Amidst the larger political and and military moves in Iraq where grand plans are carried out and important men argue and cajole each other, there is a singular truth that has underwritten this entire effort at bringing peace: No matter what happens with the surge or the militias or Prime Minister Maliki’s government, what will really decide the fate of that blood soaked nation will occur in the quiet neighborhoods where Sunni and Shia formerly lived together in peace and friendship but where now only fear and violence reign.
It is where the sectarian strife has cleaved most deeply. Families that had lived side by side for generations suddenly found their neighbors ordering them out of their homes or face death. More than 300,000 fled for their lives to other parts of Iraq while countless others - perhaps as many as 2 million - have left the country in the last 4 years.
But despite the carnage, small glimmers of hope have emerged in recent months courtesy of the United States military.
Far beneath the radar of the mainstream press, the military has quietly been organizing meetings between Shias and Sunnis in areas where there has been conflict. These local conferences represent one of the major efforts at reconciling the various factions and seek to reestablish trust between the sects. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s) who are responsible for this program have doubled in number since the President’s speech in January and have intensified these efforts as part of the surge.
And there is some evidence that the program, if not wildly successful, may have started something significant. The proof is in the efforts by both the insurgents and The Islamic State of Iraq (al-Qaeda) to intimidate and threaten individuals who take part in these reconciliation meetings:
A recent wave of Sunni reprisals appears linked to increasingly high-profile attempts to stir popular momentum against Sunni extremists trying to drive out the Shiite-led government and its American backers.
Among those targeted include a range of Sunnis raising their voices against violence: imams, clan-based vigilantes and activists trying to bridge deep rifts with majority Shias.
“We are seeing more people beginning to challenge the insurgents,” said Marine Brig. Gen. John Allen, who oversees units in the militant heartland west of Baghdad.
In Youssifiyah, a Sunni-dominated area about 12 miles south of Baghdad, One of the PRT’s organized a meeting of local tribes and religious leaders last month. Among them were two prominent local families who braved the threats of the extremists in order to help build a new Iraq. Sadly, 6 members of those families were found dead over the weekend -victims of execution style murders:
The two families gunned down at sunrise Saturday had received death threats for weeks after attending gatherings of Sunni and Shiite leaders, police said.
The first meeting, organized by U.S. military officials on Feb. 13, brought together leaders of prominent clans from both sides, said military spokesman Maj. Webster M. Wright III.
The clan chiefs held another round on their own about a week later and appointed a joint council “to discuss the terms of reconciliation” around Youssifiyah, a Sunni-dominated area about 12 miles south of Baghdad, Wright said.
At dawn, gunmen stormed the home of two families belonging to the influential Sunni Mashhada tribe, said police 1st Lt. Haider Satar. Two fathers and their four sons were separated from their wives and sisters. They were executed at point-blank range.
In the morgue in nearby Mahmoudiya, AP Television News footage showed at least two victims had their hands bound behind their backs.
One more small tragedy in an ocean of pain and suffering? The fact that the clans were willing to seek reconciliation in spite of the threats, in spite of all that has gone before has got to say something important - otherwise those men will have given their lives for nothing.
This is how Iraq will heal. When men like those who were ruthlessly executed continue to show courage in the face of such brutality and evil, progress will almost certainly be made. There are already martyrs enough on both sides. What is needed now is the steadfast belief that something better can be achieved by talking than by hating each other.
No doubt that the insurgents will continue to desperately try and derail these reconciliation efforts. This is where Prime Minister Maliki comes in. He absolutely must get to work on a National Reconciliation Plan that will bring all but the worst of the murderers and terrorists into the national life of the nation. This will necessarily mean granting amnesty to a large number of fighters who have fought and killed our troops. The Pentagon won’t like that. I don’t like it. I daresay most Americans won’t like it. But we have to understand that our occupation has fueled some of this insurgency. There are thousands of tribal militia men who saw our cozying up to the Shias as a direct threat and took up arms in what they felt was in defense of their home and hearth. Most of the Iraqi people hold these men blameless - at least less culpable than the car bombers and death squad killers who continue their rampage to this day.
Taking these men out of the fight by granting them amnesty will pull the teeth of the insurgency. It will free up our forces to concentrate on the remaining terrorists and Baathist bitter enders who carry out most of the violence against civilians. For these reasons alone, amnesty would be worth it.
Those nameless martyrs in Youssifiyah were seeking to build a new Iraq. Not the Iraq we envisioned when we invaded but one of their own creation. Let’s hope that those left behind are inspired by their courage and will continue to work toward building a peaceful society free from fear.