BAGHDAD, Iraq (Agencies) – In a bid to stop sectarian bloodshed, Shiite and Sunni religious figures met in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, and issued a series of edicts forbidding violence between Iraq’s two Muslim sects.
It is uncertain, however, whether the edicts, or fatwas, will find resonance among the country’s Sunni and Shiite militants whose tit-for-tat attacks have created a deadly cycle of violence that gains momentum and brutality daily. Previous attempts to reconcile Iraq’s rival sects have failed to stanch the violence.
However, the Mecca meeting had lowered expectations from the outset, with its organizers maintaining that they did not seek a truce in Iraq, where a Sunni insurgency continues to target U.S. and Iraqi forces, but only to stop sectarian killings between rival Sunnis and Shiites.
The Mecca meeting was sponsored by the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, and attended by OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of Turkey. The signing ceremony was carried live by Iraqi TV stations.
Participants included senior Shiite and Sunni clerics, representatives of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the top clerics in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the former leader of Iraq’s largest Sunni party and a senior official from the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
A final communique, heavy on quotations from the Quran and Hadith, was issued at the end of the two-day meeting and read by Ihsanoglu. It contained 10 points, the majority of which are edicts forbidding kidnappings, incitement of hatred, attacks on mosques and Shiite places of worship. It also forbade forcing members of the other sects from their homes and called for the release from detention of Iraqis not charged with specific crimes.
It also stated that differences between the two sects did not touch on the basics of the faith. “It is a declaration to everyone stating the position of religion on the sins and crimes committed in Iraq,” Ihsanoglu said in an address delivered in Arabic.
Underlining the challenges facing any bid to end Iraq’s violence and lawlessness, a Sunni organization reported in Baghdad within minutes of the signing ceremony in Mecca that the son of one of the signatories, Mohsin Abdul-Hamid, had been kidnapped Thursday night by gunmen at a checkpoint in the Iraqi capital’s western Iskan neighborhood.
Yasser Mohsin Abdul-Hamid is also the deputy head of the Sunni government department that looks after Sunni mosques and seminaries.
None of the participants in the Mecca meeting was rated among the country’s top Muslim clerics, but spokesman Salah Abdul-Razaq, speaking to The Associated Press from Mecca, said the fatwas were vetted and approved by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric, and radical anti-U.S. Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who is not a high ranking cleric but runs the Mahdi Aarmy, a militia blamed for much of the violence against Sunni Arabs.
At the end of the signing ceremony, a presenter read a message from al-Sistani and other top Shiite clerics supporting the final communique. He also read a letter of support from Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, Sunni Islam’s top seat of learning.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential hard-line Sunni group, did not formally take part in the Mecca meeting, Abdul-Razaq said.
In an interview with the Saudi daily al-Watan, the association’s leader, Harith al-Dhari, said he did not expect the Mecca meeting to make a difference on the ground. “I don’t believe…it will contribute to the narrowing of the gap (between the Shiites and Sunnis) or reduce the suffering of the Iraqi people today,” he said. “I am not optimistic.” However, a message from al-Dhari read at the end of the signing ceremony said the Mecca meeting was “a step in the right direction.”
The root of the current bout of Sunni-Shiite violence dates back to 2003, when the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime ended decades of domination by the minority Sunnis and empowering the long-oppressed Shiite majority.
The destruction of a major Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra north of Baghdad last February ignited the worst bout of sectarian violence and the bloodletting is little diminished.
Differences between the two sides were exacerbated when parliament adopted a Shiite-backed law this week allowing provinces in the Shiite and oil-rich south to establish an autonomous region like the Kurdish one in the north. Sunni Arabs and some Shiites opposed the law, arguing that federalism would lead to the eventual breakup of Iraq.