Mecca Charter: gap between principles and practice

Daily News Egypt
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After the US-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, it became clear that sectarian and ethnic identity would be a major principle of post-Saddam politics. With parliament seats and government posts being allocated according to a sectarian-ethnic quota system, powerful Iraqi actors – chiefly the religious Shiite parties and the Kurdish parties – advocated strongly for the interests of their own constituencies. The “debaathification of ministries and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army threw a sizable number of Sunni Arabs, who had been favored for leadership positions under the old regime, out of work. In this environment, and with an insurgency growing, numerous organizations from within and outside Iraq emerged to advocate conflicting interests. The resulting clashes took a violent turn to plague the country ever since.

Various efforts and attempts to find a way out of the deadlock achieved little, and the scale of violence and the ensuing death toll has been huge. Concerned about the possible fall-out of this situation at the regional level, Saudi Arabia and some other neighboring countries remained active in their attempts to help the warring parties come to a peaceful settlement.

As part of this effort, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) brought together Iraqi Shiite and Sunni clerics to meet in Islam’s holiest city and signed the Mecca Charter on October 19, which called for a halt in Iraq’s sectarian bloodshed.

The 10-point text, drafted by a group of four clerics from the two communities, under the auspices of the OIC, draws on the sacred principle of tolerance and forgiveness in Islam. It calls for the safeguarding of the holy places of the two communities, defending the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq and the release of “all innocent detainees .

But it would be wishful thinking to believe that the Mecca Charter would ultimately lead to the cessation of fighting in Iraq. The OIC secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, was quick to acknowledge that the true success of this effort goes nowhere beyond the mere acceptance of the peace appeal in the charter, and that the document lacks an effective enforcement mechanism. Ekmeleddin acknowledged that the OIC did not have a “magic wand to ensure its implementation. “It is a moral obligation. Neither the OIC, nor anyone else, has power over the conscience of men, he added.

Nevertheless, there were encouraging signals. Spiritual leaders on both sides supported the document. For instance, the Shiite marjaya, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, sent a letter of support that was read to the participants. Also radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of the killings on the Shiite side in Iraq, gave his qualified support to the document saying, “I support all conferences that go in line with the interest of Iraq, though I would have preferred it to be held in Iraq .

There are three major parties that are directly responsible for the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq. The foremost of them is armed militias, controlling most of the streets in Iraqi cities, terrorizing citizens and confiscating their properties. The other two parties are the US-led occupation and coalition forces, in addition to the newly formed Iraqi Army and police forces. An additional party is the organized criminal gangs and terrorist organizations who have used the state of chaos and lawlessness to carry daily kidnappings and killings of foreigners and Iraqis.

In such a backdrop, it is worth pondering the effectiveness of the Mecca Charter. To start with, the US occupation forces would not be concerned with the Islamic document. The US-led forces have been largely responsible for killing and torturing thousands of innocent Iraqis. The 180,000 foreign troops in Iraq enjoy legal immunity against Iraqi and international laws governing war zones and as such would not be held accountable for any of their misdoings.

The Iraqi Army and police force are too weak and ill-trained to provide effective maintenance of law and order. There were accusations that these forces were infiltrated by extremist sectarian and ethnic militias or criminal gangs, and as such would not be in a position to defend and safeguard the security and stability of the country.

It is also likely that the Mecca Charter would not be binding on the part of the sectarian and ethnic militias, who are defending the narrow interests of their respective sects or ethnic groups. This explains the reason why they did not participate in the Mecca discussion, and the Iraqi government could do little to bring these groups under control.

Kurdish militias or peshmargas, believed to be around 70,000 in number, supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and are carrying systematic efforts of “ethnic cleansing in the northern and north-eastern provinces of Iraq. Their ultimate goal is to enlarge the geographical territory under Kurdish control in anticipation of the long-awaited “Kurdish independent state , with its vast oil resources, and in total disregard to the legitimate authority of the Iraqi central government.

There are a plethora of other Shiite militias. They include the Badr Brigade, the armed factions of the Islamic Dawa Party, and Mahdi Army. The Badr Brigade is led by Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, and is representing the armed wing of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The armed factions of the Islamic Dawa Party are an Iranian off-shoot that was formed during the Iraq-Iran war of early 1980s. Thus, it is only natural for these factions to support and continue their allegiance to Iran.

The Mahdi Army is led by the radical Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr. It contains groups of rag-tag youth, whose main aim is to establish the authority of their leader, whom they consider as the sole representative of the Shiites in Iraq. Dropping the sectarian card would rob these groups of their claims for legitimacy, which is why they refrained from pledging full support to the Mecca Charter.

The Sunni communities have formed their own militias, supposedly to fight the occupation forces. On the Sunni side are the lethal Al-Qaeda factions, fed by extremist Arab and Iraqi terrorists who are dragging Iraq to the brink of a civil war. The Mecca Charter is also of no concern to these criminal factions responsible for the suicide attacks against foreigners and Iraqi citizens.

The only way out of this quagmire is the decommissioning of armed militias and the dismantling of their military and political structures. Then, it is for the Iraqi people and their elected representatives to seek the establishment of viable state institutions, the reformation of a well-equipped and well-trained Iraqi national army, which should be the true guarantor of a stable, democratic and unified Iraq.

Such an effort could come to fruition only if it is supported by a UN Security Council resolution drafted under the articles of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This resolution should oblige all regional players to respect the dissolution of all types of militias and stay clear of Iraq’s domestic affairs. Otherwise the hopes for a unified, democratic and stable Iraq may just be fading in the midst of worsening sectarian strife and state of widespread lawlessness, whose potential fall-out might not bode well for the future of the region and beyond.

Abdulaziz Sager is the Chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the center.

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