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Iraq's religious factions make calls for restraint

Sunday Sadr envoys began mediating talks between Sunnis, Shiites.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2005


In a bid to stop a spiral of sectarian violence that has brought Iraq closer to civil war than at any time since the 2003 US invasion, Iraqi religious leaders and officials are stepping up calls of unity and restraint.

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Even as divisive rhetoric and more bloodshed between Iraq's majority Shiites, who control the new government, and disenfranchised minority Sunnis appeared to magnify the prospect of civil war late last week, condemnations of the violence - and even a bid to mediate a truce - began to emerge.

"They have peered over the edge, and decided that is really where they don't want to go, and now people are pulling back," says a US diplomat in Baghdad. He notes "a lot of communication" between Sunni and Shiite leaders to "see how we put this genie back in the bottle."

With 10 clerics killed in the past two weeks, and Sunni mosques closed in protest for three days over the weekend, tensions have escalated. But even Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric whose militia took on American forces during two uprisings last year, began a mediation effort Sunday.

To ease tensions, Mr. Sadr's envoys began talks Sunday with representatives of both main Shiite and Sunni parties - the Supreme Council of the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Muslim Clerics' Association, respectively.

Hard-line Sunni militants are largely behind Iraq's insurgency, which has killed some 500 Iraqis in recent weeks with suicide car bombs. For many months, Shiites have been heavily targeted in an apparent bid to provoke a sectarian backlash and draw them into open conflict.

The latest wave, however, includes the killing of a prominent Sunni leader and member of the Muslim Clerics Association, who was whisked away with other Sunnis by men in Iraqi uniforms.

The Clerics Association is alleged to have links to the insurgency, but has also helped secure the release of Western hostages. Its leader, Harith al-Dhari, accused Shiite militiamen of the Badr Brigade, the Iran-trained military arm of one of Iraq's most influential political parties, of being "behind the campaign of killings of preachers and worshippers."

A senior Badr official denied the claim, saying it would "only serve to pour fuel on the flames."

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq, has long called for restraint to limit revenge. But one of Mr. Sistani's representatives in Baghdad was himself gunned down late last week.

"[Sistani] has placed enormous restraint on his followers - [and] that one fact prevents Iraq falling into a bloodbath," says Imam Hassan Qazwini, a Shiite religious leader from Iraq, who heads the Islamic Center of America in Detroit, Mich.

The Clerics' Association is "still in the shadow of Saddam Hussein; they still do not accept the reality that Sunni domination is gone," says Mr. Qazwini. "If there is a civil war, the Sunnis will pay the price. They know that, and should be the ones who are worried."

The Sunni decision to boycott January elections means that Sunnis hold only 17 spots in the 275-seat National Assembly, which has begun work on a new constitution. Some 1,000 Sunni clerics and tribal leaders met in Baghdad on Saturday, calling for Iraqi unity and vowing to rejoin the political process.