Osama's answer to Iraq's violenceKARACHI - That the spiral of sectarian killing between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq has reached crisis point is evidenced by a recent landmark gathering of prominent religious scholars from both sects at which they called for an end to the violence.
In a joint declaration, signed at Al-Safa Palace overlooking the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, the religious scholars, in a move toward mutual recognition unprecedented in Iraq, called for a complete end to sectarian killings.
Meeting under the auspices of the 56-country Organization of the
Islamic Conference (OIC) and the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, a member organization of the OIC, the Shi'ite and Sunni scholars called on Iraqis in plain terms to stand united in protecting the independence, unity and territorial integrity of their country. "This is necessary," they said, "in order to put an end to the [foreign] occupation and restore and reinstate Iraq's Arab-Islamic role."
The declaration, in essence a fatwa, has received full approval and endorsement from key Shi'ite and Sunni leaders in Iraq, most notably from influential Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said he could not say what effect the decree would have, admitting, "It is a moral obligation. Neither the OIC, nor anyone else, has power over the consciences of men."
This, in a nutshell, is the problem in Iraq: militia and other leaders no longer have control over the "consciences of men", and a seemingly endless circle of violence appears to be the result.
Tracing the roots
A security memo circulated among various intelligence organs of the countries involved in the US-led "war on terror" (including in Pakistan) tells how, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar (VEVAK - Iranian intelligence) launched an operation to assassinate Iraqi Ba'ath Party leaders to root out anti-Iranian Aflaqism (Michael Aflaq was the founder of the Ba'ath Party).
Members of the Shi'ite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Organization and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, who were trained by Iranian intelligence for decades, were to be used for the mission.
They were given lists of Iraqi military officers, academics and intellectuals to be eliminated. The majority of them were Sunnis, with a few being Shi'ite and Christian. Many were known to have been killed.
This period marked the emergence of militias in Iraq, but these "official" outfits were soon joined by a growing number of small, home-grown, paramilitary-style brigades formed by local tribes, religious leaders and political parties to settle their own scores.
Initially, they had defined goals, but over time many of them deteriorated into little more than bands of bloodthirsty thugs beyond the control of their original leaders.
For the US administration to lean on the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki to disarm the militias, then, is of little help as they appear to be a will unto themselves and, lacking ideological or organizational backing, are certainly beyond the authority of Baghdad.
Ignoring Osama bin Laden
In many encounters with people in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal areas who were once a part of Osama bin Laden's close circles, this correspondent is clear that while the al-Qaeda leader had very strong ideas that rejected Shi'ite philosophies, he kept himself away from any sectarian confrontations.
That is why he always maintained a distance from such people as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the erstwhile leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who is attributed with significantly ramping up Sunni-Shi'ite violence before his death this year at the hands of US forces.
Bin Laden believes that Shi'ites should not be alienated and that, in alliance with Sunnis, they could end the United States' imperial adventure in Iraq.
Indeed, it appears that some months before Zarqawi died he had been prevailed on by bin Laden and his deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, to stop attacks against Shi'ites and concentrate on forging an anti-US bloc.
Judging by the escalation in sectarian killings, it appears to have been too little too late.
In Pakistan, the militant Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) played havoc against Shi'ites. When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, most LJ members fled to Afghanistan, where in al-Qaeda training camps they were motivated toward global jihad and forced to give up their narrow anti-Shi'ite perspectives.
It worked to some extent. After the Taliban's retreat in 2001, the LJ divided into two factions. One remained involved with al-Qaeda, while a smaller faction stayed committed to killing Shi'ites. The latter group thus became isolated, which enabled the intelligence agencies to track down members. Most of them are now either dead or behind bars.
Any plan to defuse the situation in Iraq will require a similar approach. From the top, an attempt needs to be made to bring back as many renegades as possible into the spiritual and ideological fold.
Thereafter, intelligence operations would have to infiltrate the myriad networks and identify those isolated at the grassroots level, and then use brute force to crush them.
The latest call by Shi'ite and Sunni religious leaders could be the first step in this direction.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]