As the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends, all eyes will be on Makkah where a number or prominent Islamic scholars come together to seek ways of ending the sectarian violence in Iraq. The gatherings brings together Sunni and Shiite theologians from Iraq and eight other Muslim countries to discuss and approve a declaration demanding an end to sectarian feuds that have claimed the lives of thousands of Iraqis, mostly civilians. Backed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the gathering reflects growing impatience with the self-styled jihadists and militias throughout the Muslim world.
The proposed draft of the declaration, designated as "The Makkah Covenant", categorically states that bloodshed motivated by sectarian considerations is "haram" (forbidden) with its perpetrators regarded as individuals waging war on God.
Iraq's principal Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhmmad Husseini Sistani wants the Makkah gathering to go further by also labeling as "haram" not just the bloodshed but any incitement to sectarian hatred. Some participants wish to make the covenant applicable to people of all faiths, thus sending a signal that Muslims also oppose the killing of Christians in Iraq.
The Makkah gathering represents the first major effort by Sunnis and Shiites toward the mutual recognition of one another as acceptable versions of the same faith, since 1947. The accord signed at the time put an almost immediate end to centuries of vilification conducted by the more radical Shiites and the Sunnis against one another. It was not until the late 1970s that the Sunni-Shiite feud was stoked up once again, and then for entirely political reasons.
While efforts to develop a common position against sectarian killings in Iraq must be welcomed, the Makkah Covenant is unlikely to tackle the fundamental causes of violence in that country: The inability of the newly installed Iraqi system to impose law and order, and the growing concern that its American allies might not be prepared to stay the course.
Talk to Iraqis these days, and you are likely to hear one thing: What are the Americans and their British allies up to?
The Iraqis have in mind the perception that the political mainstream in both the US and Britain, as illustrated by the recent remarks of the head of the British armed forces, now regards the Iraq project as a disaster, with cut-and-run, or whistle-and-walk-away, as the only options.
It is not surprising that most radical of the self-styled jihadists, flushed out of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban, have found their way into Iraq. Other self-styled jihadists, from North Africa, Egypt, the Sudan, Jordan, the Gulf Arab states, and the European Union, have also gone to Iraq, to prevent the consolidation of the newly established system. Iraq today is the central battlefield in the global war between two mutually exclusive visions of the future.
The self-styled jihadists know that they cannot win on that battlefield.
After three years of almost daily killings, often in the most horrible manner imaginable, they have failed to alter new Iraq's political agenda. Nor have they managed to win control of any territory or broaden their constituency.
The self-styled jihadists have suffered thousands of casualties with many more captured by the US-led forces and the new Iraqi Army and police.
Despite more than 180 suicide operations, and countless opportunistic attacks on civilian targets, the self-styled jihadists have been largely on the defensive since they lost their principal base at Fallujah last year.
They kill teachers and children, but schools remain open. They kill doctors and patients, but hospitals continue to function. They kill civil servants, but the ministries are crawling back into operation. They kidnap and murder foreign businessmen, but more keep coming. They massacre volunteers for the new army and police, but the lines of those who wish to join grow longer. They blow up pipelines and kill oil workers, but oil continues to flow. They kill judges and lawyers, but Iraq's new courts continue to work. They machine-gun buses carrying foreign pilgrims, but they keep coming back in growing numbers. They kill newspaper boys, but newspapers continue to be delivered every day.
Since the invasion, an estimated 45,000 Iraqis have been killed, largely because of insurgent and terrorist activities. And, yet, there are few signs that a majority of Iraqis are prepared to raise the white flag of surrender.
Several events in the past two weeks have highlighted the growing isolation of the self-styled jihadists and their Saddamite allies.
One event is the creation of a tribal alliance, bringing together all Arab Sunni clans of western Iraq together in a united front to "chase Al-Qaeda out of Iraq." (The alliance is partly modeled on the Algerian self-defense movement, set up in 1994 to arm villagers against Islamist terrorists.) It was partly in response to that event that Al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq published an appeal to Osama Bin Laden, the presumed leader of the group, to dismiss Abu-Ayyub Al-Masri, the group's "commander" in Iraq. The reason is that Al-Masri, an Egyptian terrorist, has tried to push the group's violence to new depths of perfidy by planting mines in primary schools and hospitals and organizing rackets against shopkeepers, both Shiite and Sunni. The statement calling for Al-Masri's dismissal calls him a "deviant", a label that indicates the willingness of some Al-Qaeda members to liquidate him if he is not replaced in time.
A second noteworthy event is the almost unanimous approval by the Iraqi National Assembly (Parliament) of a new plan for peace and reconciliation. Backed by all ethnic and religious communities through their political parties, the new plan further underlines the marginalization of the self-styled jihadist ad Saddamite groups.
Under the plan, the different ethnic and religious groups would come to one another's help whenever needed in the battle against the insurgents. If implemented, the plan would end a de facto situation in which Arab Sunni areas have been regarded as no-go areas for Shiite and Kurdish forces and vice-versa.
More importantly, perhaps, the plan envisages the creation of a unified information office that to harmonize the sermons delivered at mosques, regardless of their sectarian affiliations. The idea is to use the mosque as a forum for a unified and democratic Iraq rather than a hub of sectarian agitation.
Despite the dramatic increase in terrorist attacks in recent weeks, new Iraq is holding its own because Iraqi morale is holding.
The Makkah Covenant, welcome though it is, cannot propel Iraq out of the current crisis. The Muslim nations need to ask themselves whether allowing Iraq to remain in crisis for many more years is in their best interest.
And, if the answer is no, they ought to look for ways and means of helping stabilize Iraq.
The United Nations' mandate under which the US-led multinational force is present in Iraq ends in December. That provides an opportunity for thinking about a new, vastly re-composed, international force to replace the present coalition. While the US is certain to remain committed to Iraq at least as long as George W. Bush is in the White House, it is natural that Muslim nations should assume a major role in helping phase out the American presence without undermining new Iraq's integrity and security.