US can still help Iraq find religious calm

When President Obama welcomes Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki on Friday, he needs to link US military aid to reducing sectarian tensions and the sudden rise in mass killings this year.

AP Photo
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is shown on a screen as he attends an Oct. 14 soccer game in Basra, Iraq.

The Middle East’s long struggle between Islam’s Sunnis and Shiites has revived with a vengeance in Iraq. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed so far this year in sectarian attacks, the highest number since the dark days of 2008 during the American occupation. When Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits President Obama at the White House on Friday, the two leaders must insist that religious figures in Iraq end a competition for power that is fueling the violence.

Many of this year’s mass killings, such as a bomb blast in a Baghdad market on Sunday, were likely caused by an Al Qaeda affiliate. The Muslim militant group has found renewed support among Iraq’s minority Sunnis who resent the increasing oppression by Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

Since the United States withdrew its forces nearly two years ago, Maliki has abandoned the successful American strategy of working with local tribal leaders to defuse tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. He has centralized power around himself and his Shiite-based political party while alienating elected Sunni leaders.

The renewed tensions have led to a revival of hate campaigns between Sunnis and Shiites based on the theological and historical differences between the two main strains of Islam. In addition to fomenting violence, the hate campaigns hurt the country’s efforts to rekindle a national identity that transcends religious or ethnic differences. That effort began after the 2003 American invasion and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator who suppressed the Shiite majority.

While Iraq’s future can still improve through elections, such as a presidential poll in April, there is a need for all Sunni and Shiite religious leaders to agree they should not be meddling in politics.

They have a strong role model in Iraq’s leading Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Despite his religious ties with Iran’s Shiite clergy, he has long argued against the Iranian model of clerics ruling over secular government. He has also recently joined with a few Sunni and Shiite leaders in calling for reconciliation. The group issued a document in August stating: “No sect shall have the right to describe the other as blasphemous, consider them an enemy, or allow for their bloodshed, looting of their property or violation of their honor.”

The civil war in neighboring Syria has spilled over into Iraq in many ways, but mostly in the rise of jihadist groups using Iraq as a base for fighting in Syria. Maliki will be in Washington to seek American military equipment to attack Al Qaeda-linked militants. Mr. Obama needs to insist that Iraq first deal with its sectarian violence with some accommodation between Sunnis and Shiites.

Iraq’s future could be bright if it takes such a step. Last year, it again became OPEC’s second-largest oil producer. And parts of Iraq’s economy are flourishing despite the increased violence.

But when an average of 18 people a day are killed over a religion, Iraqis are losing hope of living in a safe and thriving democracy. Since he was elected in 2006, Maliki has used sectarian fears to consolidate power and reduce national cohesion. His visit to Washington to seek military aid is a good time to remind him that he must change course.

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