BAGHDAD, Iraq – Dozens of influential Sunni Muslim clerics broke with a long-standing boycott Friday and exhorted followers to join Iraq’s fledgling armed forces.
The edict, signed by 64 Sunni clerics and scholars, declared that joining the security forces was necessary to prevent the country from falling into “the hands of those who have caused chaos, destruction and violated the sanctities.”
It was announced by Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Samarrae, a Sunni preacher and member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has stridently opposed the U.S. military presence in Iraq and discouraged Sunnis from cooperating with foreign occupiers or Iraqi institutions allied with them.
The spiritual leader of Iraq’s far more numerous and cohesive Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also called Friday for cooperation with Iraq’s new security forces, calling it “a religious duty.”
In the northern city of Samarra, meanwhile, explosives blew holes in a spiral minaret that was one of the few relics of Iraq’s ninth-century glories to escape destruction by medieval Mongol hordes. It was unclear what caused the blast, but witnesses said someone had planted a bomb.
The Sunni clerics’ recruiting call – which had the authority of a religious edict, or fatwa – marked their most open cooperation with Iraq’s leaders and foreign patrons since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government in April 2003. The Sunni clerical bloc had rejected the country’s post-Saddam leadership as irredeemably tainted by ties to the U.S. government and military.
Many Iraqis welcomed the fatwa as a breakthrough that could accelerate efforts to build security forces capable of assuming responsibility for the country’s security. Sabah Kadim, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the new edict signals the Sunnis’ realization “that the security forces are acting on behalf of the people, and not the Americans.”
Others, however, expressed concern that the Sunnis’ new stance toward the armed forces suggested the clerics sought less to ally themselves with rival Shiites and Kurds than to counter the dominance those groups have gained in Iraq’s new security forces.
“This reflects … an attempt on their part to … have an influence in this growing military power, which in fact indicates a lack of faith in democracy,” said Wamidh Nadhmi, an outspoken Sunni who has been promoting a broad coalition government.
He added, “This process should have proceeded by negotiations to enter the government, to have some sort of dialogue, which I don’t find at all.”
Making the armed forces the principal means for overcoming divisions recalls the days of military rule and “the era of coup d’etats,” Nadhmi said.
The fatwa authorized Iraqis to join the military and police as long as they are committed to serving the people and as long as they “should not be an eye to the occupier,” meaning U.S.-led forces, said Samarrae, the preacher who announced the edict at Friday prayers in Baghdad.
Samarrae is a moderate in the Association of Muslim Scholars, but it was unclear if the edict had the endorsement of the group itself. The group’s deputy chief, Omar Ghalib, declined to comment, saying the association would make a statement today. The clerics’ group was among several Sunni organizations that urged a boycott of Jan. 30 national elections. While enthusiastic Shiites and Kurds turned out by the millions to win control of the 270-seat parliament, Sunnis largely stayed away and won only 17 seats.
Politicians say the Sunni clerics’ group is now participating at least indirectly in talks on the formation of what Shiites and Kurds promise will be a national unity government. But some Sunni leaders have said they will fully join the political process only when the United States announces when it will pull out its troops.
Sunni blocs remain unapologetic about their support of the armed fight against U.S. forces, although Samarrae and others have spoken out against attacks on Iraqi police and soldiers, as well as Iraqi civilians.
The clerics’ call Friday not just to spare Iraqi forces but to join them “seems to be a new attitude,” Nadhmi said.
The explosion at Samarra’s historic mosque came a day after clashes in the city. On Friday morning, a man entered the mosque with a satchel and came running out minutes later, according to a witness, Hareth Ahmed Mohammed.
Police said the subsequent explosion blew a large chunk out of the 170-foot-tall minaret. People in the street said they could see only small holes.
Built in 852 at the height of the Abbassid Empire, the mosque was one of the few sites to survive repeated Mongol attacks beginning in the 13th century that razed Baghdad and other cities.