Church-led effort to bridge Iraq's rifts

In his black suit and shirt and white collar, the tall British clergyman stands out among the gathering of Sunni Muslim clerics in flowing robes, white turbans, and colored headdresses.

The Rev. Canon Andrew White nods thoughtfully as he reads a statement by one of the sheikhs criticizing the "embarrassing failure" of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and accusing the US-appointed Governing Council of being unrepresentative. The statement also condemns violence, urging instead "constructive resistance" against the occupation, such as peaceful protests and civil disobedience.

"It's good," says Mr. White. "I like it because I'm not an American nor a member of the Governing Council," the Anglican minister jokes, raising a laugh from the Sunni clerics.

The meeting, in a mosque on Baghdad's outskirts, is one of White's efforts to unite Iraq's different faiths and settle intrasectarian differences in hopes of averting a potential civil war here. The clerics, whom the Monitor was asked not to name, are from two Sunni organizations who cannot agree on how to deal with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

White is the director of the International Center for Reconciliation at England's Coventry Cathedral and the Mideast envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church. He has helped mediate numerous intractable and violent situations, including in Iraq, which he has visited regularly over the past six years.

Now the veteran peacemaker faces arguably his greatest challenge - bringing Iraq's religious and tribal groups together in an attempt to quell the violence racking the country.

A recent upsurge of bloody suicide-bomb attacks against Iraqis, disputes over an electoral timetable, and an unrelenting insurgency against coalition troops is fueling concern that Iraq could be gradually sliding into civil war.

High-profile support

That goal is set to receive a boost on Tuesday with the launch of the British-funded Iraqi Center for Reconciliation and Peace, which aims principally to help stem the violence that continues to plague the country. The center has won the backing of such high-profile figures as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent Shiite cleric, and Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the highest authority in Sunni Islam.

"It will bring together for the first time key Sunni and Shiite leaders along with Kurds, Christians, and others," White says in an interview.

It was a tough sell, he adds, persuading diverse groups of Iraqis to take the idea seriously and to participate.

"I couldn't have done it if I was an American. The British are perceived differently here," he says. "We have to be as radical in the search for peace as the insurgents are in their search for ever more violent methods."

Being a Christian clergyman helped, however, because he was regarded as a "neutral player."

"You actually need very considerable input from an independent third party. That's what we've tried to be," he says.

Other than promoting peace, the center's activities will address women's issues and include establishing a television station called Salaam, which means "peace" in Arabic. "We will be working at every level of society," White says.

The cornerstone of the project is the Iraqi Religious Accord, a carefully worded seven-point document drawn up by White and approved by the center's 25-member council of prominent religious and political leaders, including Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr, a senior Shiite cleric based in Baghdad, and Sheikh Ahmad Kubeisi, an outspoken Sunni cleric strongly opposed to the US-led occupation.

"According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his holy name and defames religion not only in Iraq but in the world," the document says.

"Violence and terrorism in Iraq are an evil that must be opposed by all as we seek to rebuild our nation. We as Iraqis from different traditions seek to live together as one family respecting the integrity of each other's historical and religious inheritance. We call upon all to oppose incitement, hatred, and the misrepresentation of the other."

Still, despite the accommodating sentiments contained in the accord, there are formidable obstacles in the way of civil peace. International concern over Iraq's internal stability was highlighted recently by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Ibrahimi. He appealed to Iraqis to be "conscious that civil wars do not happen because a person makes a decision 'Today, I'm going to start a civil war.' "

Mr. Ibrahimi, an Algerian who witnessed his own country's descent into civil strife in the 1990s and helped mediate in Lebanon's 1975-1990 conflict, added that wars begin "because people are reckless, people are selfish, because people think more of themselves than they do of their country."

White says he has no illusions as to the difficulties ahead. "Either there will be a civil war or the first chance of democracy in the Middle East," he says. "It could go either way. I hope it will go the way of real democracy, but it might not."

'Negotiations are very good'

White tells the assembled Sunni clerics at the meeting: "You will be even more powerful if the Sunnis and the Shiites can get together and take your issues to the coalition authorities together because these issues are the same." One Sunni cleric nods his head and says, "Negotiations are very good and always bring about one's objectives." It's conflict resolution at work.

The meeting breaks up earlier than expected with the two groups agreeing to present a joint front in future dealings with the CPA. White smiles broadly, pleased at the unexpectedly swift and successful outcome.

"If they had spent three days on their own, they would not have come up with that solution," he says. "If we can get them to come together as one group, that will be great," he says. "Now we have to work on the Shiites."

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