US drops a ball in Iraq

Washington must reconnect with Iraqi religious leaders.

US and Iraqi officials are blaming Al Qaeda in Iraq for a disturbing spike in suicide bombings. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the US military commander in Iraq, says the attacks over the last month are intended to "garner attention and spark sectarian discord" as US troops ready to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30.

Indeed, the bombings have been carried out by Sunni insurgents who are targeting Shiite neighborhoods – but not all of the insurgents are acting on behalf of Al Qaeda, which is also made up of Sunnis.

That, at least, is how an Anglican priest in Baghdad is reading the surge in violence. Some of the attacks are also a sign of anger that the new Obama administration is not listening to Sunni religious leaders: "We've been told that the violence will get worse until the Americans wake up to the fact that the religious leaders will be listened to," says Canon Andrew White, of St. George's Church in Baghdad.

This is not idle chatter. Mr. White is one of the most trusted figures in Iraq, having served there for 11 years. Since the fall of Baghdad in 2003, he's worked quietly behind the scenes to bring together Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and other religious leaders – as well as Kurds – in this country of deep sectarian and ethnic division.

When Gen. David Petraeus commanded US forces in Iraq, he asked the "vicar of Baghdad" to enlist the help of an influential Sunni religious leader in turning Iraqi Sunnis against Al Qaeda. White's hours of explanation of the general's plans to the Sunni sheikh paid off.

Last year, White succeeded in facilitating the first joint Iraqi Shiite-Sunni fatwa denouncing violence and condemning suicide bombing. The religious ruling backed by both of these Muslim sects has been aired on broadcasts and invoked at Friday prayers, helping to reduce the recruiting base for suicide bombers.

So when White says that some of the bombings are a call for more US (and Iraqi government) attention – as he did in a visit with the Monitor this week – he should be heeded.

White goes on to explain that an important ball has been dropped in the changeover from the Bush to Obama administrations. Under Bush, the Pentagon financially supported White's reconciliation work and he had personal access to General Petraeus. This kind of involvement was unusual for the Department of Defense – but politically astute, given the important role of religion in Iraqi society.

The dollars and top access have vanished since the change in US administrations, apparently due to the gaps that accompany a new administration coming up to speed. The Sunnis – the minority sect that once enjoyed favor and power under Saddam Hussein – are not reacting well to the sudden void. The Americans may be on the way out, but they're still perceived as having power, says White.

Ultimately, Sunnis are looking for some restoration of their loss of money, property, and political influence. The Sunni militias that turned against Al Qaeda have yet to be absorbed into the Iraqi military as planned. Sunni integration remains a serious challenge for the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The mix of religion and politics in Iraq is a tricky one. Voters in January's provincial elections rejected religious parties and showed a clear preference for a secular political direction. And yet religious leaders still retain tremendous influence over their followers – and over politics.

Indeed, if White's reconciliation process continued, it could tackle other serious issues facing Iraq. Imagine a fatwa against the spectacular and pervasive corruption that is now corroding the country.

And if White can herd bitterly opposed Shiite and Sunni leaders onto a small bus where they suddenly join to sing each other's religious songs, what might such joining do to bridge the Arab-Kurdish divide? That Shiite militias have refrained from retaliatory attacks on Sunnis is further proof of progress.

Whether it is the Pentagon or State Department that reconnects with Iraq's religious leaders and White's reconciliation effort, the connection needs to be made. In an era of conflict in which religion plays such a critical role, Team Obama should pick up this dropped ball.

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