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/ 16 Tamuz, 5767
Adventurous Men of Peace: Meet Mithal al-Alusi and Canon Andrew White
Every war produces fabulous characters, and this one has already produced more than its fair share. Some of the most fascinating — and, in the long run, perhaps the most important — have eluded the keen eyes of most reporters. So I thought it useful to pay tribute to two of them, both because they are worthy of our admiration, and because their stories show the American Government at its best and worst, and therefore have special significance for those of us seeking for better ways to win the war.
The two are Canon Andrew White and Mithal al-Alusi. One Brit, one Iraqi, both men of astonishing courage. White is a man of the cloth, the representative of the Anglican Church in Iraq, who has been known to find space in his reports to his interlocutors in London and Washington for accounts of prayer in the midst of the war. Alusi is a little-known politician who made news a couple of years ago by traveling to Israel and publicly expressing his hope that the two countries would soon become friends and perhaps even allies. The jihadis immediately killed his two sons, and barely missed Alusi himself.
Alusi is a rare political figure in Iraq, for he is a secular democrat, and has attracted the enmity of both Sunni and Shiites. Undeterred, he won election to parliament and carried on his seemingly quixotic mission. No one was surprised when his family was singled out for death, but even so the fates were particularly cruel to him. He has worked closely with Prime Minister Maliki, even though one of the men who tried to kill him was the culture minister.
Doggedly, Alusi demanded justice, and a few days ago the courts finally responded with an indictment and arrest warrant. On Monday, a police team was dispatched to his Baghdad residence to arrest him. American troops accompanied the police, but received a blunt order en route, to leave the mission to the Iraqis. This delayed any action until the following day, by which time the minister had taken refuge in the al-Rashid Hotel, which some would say was itself a form of punishment. When the police reached the hotel, they were blocked by security forces. Alusi called Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who reportedly told him that the United States would not be involved in the matter. It was up to the Iraqis.
Mithal al-Alusi is not only a brave freedom fighter, but one of the few Iraqi leaders who has consistently sang the praises of the United States. He advocates an Iraqi polity modeled on our own, and he has visited America to study our practices. To be brushed off by our government on a matter of such import, both to himself and to the establishment of a credible legal system in his country, was exquisitely painful, and he has vowed to write directly to President Bush to demand justice.
Alusi’s drama, and the shameful decision by Washington to pass the buck to the Iraqis, most also be maddening to many Americans involved in Iraq. General Petraeus had authorized American support for the arrest, only to be overruled by his superiors. And there is an American “rule of law” program under way in Iraq, which has brought American lawyers and jurists to work with their Iraqi counterparts to create an even-handed judiciary with the power to enforce the laws. The decision in Washington undermines confidence in this program, weakens men like Alusi, and frustrates our own military in the bargain, because the success of our efforts in Iraq ultimately depends on the trust of the Iraqi people.
It is still a developing story, and justice may yet be done, but one’s heart must go out to Mithal al-Alusi, and his courageous efforts to overcome his own tragedy and that of his people.
Canon White’s story is cut from the same tragic/heroic cloth. He has been in Iraq for close to a decade, and his ministry must be one of the most dangerous in the world. Before, during, and ever since Operation Iraqi Freedom, this tall, lean man — afflicted with muscular dystrophy, which he has borne with stoic patience — has worked to create an ecumenical community among the clerics and the faithful, regardless of their creed. This has given him unique status in the country. No other white man has his access, the trust, and the range of friendship. He has taken Sunni and Shiite religious leaders to America, and introduced them to men like Billy Graham, in an effort to create a community of faith. He has been able to solve problems and alleviate crises across the spectrum of human activity, from poverty to kidnapping, and as the sectarian violence flared up in the wake of the destruction of Saddam’s regime, he worked with his Muslim counterparts to calm the fiery extremists, prevent their dogmatic hatreds from infecting the mass of Iraqi citizens, and support their elected government.
It took United States officials some time before they were willing to embrace White’s activities. He had been calling for a series of interreligious conferences for several years, and the U.S. government finally climbed on board early in 2006. Prime Minister Maliki appointed him senior adviser in interreligious affairs in February of that year, with a mission to reduce sectarian violence. White originally believed that it would be best to hold a series of conferences, mostly outside Iraq, so that the participants could feel secure. The U.S. Department of Defense agreed, and raised the necessary funding for a meeting that was to be held in Great Britain, but at the last minute security objections were raised there, and the meeting was cancelled. Moreover, a State Department officer in the embassy in Baghdad insisted that any such meeting had to be held in Iraq itself. This effectively froze the money that had been allocated for the first meeting, and promised to kill any plans for future meetings in the region.
White plodded ahead, and was rewarded. He found a kindred spirit in an American Army chaplain, Colonel Michael Hoyt. He had long had support from people at the Defense Department. General Petraeus recognized the enormous potential if White could pull it off. Then, through the good offices of former National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane, members and supporters of a Christian prayer group in Washington were able to raise enough money to make possible a preliminary meeting in Amman, Jordan. This led to a much larger conference — indeed the largest such gathering in Iraq in nearly four decades — in Baghdad in the second week of June.
The best description comes from the military blog “Blackfive”:
It happened to finish up on the morning of the latest Samarra bombing.
The clerics were together to call Iraqi media, and get out in front in calling for their followers to avoid violence and revenge. Hear about that on the news? Well, you’ll hear it here.
Who put that conference together? The United States of America’s Department of Defense. Who asked for it? The Iraqi clerics themselves — they sought out our chaplains, respecting them as fellow holy men. DOD hasn’t learned anything about dealing with the local culture? They’ve learned enough to engage them, and put up the cash for a congress of this sort, complete with the security needed to get the leading religious figures together in Iraq.
In fact, it was even better than that. The conference produced a document, signed by leading clerics (or their representatives) and even by an assistant of the prime minister who spoke and signed in Maliki’s name. The document called for reconciliation, for private weapons to be given up (thereby ending the rule of terror of the militias), for support of democracy and the government, and for steadfast opposition to al Qaeda. Moreover, as a sign of their determination to overcome the current crisis, the group will be meeting regularly, and intends to reform religious education, so that the
madrasses will not be incubators of sectarian hatred, but sources of real knowledge and preparation for a peaceful society.
This “religious congress” deserves our attention and admiration. From the very beginning of this war, smart people have insisted that there were many Iraqi clerics who hated the Islamists, in no small part because the Iraqi version of Shiism — which is the traditional version, as opposed to the heretical vision imposed on Iran by Khomeini and his successors — rejected the notion that religious men should govern political society. It was deplorable that our political and military leaders in Iraq did so little to work with such imams, whether to discuss the best actions or to protect them from the jihadis. And it is one of the many fascinating ironies of this war that, in this crucial phase, Iraqi clerics came to our religious men in uniform to hold a powwow, and to denounce al Qaeda in the name of their faith.
At the heart of this promising enterprise is Canon Andrew White, a name you’ve never heard before (as I had not until about a week ago), but whose praises should be sung by all who cherish adventurous men of peace.
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JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, ""The War Against the Terror Masters," Comment by clicking here.
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