US military's new Iraq strategy: religious conciliation

Washington, USA – A fledgling group of Sunni and Shiite religious leaders met for the first time in Baghdad last week to condemn sectarian violence in their country, a move US military officials framed as a first of its kind and a small step toward broader political reconciliation.

The group of 55 delegates composed of Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and other religious representatives from around the country signed an accord June 12 during a two-day meeting that denounced Al Qaeda and vowed to protect holy sites. But it wasn't enough to stop the truck bombing of a Shiite mosque in downtown Baghdad that reportedly killed 87 and injured 200 more. The bombing is the most recent example of the kind of violence between Sunnis and Shiites, although no one had immediately claimed responsibility for it. That attack follows a wave of attacks against mosques recently, including five in Basra – three Sunni and two Shiite – and the second attack on the historic Shiite mosque in Samarra in which the two remaining minarets were virtually destroyed.

The group of religious delegates who met in Baghdad was attempting to stem just this kind of violence. Billed as the Iraqi Inter-Religious Congress, it was the largest number of religious leaders from the broadest geographic base in Iraq to meet in 37 years, American officials in Baghdad say. Many of the 55 delegates, which also included Christians as well as Yazidi, a primarily Kurdish sect in northern Iraq, were themselves some of the "bad actors" who have directed sectarian violence, officials say.

"The biggest miracle of the conference was that it was the first time since the war that these antagonists sat down in a room and had a reasonable dialogue instead of passing out ammunition," says Army Col. Micheal Hoyt, chief chaplain for US forces in Iraq.

Colonel Hoyt says he doesn't want to oversell the significance of the event. Nonetheless, he points to it as a positive sign of the kind of large-scale political reconciliation that could still occur in Iraq.

"If this step hadn't occurred, there wouldn't be any movement in that direction," he says. "This is the foundational step to allow broader reconciliation, at least among religious leaders, many of whom are perpetrators of violence, to begin to move forward."

But at least one US analyst says such meetings have occurred on some level before and while they yield conciliatory rhetoric, that rarely translates into a decrease in violence.

Many of those perpetrating violence, at mosques and elsewhere, don't listen to the clerics, says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "It would be great if this works, but I'm deeply pessimistic at this stage in the civil war that it can be reversed by meetings like this."

Much of the meeting was spent on deciding how the meeting would proceed and included only a little substantive discussion beyond denouncing extremist Sunnis in the form of Al Qaeda and vowing to protect holy sites around the country, Hoyt says. The accord they signed included other broad points around the ideas of free expression of faith, tolerance, and unity.

Hoyt declined to say what the issues of contention that remain are, saying those are negotiating points that will be addressed at the next meeting within the next two months. Media reports from Baghdad indicated that imams from various mosques in Baghdad have recently been encouraging each other to attend one another's mosques for Friday prayer.