué calling for U.S. troops to leave Iraq–but not just yet.   Also, according to a report by MEMRI, it condemned “the notion of takfir, propagated by the Zarqawi group according to which Muslims may be declared infidels or apostates by other Muslims.” Another reconciliation conference is scheduled for Baghdad in February.

Iraq is not on its way to replicating the political norms of Iowa.  But, if in the coming year, Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis can make peace with each other, we can have peace with both.