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The Iraqi 'Nation'

One reason put forward for why we ought not continue the fight in Iraq is that the Iraqis themselves aren't doing their part to unite their country against the insurgency. It's wrong.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a remarkable three-day gathering of more than 70 Iraqi clerics. It was held in Baghdad, was organized by Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest in Iraq, and had one aim: Give Iraqi religious leaders a forum to listen to and engage one another. It was a phenomenal success.

The conference was encouraging from the outset because it attracted some of the top clerics in the country. They included close advisors to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite prelate in Iraq; Moqtada Al Sadr, the firebrand leader of the Mahdi militia; and equivalent Sunni and Kurdish figures. They arrived clearly interested in fostering reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and in the process reducing violence, disarming the militias and enacting into law a framework for a fair distribution of political and economic power. Many of the participants are members of the parliament.

Think about the meaning of what's described in the preceding paragraph. How often have you asked yourself over the past four years as violence has unfolded in Iraq, "Is it possible that the hatred and bitterness on display each day will ever evolve into reconciliation?" After attending this conference, I believe the answer is yes.

First, it is important to note that in Iraq the term "cleric" carries a different meaning than in the West. In Islam, one's personal obligation is to devote himself to improving the well-being of his political and economic setting. A concept known as jihad acknowledges for some sects the legitimacy of violence. Indeed, many of the participants at the conference have a violent history. So much the better, because it is only through getting those at the center of the conflict to engage with their adversaries that we will find the basis for a modus vivendi. And so it turned out at this conference.

The opening salvos from each of the three sects involved rhetorical statements of grievance -- each against the others. What was remarkable, however, was that the statements turned out to be pro forma and by the afternoon of the first day these very powerful figures began to listen to one another. What transpired was fascinating. Shiite participants acknowledged that their followers had intermarried with Sunnis for generations -- and vice versa -- and while all deplored the brutality of Saddam's regime no one counted it as legitimating a blood feud. The common theme was one of anger at the violence in Iraq and its primary driver, al Qaeda. But this rage came tempered by a commitment to put their country back together. Throughout the conference, they called it their "nation."

By the second day they began to focus on setting benchmarks to measure each other's commitment to what was being said. Each of the participants, men and women of great influence -- the elite of Iraq -- pledged to return to their provinces and seek to reduce violence, attempt to disarm the militias and (for those members of the parliament) to forge a compromise and pass critical legislation including the pending oil law -- a benchmark measure of the willingness of Shiites and Kurds to acknowledge the centrality of a secure economic future for Sunnis.

It is important to note that this conference was strongly supported by American Ambassador Ryan Crocker as well as by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq. Neither sought to intervene nor to drive the conference toward any particular conclusion. Both clearly understood, however, that broad-based political reconciliation is the linchpin of any hope for lasting stability in Iraq.

In Washington, Mr. White's effort to nurture the process of reconciliation has been quietly supported by the Defense Department. Some would dismiss such support as nothing but self-interest on the part of the Pentagon. But I believe there is more to it than that. After four very difficult and counterproductive years in Iraq, we now have leaders in place in Baghdad who understand the nature of this conflict. Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus intuitively know that a political accommodation acceptable to all is only stable foundation for peace in Iraq. And they also understand that such a foundation can only be laid by Iraqis.

On the last day of the conference the delegates pledged to reconvene as soon as possible. A final settlement will likely take some time. But current plans call for a second meeting to be held in Cairo in August. The irony of this possibly historic work is that it is operating on a shoestring. Mr. White has organized a nonprofit in the U.S. and is now trying to raise the fairly modest sums needed to keep this trialogue going. If you'd like to know more about his efforts, please send me a note.

Mr. McFarlane, a national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan, can be reached via email at

The Iraqi 'Nation' -  Source

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