Al-Sumayda'i: "We encourage the creation of Shi'ite Awakening Councils"

Dr. Mahmoud al-Sumayda’i, member of the NRHC, vice president of the Sunni Waqf (endowments), and member of the general secretariat of Iraq’s General Union of Muslim Scholars (IGUMS), in an interview with Niqash, explained the challenges facing the commission and called on the government to enhance the commission’s role. According to Al-Sumaida’i there is an urgent need for an emergency conference of political blocs in order to resolve the current conflicts. He also considers Awakening Councils as a strong ally of governmental forces in their fight against non-governmental militias.

Niqash: Almost two years have passed since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched his national-reconciliation initiative, forming the National Reconciliation Higher Commission (NRHC). Since that date, the Commission has organized a number of conferences including a civil society conference, a tribes conference, an army officers conference and a conference of political parties and factions. As a member of the NRHC, how do you assess its role and success after almost two years?

Al-Sumaida’i: In the beginning, the work of the NRHC was ineffective. It did not have a clear program and it had no financial support. Moreover, the committee’s voice was not heard by the prime minister’s office. Despite the fact that the NRHC organized four national reconciliation conferences, its tasks remained limited to organizational issues leading to a diminished role. The government has recently recognized that the role of the commission has become weak and has appointed Muhammad al-Sa’di, a former advisor to the prime minister as its new president. Al-Sa’di has promised to correct the mistakes of the past and to reactivate the role of the commission so as to respond to the necessities of the current situation.

Niqash: Does this mean that the national reconciliation initiative did not achieve the anticipated results during the previous phase?

Al-Sumaida’i: Yes, the initiative did not achieve the anticipated results during the previous phase and the role of the committee should be seriously enhanced. It should be provided with moral and financial support. A special program for reconciliation should be designed, especially in light of the reconciliation steps taken by the government through the ratification of the General Amnesty Law and the Accountability and Justice Law. Political blocs need an emergency conference in order to narrow their differences to establish a clear methodology to deal with the existing conflicts and reach consensus.

Niqash: Let us discuss your experience in forming Adhamiya and the Samarra Awakening Councils. How do you assess the experience?

Al-Sumayda’i: The Sunni Waqf in general, and its president, Dr. Ahmad Abdul-Ghafour al-Samera’i, in particular, have played a big role in the formation of al- Adhamiya’s Awakening Council. The success of this council encouraged the formation of the Samarra council which was able to change the living conditions created in the city when it was under al-Qaeda’s control. We have a plan to form an awakening council in Tarmiyah, northern Iraq, to assist this area in liberating itself from al-Qaeda’s control.

Niqash: How do you respond to those who claim that awakening councils will be transformed into future militias? Don’t you think that the increase in the number of non-governmental armed groups will drag the country into huge internal problems and will contribute to the emergence of more militias fighting each other?

Al-Sumaida’i: I do not share the idea that awakening councils will be transformed into militias. If they wanted to become militias they wouldn’t have demanded integration into the official security forces. The country would have suffered a real disaster without the intervention of the awakening councils. These councils have achieved success where the government and U.S troops failed.

Niqash: How do you assess the initiative of creating armed awakening councils against militias in southern Iraq launched by al-Maliki and implemented by some local governments?

Al-Sumaida’i: We support and encourage the creation of Shiite awakening councils to confront the emergence of non-governmental, illegitimate, armed groups. The government has become aware of the growing role of militias in the south, of the theft of the country’s resources by these militias and of their attempts to assume the role of the government. These issues have placed the government in a very critical position and have obliged it to resolve the issue according to its own judgement. I strongly support imposing law and order and I call on the government to put an end to all non-governmental armed displays. However, I urge the government to take cautious steps not to punish the innocent. There are many innocent people who have suffered from crimes committed by others during the latest attacks on Basra and on al-Sadr and al-Shu’la cities and in other areas.

Niqash: Don’t you think that the government was a bit late in its recent attempts and military operations seeking to impose law and order?

Al-Sumaida’i: Yes, it was late, but reform is not an impossible task. Iraqis are looking forward to building a new state and state institutions. This requires the government to assume its responsibilities, to rely on serious leaderships and to resolve the security crisis in the country.

Niqash: There are problems and unresolved issues between political blocs. In your opinion, how could these issues be resolved and how can the stagnant political process be advanced?

Al-Sumaida’i: Everybody knows that the politicians are weak and that leaders were selected according to political and sectarian affiliations and not on the basis of efficiency. This has negatively reflected itself on the political process and has provoked the government, very late on, to carry out a revision and to embark on reform. I believe that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has realized that reform should be undertaken with the participation of all stakeholders. That is why he has started to convince political blocs isolating themselves to return and at the same time is trying to impose law and order. I believe that narrowing differences of opinion is currently needed in order to correct the mistakes of the past.

Niqash: You have contributed to the creation of IGUMS. How did this idea emerge and how many religious scholars have joined the union?

Al-Sumaida’i: There was a pressing need to establish the union. The idea started when the Mecca Charter was signed more than a year and a half ago. There were many sectarian conflicts in the country leaving thousands dead. I agreed with Abdul-Halim al-Zuhayri, advisor to the prime minister and Fuad al-Miqdadi, president of the Islamic al-Yaqeen Foundation, on establishing a scholars’ center gathering Shiite and Sunni Muslims together. Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Ghafour al-Samera’i, head of the Sunni Waqf Diwan, supported us in this endeavor. After a number of meetings, we succeeded in creating a founding committee and the first preparatory conference was held at the beginning of last June. We originally agreed to hold the first conference in Sulaymaniyah, but the progress made on the security level in the country has encouraged us to hold the conference in Baghdad at the beginning of February. A general secretariat of 15 members was formed and the total number of members has reached 300 Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish scholars.

Niqash: What about the role of the Shiite religious authorities in the conference? Is it really open to all scholars without exception?

Al-Sumaida’i: Religious authorities cannot join the union because they place themselves in a higher position. We are content to have their support and do not seek to have them join us. The union is open to all scholars and there is an idea of creating a section for other religions but we are still in the process of discussing that idea.