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Extremists pushing Iraq to civil war-mediator
( 2003-10-13 20:35) (Agencies)

The US-led administration in Iraq must move swiftly to contain growing Islamic extremism or risk the country descending into civil war, a senior Anglican envoy mediating between rival Muslim parties said on Monday.

"The CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) underestimated the importance of religious groups. Now they are realising how serious it is," said Canon Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special representative to the Middle East.

"They must quickly empower moderate clerics and engage (talk to) radicals or all-out civil war could erupt in Iraq," he told Reuters in an interview.

White said moderate clerics believe a series of bombings that have rattled postwar Iraq were carried out by hardline Sunni Muslims from Saudi Arabia as well as radical Iraqi Shi'ites who are gaining widespread influence.

The CPA is faced with the daunting task of building relations with a complex web of rival Iraqi clerics at a time when neighbouring countries are exploiting the political vacuum after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April, White said.

"Iranian clerics are gaining a lot of influence on the ground and there are huge sums of money flowing in from Iran and from Wahhabis (radical Sunnis) in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates," said White.

The Anglican envoy, who has mediated in hotspots around the world like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and religiously tense northern Nigeria, began meeting Iraqi clerics years ago when they were still persecuted by Saddam Hussein.

Now he is encouraging the CPA to make sure those moderate clerics have a big stake in the political future of Iraq, a country with a combustible mix of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds that was tightly controlled by Saddam.


On the weekend, White, a member of Iraq's US-appointed Governing Council and a Western ambassador met top moderate Shi'ite Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr.

The discussion focused on the strategy of bringing back clerics such as Abdul Latif Humayim, a Sunni who had close ties to Saddam and has wide support among Iraqis.

Sitting across from a photograph of a relative murdered by Saddam's henchmen, Sadr said the ground had to be set first by gauging if clerics like Humayim had changed their ways.

White said although suspicions are understandable, he believes figures once linked to Saddam can play an important role in stabilising Iraq.

"Humayim is on the list of people wanted by the Americans. But you need to work with people like him because they can sway opinion. You have to make compromises and work with some of the bad guys," said White.

Iraq's Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the population, suffered widespread persecution under Saddam, who jailed, tortured and killed them.

But White believes freedom can be dangerous.

Some Shi'ites have chosen a radical path. Young radical Moqtada al-Sadr, a nephew of the elder Sadr, has called on Iraq's American occupiers to leave and moderates believe his followers have carried out violent attacks.

Top moderate Shi'ite clerics have already been bombed or hacked to death.

But White believes the CPA must engage radicals through intermediaries with credibility.

"The CPA is going to have serious problems unless they compromise. But it is a very tricky game," he said.

"You have to engage the radicals but they cannot have too much influence. At the same time the danger with the Shi'ites is that the persecuted will become the persecutors." 

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