- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

Speaking in Philadelphia on Monday, President Bush pointed to “four major milestones” in the post-Saddam political development of Iraq: transfer of sovereignty, elections for a transitional government, approval of a constitution and this week’s parliamentary elections.

But with his talk of “encouraging Iraqi reconciliation,” the president pointed toward a fifth milestone yet to be achieved: the successful romancing of Sunni Arab rejectionists by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Brokering a Sunni-Shi’ite political marriage is crucial to establishing the stability in Iraq needed for our troops to come home. It will be difficult, but it is not impossible.

A Western-style democracy won’t break out in Baghdad soon — or perhaps ever. But that doesn’t mean Sunnis and Shi’ites cannot use the political foundation laid so far to establish an intra-Iraqi balance of power rooted in principles of representative government.

In recent speeches on Iraq, President Bush has described three enemies: Abu Musab Zarqawi’s terrorists, who must be killed or captured; “Saddamists,” who can be “marginalized and defeated”; and indigenous Sunni “rejectionists,” the largest and most important adversary, who must be dealt with politically.

“We believe that over time most of this group will be persuaded to support a democratic Iraq led by a federal government that is strong enough to protect minority rights,” Mr. Bush said of the rejectionists.

The evolving declarations of leading rejectionists demonstrate some progress has been made in this tremendously difficult task.

Just as Shi’ites have generally followed the lead of Iraq’s pre-eminent Shi’ite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, many Sunnis have generally followed the lead of Sheik Harith al Dari, leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq’s Sunni clerical organization. While Ayatollah al-Sistani has thus far tacitly, if disdainfully, accepted the U.S. presence in Iraq, which he sees as advancing Shi’ite interests, Sheik al Dari has supported armed resistance.

Ayatollah al-Sistani called for the January elections; Sheik al Dari called for boycotting them. Shias voted heavily then; Sunnis didn’t. Ayatollah al-Sistani endorsed the Iraqi constitution; Sheik al Dari rejected it. Shias voted overwhelmingly for it; Sunni Arabs, largely against it. Where Ayatollah al-Sistani’s influence is greatest, in southern Iraq, U.S. casualties are few. In the Sunni triangle, where the influence of Sheik al Dari and the AMS is greatest, U.S. casualties mount.

Were Ayatollah al-Sistani to start behaving like Sheik al Dari, it would be a disaster for the United States. Were Sheik al Dari and the AMS to start behaving like Ayatollah al-Sistani, it could pave the way for our troops to come home.

The AMS claims the insurgency primarily consists of Iraqi Sunni Muslims (as opposed to Zarqawi’s foreigners) and that it influences these fighters through religious authority. “The Islamic resistance relies on youths who attend mosques and we, through our presence in mosques, have sensed a positive response on their part toward heeding our advice and guidance,” AMS spokesman Muthanna al Dari (son of Harith) claimed in the Jordanian newspaper Al Dustur on Nov. 2, 2004.

The bad news following from this is that the AMS has justified fighting Americans. The good news is the AMS is beginning to change its tune.

As late as Sept. 2, 2005, Sheik Harith al Dari, in a TV interview translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), said, “(W)e support the resistance wholeheartedly.”

But, then, on Sept. 14, Zarqawi called for a sectarian “total war” against Iraq’s Shi’ites. “There are only two camps,” said Zarqawi, “the camp of truth and its followers, and the camp of falsehood and its Shi’ites.”

Staring into the abyss of an al Qaeda-inspired religious civil war, AMS blinked. It said in a statement: “We call upon Abu Musab Zarqawi to retract these threats since they damage the image of jihad, jeopardize the success of the plan of jihad and resistance in Iraq, and lead to further bloodshed of innocent Iraqis.”

In an Oct. 11 interview on Al Arabiya, under questioning about the dangers of “interventions by Iran” in Iraq and the activities of Shi’ite militias, AMS spokesman Muthanna al Dari made a remarkable about-face. “(I)f the occupation forces leave Iraq all of a sudden,” he said, “then many problems will arise… . And we don’t demand their withdrawal now in order not to show naivete. We want the occupation forces to leave in the fastest time possible.”

At an initial Iraqi reconciliation conference sponsored by the Arab League in Cairo last month, Sheik al Dari met with Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The conference issued a Shi’ite-Sunni communique calling for U.S. troops to leave Iraq — but not just yet. Also, according to a report by MEMRI, it condemned “the notion of takfir, propagated by the Zarqawi group, according to which Muslims may be declared infidels or apostates by other Muslims.” Another reconciliation conference is scheduled for Baghdad in February.

Iraq is not on its way to replicating the political norms of Iowa. But, if in the coming year, Iraqi Shi’ites and Sunnis can make peace with each other, we can have peace with both.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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