November 16, 2007

Maliki Approves Trial For Shi'ite Militia Leaders

Nouri al-Maliki passed another small milestone in reconciliation yesterday, and the New York Times noticed the progress. Despite predictions that Maliki would protect his allies, the Iraqi Prime Minister approved the trial of two high-ranking Shi'ites in the Health Ministry for running sectarian militias that kidnapped and killed hundreds of Sunnis. The action will help bolster the Maliki government's reconciliation efforts by meeting another key demand of Sunni leaders for accountability among Shi'ites (via Big Lizards):

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq has approved the trial of two Shiite former officials who are accused of killing and kidnapping hundreds of Sunnis, according to American advisers to the Iraqi judicial system.

The case, which could come to trial as early as this month, would be the first that involved bringing to trial such high-ranking Shiites for sectarian crimes.

An Iraqi judge ruled last month that there was sufficient evidence to try the two former officials, who held senior positions in the Health Ministry. But there had been concern that the ministry might try to block the case by invoking a section of the Iraqi criminal law that proscribes the prosecution of officials who are executing their official duties.

The approval to hold a trial was provided in a memo issued earlier this week by the acting health minister. Mr. Maliki has formally endorsed the decision, American officials said.

The case has emerged as a major test of the ability of Iraq’s judicial system to take on difficult cases, particularly those in which the accused are prominent Shiites.

In some ways, this may represent the most significant step towards reconciliation since Maliki met with Sunni tribal leaders in Tikrit last August. The most important bedrock principle in a stable democracy is the equal application of the rule of law. Until now, Sunnis in Iraq have complained, with substantial justification, that the central government represented Shi'ite justice, not Iraqi justice. In approving this trial, Maliki shows that Sunnis can receive justice through the democratically-elected government, and that Shi'ites can be held accountable for their atrocities against the sectarian minority.

This case looks exceptionally dastardly. The men ran their operations from the Health Ministry, and used at least three hospitals as staging areas from which to abduct sick and wounded Sunnis. It represents a grave breach of the peace, not only because of the abductions and murders themselves, but because it had the effect of driving Sunnis away from the medical care they needed. The betrayal of trust in an area which has always been a haven from wars for centuries is staggering, and it cries out for justice.

Who appointed these men to their senior positions in the ministry? Moqtada al-Sadr. Maliki no longer relies on Sadr's political support, and so now he can move against Sadr's minions in these cases more freely. The more these kinds of cases come to light, the weaker Sadr will become in Iraq, which is a cycle that thankfully will continue to feed on itself to the benefit of Iraqis.

Reconciliation occurs from both the bottom up and the top down. In this case, both have come together to bear some fruit. If Maliki continues to build confidence among the Sunnis and responsible Shi'ites, the extremists will find themselves too isolated to matter. When that happens, more notable goals like oil revenue sharing and local governance will develop organically within a working, stable political system with no prodding from an American Congress.


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