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US military's new Iraq strategy: religious conciliation

Last week's meeting in Baghdad – the largest of its kind in 37 years – included warring Sunnis and Shiites.

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– A fledgling group of Sunni and Shiite religious leaders met for the first time in Baghdad last week to condemn sectarian violence in their country, a move US military officials framed as a first of its kind and a small step toward broader political reconciliation.

The group of 55 delegates composed of Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and other religious representatives from around the country signed an accord June 12 during a two-day meeting that denounced Al Qaeda and vowed to protect holy sites. But it wasn't enough to stop the truck bombing of a Shiite mosque in downtown Baghdad that reportedly killed 87 and injured 200 more. The bombing is the most recent example of the kind of violence between Sunnis and Shiites, although no one had immediately claimed responsibility for it. That attack follows a wave of attacks against mosques recently, including five in Basra – three Sunni and two Shiite – and the second attack on the historic Shiite mosque in Samarra in which the two remaining minarets were virtually destroyed.

The group of religious delegates who met in Baghdad was attempting to stem just this kind of violence. Billed as the Iraqi Inter-Religious Congress, it was the largest number of religious leaders from the broadest geographic base in Iraq to meet in 37 years, American officials in Baghdad say. Many of the 55 delegates, which also included Christians as well as Yazidi, a primarily Kurdish sect in northern Iraq, were themselves some of the "bad actors" who have directed sectarian violence, officials say.

"The biggest miracle of the conference was that it was the first time since the war that these antagonists sat down in a room and had a reasonable dialogue instead of passing out ammunition," says Army Col. Micheal Hoyt, chief chaplain for US forces in Iraq.

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