New York, Asharq Al-Awsat-Sheikh Khalid al-Mullah, chairman of the Sunni Scholars Association in Basra, has called for a dialogue between Sunni and Shiite scholars with the aim of putting an end to the sectarian violence in Iraq, and “consolidating fraternity and amicability among the Iraqis.” Sheikh Al-Mullah, who participated in the conference organized last week by New York University in collaboration with the Al-Hakim Organization and the Religions for Peace Organization, believes that the religious element is one of the most prominent factors of the current crisis in Iraq.
The following is the text of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is the purpose of this conference between the Shiite and Sunni clerics? Will it contribute to easing the sectarian violence taking place in Iraq?
(Al-Mullah) First of all, as far as we are concerned we ought to understand well that what is happening today in Iraq is a dangerous wave of violence targeting the innocent. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed. In order to solve this issue there are a number of keys and a number of factors to analyze. The most important factor is the religious one. The religious scholars have an important and effective role that ought to be intensified through conferences, statements, and other means. We think that such meetings, work, and conferences might contribute to this role, and consequently the attendants and participants could help in easing the violence and install a spirit of amicability and fraternity among the Iraqis.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people accuse some religious authorities, whether Sunni or Shiite ones, of nurturing this violence. Also there are those who accuse the religious authorities of both sides of issuing fatwas to justify killing according to the identity?
(Al-Mullah) I will be frank and categorical with you. There is no Shiite or Sunni religious authority who issued a fatwa to fan the fire of the sectarian situation among the Iraqis. However, there are some individuals who exploited the opportunity, masqueraded in religious dress, and started to issue fatwas; these fatwas might have negative impact on the Iraqi reality, such as the fatwas issued by Al-Zarqawi, Al-Baghdadi, and other individuals who appear every now and then. It is not true at all that such fatwas have been issued by a Sunni or Shiite religious authority. Other than this, there are clear consecutive stances adopted by Shiite and Sunni religious authorities to calm down the situation, spread the spirit of amicability, abandon violence, and lay down the weapons.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the Iranian influence, which the Sunnis fear greatly?
(Al-Mullah) I believe that we as Iraqis ought to establish a clear an explicit vision of the neighboring countries. We cannot go back and adopt Iran as an enemy, Saudi Arabia as an enemy, Kuwait and Syria as enemies, or Turkey as an enemy. Otherwise how are we going to live if the neighboring countries are our enemies? One of the gravest mistakes of the Saddam Hussein Government was its problem with the neighboring countries. If Iran has negative aspects, we ought to tell it: These are your negative aspects. If we are to use wisdom and reason we will be able to use Iran to serve the interests of Iraq, and benefit from the development that Iran possesses, and from the development of this or that country, rather than merely talk about negative aspects.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the Iranian influence in Iraq?
(Al-Mullah) What do you mean by the Iranian influence? I am from Basra, from southern Iraq, and I do not see any Iranian influence in the south. The Iraqis are governing the country; Basra is governed by an Iraqi man from Basra, who is well-known to all people, and the same applies to the other utilities and institutions.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the other issues related to the amendment of the constitution, the federal system, and the other apprehensions expressed by the Sunni Arabs?
(Al-Mullah) With regard to the constitution, we are on the side of those who say that there is a need to amend and assess it. This requires all sides to sit down together in order to agree on all the articles of the constitution. As for the issue of distributing the wealth, we only hear about it. Were a small part of the wealth of Iraq to be given to the people of Iraq, this would spare them needing others and begging other peoples and nations. What we see now is that millions of Iraqis in Syria and Jordan are begging for money and help, and they are in a completely tragic condition. The question is: how is the wealth going to be distributed? This is actually what ought to be discussed by all sides. As for the issue of Karkuk, it requires all sides to sit down together to discuss it in complete calmness, because any tension is counterproductive to dialogue, and tension in establishing a project would contribute – in my opinion – to the creation of a huge crisis. We want to give the Kurds, who are Iraqis, their right, and the Arabs, who are Iraqis, and the other minorities their right. I believe that the parliament is the proper place to do something about establishing a prosperous and stable Iraq.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Sunnis demand the drawing up of a timetable for the withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq. Do you think that this demand is realistic at the current stage?
(Al-Mullah) I would like to be frank with you. I understand very well that the largest part of the Iraqi people demands the withdrawal of the foreign forces, and if we believe in democracy we have to respect these opinions. I am for a timetable for the withdrawal of the US forces so that we send reassuring messages to the Iraqi people. In fact we need to do this. However, I am not in favor of immediate withdrawal, because until this moment we do not have a security apparatus free from partisanship, sectarianism, and regionalism. The United States made a grave mistake by leaving this issue for a long period; it can establish a cohesive and independent security system. We have to say this, and the United States has to listen to us, because it is in its nature to listen, but it does not act.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are those who believe that the presence of the US forces has contributed to a great extent to the current chaos and to the acts of violence and terrorism in Iraq. Do you agree with this?
(Al-Mullah) Yes, this is one of several reasons. The second reason is the presence of the Al-Qaeda Organization whose members infiltrated all parts of Iraq. The United States is also a reason, because it opened up the borders and allowed Al-Qaeda members to enter and infiltrate the country. The third reason is the widespread of criminal gangs that perhaps are masquerading in religious or sectarian dresses, hiding behind sectarian or personal masks, and hiding under various nomenclatures. These gangs are killing all Iraqis, and do not exempt anyone. They are criminals who were in Abu-Ghraib prison, and were released before the collapse of the Saddam regime, some of them even were members of Saddam’s Fedayeen and Saddam’s Youths; they are well-trained to kill, slaughter, and kidnap. If we drew up a correct and proper mechanism to deal with all these factors, we could say to the United States: You have no place here. If this were to happen, there would be a loud voice against the US forces, which is the voice of the people.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have spoken about Al-Qaeda. Can you give us a picture of what it is, how it works, and what distinguishes it from the resistance movement that targets the foreign forces?
(Al-Mullah) The resources available to Al-Qaeda today are similar to there sources of major countries. Al-Qaeda has huge resources and sufficient money and weapons. It has the capability of moving from one country to another, while no one of us – the Iraqis – can move easily even to a neighboring country. Al-Qaeda is a side that has huge influence. Today terrorism in Iraq has reached a degree of strength and a level that are beyond belief. Al-Qaeda’s influence is international, and is not restricted to Iraq; it has a regional influence that extends to the countries close to Iraq.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you support the resistance against the US forces?
(Al-Mullah) I support it in principle; however, I say that there is a need to engage in a dialogue. The Iraqi people have become tired of fighting for more than 25 years. In all these years, the Iraqi people have lived through wars and suffered many problems.