Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 9 News List

A peaceful alternative for Iraq

A new party that unites Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians is seeking an end to the occupation by peaceful means

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , Baghdad


While the latest damning reports on intelligence provoke new argument in Britain and the US on whether the war made their countries and the world safer, here in Iraq the debate is different.

Iraqis are not focused on whether things would be better had the invasion not happened. What they want to know is how and when the manifestly unsafe world they face every day -- from kidnappings to assassinations and car bombs -- is going to change. They also constantly argue whether the presence of foreign forces makes it better or worse.

To seek an answer from a rarely reported Baghdad source, I went this week to the northern suburb of Kadhimiya. Off a lane where market traders push rickety handcarts toward the bazaar, steps lead into the courtyard of a Shia religious school.

Remove your shoes, and you are ushered into a mercifully cool room with deep carpets and even deeper armchairs. Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi and four guests rise in friendly greeting. While many Iraqi clerics exude a sanctimonious, mildly impatient air with foreigners despite their elaborate expressions of welcome, Khalisi has a look of genuine attentiveness. He listens and discusses, rather than just declaiming.

His grandfather was a distinguished ayatollah who led the Shia opposition to Britain's occupation 80 years ago. His father was a learned imam. He himself spent 23 years in exile in Iran and Syria, returning when former president Saddam Hussein was gone. Now he is general secretary of a new movement that calls for an end to the occupation by peaceful means.

The media focus on violence and the generally positive foreign coverage of the efforts of Prime Minister Iayad Allawi's new government "to defeat the insurgency" have created a false impression -- that the government's opponents use only force, and that those who support peace support the government, and therefore the occupation.

Khalisi's movement gives the lie to that. Set up a few weeks ago, the National Foundation Congress brought about 450 Iraqis together at a Baghdad hotel. They included Nasserites, leftists and Baathists from the era before Saddam turned the party into a personal fiefdom, as well as Kurds, Christians, representatives of the powerful Sunni movement the Islamic Clerics' Association, which has close links with Falluja and other strongly anti-American cities, and Khalisi's own Shia friends and colleagues.

The movement picked a secretariat of 25, which meets twice a week. It has decided not to take part in the government-supported national conference, which is due to convene this month as part of the US program to set up a surrogate legislature.

"We see no benefit in institutions designed to implement American plans," says the sheikh. "If the conference were to set a timetable for a US troop pullout, it would be worth it -- but in the context of the occupation, the conference is powerless and we don't want to disappoint our supporters. We will, however, take part in the elections in January."

The congress does not reject armed resistance, saying it is any people's "national right," but it prefers peaceful politics. It supports the restoration of the Iraqi army, criticizes the formation of new militias such as those of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and wants the old militias disbanded. It is also worried by Allawi's draconian new powers.

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