PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Oct. 23 (UPI) — He is vice president of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shiite group in the Iraqi Parliament. He is heir to the prominent al-Hakim family. He exudes compassion and calm belying his age.
He is a key leader who will dominate Iraq’s future.
Last week, appropriately on Canadian Thanksgiving, a mixed group of 22 ambassadors, businessmen, academics and a member of Parliament received a private briefing. The conversation was open, occasionally tough, but always filled with respect. A man of the cloth, Ammar al-Hakim broke down barriers, engendered sympathy, listened intently — with moments of great humor — in a room largely filled with doubting Thomases.
The next day al-Hakim was part of Vaclav Havel’s annual Forum 2000, a marquis Prague event that has existed for more than 10 years and attracts global participants. In his public comments, through a translator, al-Hakim repeated some of his thoughts from the previous evening.
“It is necessary to listen to the views of others,” he stated at the beginning of his comments with a confident twinkle in his eyes.
“Dialogue is the most important aspect of religion. Religion helps to complete the spirit of man.
“Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were messengers of G-d. Each experienced violence to himself and was never able to complete G-d’s message.
“Religion opposes war. It calls others onto the road to G-d by using good words, not violence. Some are using a dangerous distortion of religion to murder, oppress and persecute. It is wrong, and we are now living the consequences. This distortion leads to war and is not the language of coexistence. Issuing an order to murder in the name of faith is an abuse of G-d.
“We are a people of the middle, not of extremism. It should be the more G-d, the more humility.”
“Iraq was liberated from one of the cruelest totalitarian regimes in modern Iraqi history. There have now been three national and local elections, and a referendum on the constitution. This has been an honest experiment in democracy, and has taken place despite the violence. The elections have been monitored and even certified by the United Nations.
“Unfortunately, the liberation of Iraq left a vacuum. In this vacuum have come men who call themselves the guardian of man. But they have killed millions. They have done this in the name of religion, although the Koran forbids killing.
“The fight in Iraq, and in the surrounding areas, is between slavery and freedom.
“We reject bigotry. We want a national dialogue. We have even created a ministry to deal with the national dialogue. We have a national unity government, and it is transparent and honest. It respects religion and ethnic groups. It is a difficult task to rebuild a country whose ancient roots have been destroyed by 80 years of intolerance.”
On economy and investments:
“We need the United States and Europe to invest in Iraq. This will help create stability. I can envision a future where we set up a sovereign wealth fund, but that time is not yet. We must still focus on our own infrastructure. We need the capital to stay in Iraq, to help build an economic middle class. The Iraqi people have a strong history — back to the time of Babylon — of being successful in business.”
Comments by others:
A prominent Arabic ambassador said to me: “Al-Hakim said the situation in Iraq is getting better because Iraqis are focusing on consensus between Shia, Sunni and Kurds. Al-Hakim was not in favor of the U.S. incursion, but he accepts it as reality — it happened. He is encouraging the transfer of Iraq to Iraqis — and he means all Iraqis.”
“He was quite clear,” said a Nordic ambassador, “those companies who invest now, who find a foothold, will have an advantage in the future.” As to the United States: “He was also clear that he is open to relations and that the United States absolutely has a role in training and strengthening the Iraqi armed forces. … I am sure I heard him say the U.S. should not leave until this job is completed,” the ambassador added.
Said another ranking diplomat: “I would agree with al-Hakim that Iraq needs U.S. and European investments — not because they need the money — they are doing better than most others — but because they need the technology and management. … One thing I did not recall hearing him speak about is the relationship between the regions and the central government; this will be a key issue in keeping Iraq stable.”
“Al-Hakim spoke of the Awakening Councils, which are the local and tribal units,” said another dinner attendee. “He does not want to see the Lebanon-ization of Iraq. Iraq should be unified — though he accepts that quotas are necessary on the way to becoming a stable democracy.”
Said a former ranking Saudi diplomat, “G-d works in mysterious ways, but so does the devil; G-d is straightforward, while the devil is devious. Extremists twist the words of religion and use it for their own selfish purposes. bin Laden describes himself as a fundamentalist. Whatever it is, it is not Islam.”
My closing thoughts:
Your eminence al-Hakim, we developed a good rapport; we will surely interact again very soon.
Let us commit ourselves to our deeds following our words.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political candidates and participated in the underground fight against communism.)