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Iraq: Mecca Charter Unlikely To Stem Sectarian Violence

(RFE/RL) PRAGUE, October 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, approximately 50 Iraqi religious leaders signed a text in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the hope that it would lead to the end the sectarian bloodshed that has been raging in Iraq for eight months. However, many questions persist as to whether this document can seriously affects the security situation in Iraq.

The 10-point Mecca Charter issued on October 20 was drafted by four clerics under the auspices of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It draws on Koranic verses and sayings by the Prophet Muhammad.

For a nation that has had difficulty in agreeing on just about everything since the overthrow of the Hussein regime, the unanimous acceptance of the charter undoubtedly represents hope for Iraqis.

The document calls for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on places of worship. It calls for safeguarding the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq; releasing all innocent detainees; and allowing displaced persons to return to their homes. In addition, it urges Iraqis to "work together to end foreign occupation and rebuild the country's economic, political, and military capabilities."

Iraqi Religious Leaders Hail Signing

Religious leaders overwhelmingly praised the charter, saying that it was positive step for Iraq and represented a powerful message that the Shi'ite and Sunni religious communities supported Iraqi unity and rejected sectarian violence.

Salah Salim Abd al-Razzaq, a Shi'ite participant, said the document was significant because it was signed by both Shi'ite and Sunni religious authorities.

"The Mecca document will yield positive results and will have a great impact on the course of events in the Iraqi street now that it has been signed by Sunni and Shi'ite scholars and now that it has gained the blessing of Shi'ite religious authorities," the Saudi-based newspaper "Ukaz" quoted him on October 21 as saying.

Abd al-Salim al-Qubaysi, a Sunni cleric and a member of the Muslim Scholars Association, stressed that the charter succeeded in fulfilling its objectives and now needed to be implemented.

"The Mecca document included significant points that tackled practical issues such as condemning killings based on sectarian identity, considering it an act of fragmentation," al-Qubaysi said during an October 21 interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television.

Meanwhile, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on October 22 that several Iraqi cities witnessed large demonstrations in support of the Mecca Charter and Iraqi national unity -- an indication the Iraqi public has hopes the charter will end the bloody cycle of sectarian attacks.

Notable Absences

While many Iraqi religious leaders expressed optimism, the absence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, or representatives from their respective movements, from the conference was a significant development. Although both men issued statements in support of the conference and the charter, their decision not to attend or to send representatives speaks volumes.

A poster of Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (epa)

Al-Sistani called on all sides to accept the charter, but his absence may have weakened its potential impact among his followers, who may question its legitimacy. Al-Sistani is the most revered Shi'ite cleric in Iraq and if he had sent a representative to sign the charter on his behalf, it would have most certainly given it greater weight and legitimacy not only among his followers, but throughout Iraq's religious establishment.

Al-Sadr's decision to stay away from the Mecca conference places him further at odds with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, which has been trying to reign in militias, particularly, al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. That militia has been widely blamed for much of the sectarian violence.

Furthermore, al-Sadr's absence sends a conflicting message as to whether he actually wants to halt the sectarian strife. Earlier he urged his followers to stop carrying out sectarian attacks and vowed to go after his militiamen who have been accused of being involved in death squads. His absence from the conference, like al-Sistani's, weakens the Mecca Charter.

Will It Make A Difference?

The gathering of Shi'ite and Sunni religious leaders and the signing of the charter sends a powerful message that Iraqi religious leaders are serious about preserving the nation's unity and halting sectarian violence. For a nation that has had difficulty in agreeing on just about everything since the overthrow of the Hussein regime, the unanimous acceptance of the charter undoubtedly represents hope for Iraqis.

Furthermore, the optimism generated by the signing of the Mecca Charter has created momentum for the OIC to organize a follow-up meeting. A high-level OIC source indicated the organization plans to hold a reconciliation conference of Iraqi political leaders in Mecca during the upcoming hajj season at the end of the year, the Jeddah-based "Arab News" reported on October 23.

However, Iraqis have heard these statements before only to be disillusioned by them. During the reconciliation conference held in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League in 2005, delegates rejected divisions along ethnic and religious lines and stressed Iraq's unity. However, three months later Iraq was plunged into its current state of sectarian violence after the bombing of the Al-Askari (Golden) Mosque in Samarra.

A Koran that was burnt during fighting between coalition forces and Shi'ite militiamen in Baghdad in July (epa)

Several Iraqi politicians have expressed doubts that the Mecca Charter can have any effect on the security situation in the country. Iyad Jamal al-Din, a lawmaker and a member of the Iraqi List, told Baghdad Satellite Television on October 21 that "those who murder, blow up, and deem spilling of Iraqi blood permissible do not believe in religion nor do they follow a religious scholar and will therefore continue on their path."

Similarly, there have been reports that some militia members have left to form freelance death squads that have been linked to sectarian violence, indicating that religious authorities have little influence over them. The U.S. military said there is evidence that rogue fighters from al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army were involved in some of these attacks, demonstrating that al-Sadr may be losing control of some of his militiamen.

Although the Mecca Charter declares a strong commitment to ending sectarian violence and maintaining Iraqi unity, there is no indication of how this agenda would be implemented on the ground. The sectarian violence has engulfed the nation since February and Prime Minister al-Maliki's government has so far been unable to stop it. It seems unlikely that this charter -- built on lofty proclamations, but without any concrete mechanisms to implement them -- will put an end to the bloodshed.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.