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Iraq: An Open-Ended Legacy for 2007?
A few short weeks ago, I attended an ecumenical forum in which Dr Suha Rassam, an Iraqi from Mosul and author of Christianity in Iraq (published by Gracewing), spoke about the critical pressures challenging the Christian communities in Iraq...

20 December   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... She unmasked the terrible plight facing all Christian communities - and other minorities, such as Yazidis, Baha’is, Palestinians or Mandaeans, whose appalling situation was recently underlined in a 2007 Report entitled Assimilation, Exodus and Eradication: Iraq’s minority communities since 2003 by the London-based Minority Rights Group International - as they risk life and limb on a daily basis for the basic right of living in their own country.

The General Secretary of the Council of Heads of Churches in Baghdad echoed her heavy-hearted words two days later in an ENI interview in Geneva. Attending a meeting for peoples living in conflict situations around the world organised by the World Council of Churches, Archbishop Avak Asadourian referred to the Iraqi Christian martyrs who have died over the past two decades from wars, sanctions and sectarian killings. He also lamented that the Christian communities have become targets of some extremist groups who identify them - facilely and wrongly - with the West.

But minorities from ethnic or religious communities are not the only ones facing grave dangers today. Despite the fact that security in Iraq has been enhanced due to the combined deployment of an extra 30,000 US troops, an uprising by Sunni Arab tribes against al Qa’eda, and a six-month ceasefire declared by Shi'i cleric and leader of the Mahdi army Moqtada al-Sadr, the whole country still shows no sign of any genuine political progress and seems enmeshed in a deplorable power-grabbing and money-making mentality.

Those of us who are privileged enough to live in the relative safety of Europe might have seen the recent BBC1 TV documentary entitled Basra: The Legacy presented by Jane Corbin on Panorama (award-winner from the Plain English Campaign for best national television programme). It explored with frightening clarity the realities on the ground in Basra where the British forces handed over daily security operations to the Iraqi Army. Almost every Iraqi interviewed in the programme was full of trepidation about the fate of this once-popular and cosmopolitan city trying to take over control of its own destiny again. They foresaw the Shi’i militias taking over and imposing their own brand of repressive and unmerciful Islamism - and in the process throwing into the dustbin the true values of Islam by accentuating instead those policies that disrespect human or women’s rights let alone the sacredness of life.

As I watched with growing disquiet this documentary about the lethal blend of radicalism and chaos, I recalled a recent article entitled Reflections on a Common Heritage by HRH Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan. Commenting on the Muslim process of tawba (repentance) and the parallel need to restore ‘truth’ in faith, the author exhorted the children of Abraham to teach their offspring “about their true inheritance and provide them with the necessary tools of understanding to separate faith and politics”. The writer - whose Hashemite dynasty traces its own roots to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) - admonished all believers to recognise the recklessness of politicised faith. Those words are so apt for Basra as well today.

Over the past fortnight, two further events have also filled me with extreme unease. One related to the ongoing conflict over the “possession” of the oil-rich Kirkuk, a mixed city of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, 155 miles north of Baghdad. Kurds have been demanding that this city be included in their largely autonomous region, and Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution provides for a referendum to be held to determine whether this area indeed joins a Kurdish autonomous region in the north. However, this has been delayed because of deep divisions among Arabs and Kurds. Iraqi Kurds, who control the largely autonomous Kurdistan region, see Kirkuk as their historical capital, but Arabs encouraged into moving there under Saddam Hussein, fear being pushed out if the referendum takes place. It is quite true that the ethnic identity of this city (and its environs) has see-sawed dramatically over decades as a result of political vagaries and demographic displacement, but it behoves well for the regional Kurdish Parliament to show more prudence, tolerance and inclusiveness in its attitudes to the previous Arabisation of the city that occurred largely during the Al-Anfal campaign and to ensure that Kirkuk does not become yet another flashpoint of conflict in a raddled Iraq but rather another step toward a much-needed national reconciliation.

This sense of national reconciliation - Iraqi to Iraqi - becomes even more imperative when the Turkish Army is stepping up its operations against members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in the north. Turkey has massed 100,000 troops on the border, and over the past several months has shelled and bombed Iraqi villages and launched occasional cross-border ground force raids. About 300 Turkish soldiers, carrying only light weapons, recently entered an area of the mountainous northern Kurdish province of Dahuk, 120 miles from Kirkuk. This heightening of tensions is equally dangerous since it enhances the bitterness that will inevitably find an unhealthy long-term outlet.  Much as Turkey has the full right to defend its integrity and safety, the few hundred largely scattered Kurds should not be used as a pretext for a spillover of military adventurism that masks more territorial or political interests in partitioning Iraqi unity - irrespective of its frailty - today.

Four marking events have impacted Iraq this month as we approach the end of 2007. Perhaps it would do us well to remember one more thought from Prince Hassan’s sober article when he pleaded against violence and reminded his readers that we all share a common DNA of faith whereby neither God could have made man with such a fundamental and destructive violent flaw, nor do any of our Scriptures condone such behaviour.

How true, and I would also quote Nelson Mandela who opined once that being free is not merely the casting off of one’s chains, but a question of living in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of the other.

This is what Iraqis should accept to save their country from further mayhem, destruction and division. But are all Iraqi ears - let alone minds and hearts - open to such ambitious truths? Is it possible they could listen to those truths a bit more conscientiously in 2008? With the Muslim and Christian feasts of Eid al Adha and Christmas upon us this month, I pray we find some time next year to reflect more coherently about the answer we bring to this tantalising and costly question - certainly for the sake of the future of Iraq, but also for that of many other parts of the region let alone our [very] small world.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   20 December


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