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Iraqis are right to attack troops, clerics say
Seattle Times/The Dallas Morning News
By Tod Robberson
April 1, 2006

LONDON — Two years after U.S. authorities ceremoniously declared Iraq to be sovereign again, top religious leaders say Iraqis remain under military occupation, have a right to fight foreign troops and still don't govern themselves.

Their statements, made at the conclusion of a peace conference in London on Tuesday, provided a stamp of approval from Iraq's most influential Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics for their countrymen to step up attacks aimed at hastening the withdrawal of U.S., British and other troops.

Two Christian archbishops and ethnic Kurdish leaders, whose community has previously supported the foreign military presence, joined Jordan's Prince Hassan bin Talal in endorsing a communiqué underscoring the "legitimate right" of Iraqis to resist what they called the occupation.

A Defense Department spokesman, Air Force Maj. Todd Vician, praised the religious leaders for holding their dialogue in London because "when they're talking, they're not fighting." But he said it is important for them to understand "that the violence is brought about by the terrorists who try to attack Iraqi security forces, civilians and coalition forces as well."

The U.S. and British governments say their forces are in Iraq at the request of the government to assist in security operations. An expert in the law of armed conflict concurred, saying that because foreign forces are in Iraq with approval of the U.N. Security Council, they are not legally occupation forces regardless of how Iraqi religious leaders might define them.

The clerics were adamant in their interpretation of Iraqis' rights to resist. Their call comes at a time when Shiite militants, like their Sunni counterparts, have engaged in armed confrontations with troops of the U.S.-led coalition, including a raid on a Shiite mosque Sunday in which at least 17 Iraqis were killed.

"We are here to say that any military action against an occupying force is a legitimate act authorized under international law," said Sheik Majid al-Hafeed, a representative of the Ulmma Kurdish Union of Iraq.

"The occupation is something that everybody is calling for an end to," added Sayyid Salih al-Haydary, outgoing minister of Shiite religious affairs.

The remarks of the 16 religious leaders, both in individual statements and in the joint communiqué, suggested a growing feeling among Iraqis that the presence of foreign forces is adding to the country's instability.

Results of a poll in Iraq, conducted in January but released last week, showed an overwhelming majority of Arab Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds believe the U.S. plans to keep troops in Iraq permanently.

Most also believe the United States would refuse to leave regardless of whether the Iraqi government requested it. The poll was sponsored by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

The Iraqi clerics also cited militant Arab Sunni guerrillas, as well as meddling from Iran, as factors contributing to Iraq's slide toward civil war.

"Members of the conference recognize that the situation in Iraq has not become a more secure or stable place over the past three years," Prince Hassan said as he read the joint communiqué, referring to the amount of time that has elapsed since the U.S.-led invasion. "The time has come to recognize that sectarian tensions are far greater than any of us have imagined," he added.

The clerics were particularly outspoken in condemning Sunni militants who have launched numerous attacks on Shiite areas — including mosques and crowded markets — while labeling the Shiite faith as a heretic offshoot of mainstream Sunni Islam.

The clerics' statement did not, however, specifically identify those Sunni fighters as being among the foreign forces whose occupation should be resisted. They did single out as terrorists all militant groups, as well as foreign forces, whose attacks have led to the injury and death of Iraqi civilians.

Al-Hafeed and others took issue with Western characterizations of attacks on coalition troops as terrorism, citing the U.S. war of independ-

ence from Britain as one example of citizens taking up arms to eject foreign occupiers. Rather than condemn such a struggle, the sheik quipped, "Americans celebrate it as the Fourth of July, Independence Day."

Sheik Ahmad Abdulgafour al-Samarai, minister of Sunni religious affairs in the outgoing government, agreed, saying the definition of terrorism included not only the kidnapping and killing of noncombatants by guerrilla groups, "but when the occupation forces kill [civilians], this also is terrorism."

Al-Samarai acknowledged recent remarks by President Bush indicating a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would wait until the next administration occupies the White House in 2009. He agreed with Bush that the withdrawal should not occur until Iraqis are prepared to manage their own security.

"If a sudden withdrawal occurred, there would be a catastrophe," al-Samarai said. But he added, "We don't want U.S. troops to leave according to their schedule but according to ours."

The clerics, who have met twice previously, described this week's meeting as their most important because of their country's growing security and political problems. Despite national elections in December to form a permanent legislature and government, Iraq's Parliament hasn't agreed on a prime minister or Cabinet.

"Iraq is a united country, and its religious leaders are standing together. In the past, they had nothing to do with any authority or regime," al-Hafeed explained. "But when there is an absence of authority, the scholars must intervene."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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