The long war in Iraq has been dogged by a tough chicken-and-egg question: what is the relationship between military gains and political progress? Does an improved security situation create breathing room for politicians in Baghdad to make headway, or must reconciliation efforts at the government level be made in order to reduce sectarian strife? To add to the complexity, a quiet movement consisting of representatives from all three major communities in Iraq has made steady gains towards a national reconciliation of its own, this one based on religion. Can Iraq’s clerics save Iraq?

"You can’t very well say that religion is not a serious element in this struggle," says Robert McFarlane, former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. McFarlane is a prominent supporter of the religious reconciliation effort. In an interview with MercatorNet, he labelled "misguided" the "accepted tenet of American diplomacy that religion should be kept separate… particularly in these circumstances where the ostensible motive for much of the violence is the assertion of the rightness of the Shia or Sunni Weltanschauung, the worldview, [and] the wrong-headedness of the other."

There is reason to hope that the silent majority of Iraqi clerics, many
of whom have been killed for speaking out against the extremists, may
be finding its voice

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has preyed on these religious differences. For example, in February 2006, the terrorist group attacked the al-Askari mosque, one of the three holiest Shiite shrines in Iraq. The goal—swiftly accomplished—was to spark reprisal killings by Shia militiamen against the Sunni population. Examples of similar attacks abound. According to Colonel H.R. McMaster, who commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq and now serves as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, al-Qaeda in Iraq created the "cycle of violence" seen today by deliberately perpetrating these attacks.

Many Iraqi clerics have helped fuel the strife. Droves of imams were placed "on the payroll of Saddam" during the 1990s, McMaster told MercatorNet. Many of these were laymen and received no formal religious instruction. Their purpose was to bolster the regime and bring an Islamic face to Saddam’s generally secular rule. After Saddam fell from power, however, these clerics did not melt away as did the Iraqi army. Instead, they retained their positions of authority in their villages and, through their "cynical use of religion," helped organise the insurgency. In these radical mosques, young teenage boys continue to be indoctrinated and initiated into al-Qaeda in Iraq. According to McMaster, there are many "legitimate imams who don’t want to see this happen".

There is reason to hope that the silent majority of Iraqi clerics, many of whom have been killed for speaking out against the extremists, may be finding its voice. Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest who serves as the vicar of Baghdad, has dedicated himself to bringing together the mainstream religious leaders of Iraq’s Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities. By providing them a forum to cooperate and dedicate themselves to living in peace with each other, the vicar hopes they can help set the example and lead their countrymen forward.

Since 2004, Canon White has worked to organise conferences where clerics meet and greet, shake hands, and sign ground-breaking agreements condemning both terrorism and sectarian violence. In attendance at the "first formal gathering" was an "odd mixture" of tribal leaders and sheikhs "without any particular blessing from the top echelons" of the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities. Following this first meeting, Canon White established relationships with community leaders and strove to impart to them the idea that he, as an impartial non-Iraqi cleric, could bring everyone to the table for a constructive "trialogue".

According to McFarlane, who helps Canon White with fund-raising, years of hard work seem to be paying off. In June, over 70 Iraqi religious leaders attended a conference in Baghdad organised by Canon White. On June 13, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra was attacked for a second time. McFarlane, who attended the conference, notes that as the mutual declarations condemning al-Qaeda and calling for peace were issued at the end of the conference, "all three communities condemned emphatically this attack, called for restraint, and called for there being no reprisal, no Shia blacklash and escalation."

While the conference’s calls for peace were ultimately ignored and ethno-sectarian attacks ensued, McFarlane argues that the conference was a success because it built the foundation for another conference in August, this time in Cairo. The top half-dozen Iraqi clerics—both Sunni and Shia—participated. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, for example, arguably the most powerful man in Iraq, dispatched his chief of staff to the event. As a result of this conference, a joint Sunni-Shia fatwa calling for an end to the violence in Iraq could be issued in the near future, McFarlane wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The recent drop in sectarian violence reported by General Petraeus may very well be due, in part, to Canon White’s conferences.

McFarlane believes that Canon White’s campaign is "an important dimension of track-II diplomacy—diplomacy parallel to the formal government channels". He argues that "if you bring clerics together who have political power, but at some level are accountable to God, they behave in a different way" than conventional diplomats trying to solve a problem. Because religious leaders live within a certain moral framework of right and wrong that to clerics "is a matter of spiritual design," they would hold themselves to that framework in negotiations. In such a situation, one might "be able to make people engage and think seriously about compromise and concessions simply out of good will, as they are mandated to espouse by their God."

While careful to label his idea only a theory, he concludes: "I think that’s something, given the long road ahead of us in dealing with radical Islam, that we need to learn more about."

It is important to recognise, however, that there are other religious groups in Iraq besides the Sunni and Shia. Canon White flew to Washington D.C. in July to testify about the plight of these minorities, particularly Christians, who are targeted for kidnapping, torture, and murder. Michael Cromartie, chairman of the Commission and vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told MercatorNet that "White's testimony gave personal, first-hand evidence of what the Commission had been hearing about for over a year." The deadliest attack of the war was carried out in August by al Qaeda in Iraq against the Yazidi, another religious minority. Even if the Shia and the Sunni reconcile, there is no guarantee that the plight of the religious minorities will be alleviated.

Regardless, all these efforts may be for naught if the rhetorical reconciliation at the clerical level is not "translated into law" by the Iraqi government, as McFarlane freely admits. Without concrete political progress, "meeting after meeting will have little value." Can Iraqi clerics, then, save Iraq? If not, who can?

Tristan Abbey is a senior at Stanford University.