An Iraq for All Iraqis

By Hayder Karim
Monday, July 16, 2007

When one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, the Askariya shrine in my birthplace of Samarra, Iraq, was bombed again last month, I was asleep in a hotel steps away from the United Nations.

Again, I woke to grief.

This, alas, is a familiar routine.

I am an Iraqi. I am 31, and I have lived with war nearly every day of my life. Yet earlier last month, I stood among a dozen Iraqi religious leaders -- Sunni and Shiite -- during a conference at the United Nations and forged a commitment to peace.

I embraced my Iraqi brothers and sisters. We testified publicly about our commitment to building a peaceful Iraq for all Iraqis. And while I frequently wake in sorrow for the country I love, I still hold in my heart a great passion -- and real hope -- for peace. I know many Americans see only a divided Iraq. But I believe that Iraqis working together can forge an alliance for reconciliation and reconstruction.

I am my parents' eldest son. My father, a Shiite, is a retired military officer; my mother, a Sunni, is a primary school science teacher. For 150 years, members of my family have been religious leaders -- Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish.

This used to be the way of things, one group marrying another, immigrating into each other's regions. There was no question of where one belonged.

But now, because of my work as a coordinator for religious dialogue in Iraq, it's not safe for me to stay in the country. Often I have expected death -- my neighbors', my loved ones', my own.

I didn't become a doctor because I wanted to heal people in the traditional sense. I did it because to be a doctor is to be an activist for peace. I love that in studying medicine, one learns that it is human nature to want to live and to want suffering to end.

A year ago, it was still safe to walk the streets in Baghdad. People could go to work, to school, to markets. But six months ago life became more difficult, and I began to take precautions. I could wear Western clothes -- polo shirts and jeans -- but they had to look old, and I certainly couldn't wear a suit. If I was in a car, it, too, had to be old. The point was never to make yourself stand out.

There was less need for me to visit friends because so many had left -- to Jordan, Syria, Dubai, even Australia. I spoke to those few who stayed only by phone. Danger was everywhere, in random bullets and frequent roadside bombs.

I was last in Baghdad in early June, and everything has changed. My parents barely leave their house. A hundred families used to live on my street; now there are three. My neighborhood is a ghost town. There's no electricity, no gas for cooking or for cars. People rely on generators and scrounge for wood.

My mother refuses to leave. She can manage in a war, she says; she and my father just minimize their needs. She wants to stay in Iraq because she insists it's her destiny.

I miss my family, my friends, my work. But I maintain hope. Freedom is a responsibility, and Iraqis must seize it.

In my work as a peacemaker, people often ask me what should be done. The answer to this big question is simple. We start by determining who is opposing the political process in Iraq and who is really in control. Who has the courage to stand up and take responsibility?

In my own way, I do my best for my country. I know how to work with Iraqis because I am one of them. Two weeks after the U.S. occupation, I was working in a nonprofit emergency clinic in a Sunni mosque, supported by Christians, helping Sunnis, Shiites and Christians.

It was through this work that I met officials of the international coalition Religions for Peace. In May 2003, I helped to organize a historic gathering of Iraqi religious leaders in Amman, Jordan. I oversaw an eight-car convoy, traveling without armed guards or government security, on the dangerous 14-hour drive from Iraq to Jordan.

In Amman, for the first time in my life, I experienced peace: possessing a concept of the future, knowing that you will see your friends again, living in the world as a normal human being.

I want the same thing in my country.

The writer, a surgeon, is Iraq coordinator for Religions for Peace.

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