Sunni Muslim Clerics: Voting a 'Religious Duty' Alex Chadwick speaks to New York Times reporter Ed Wong about the latest developments in Iraq. On Friday, Sunni Muslim clerics used prayer services to call voting in the upcoming elections a "religious duty," and also called for the release of four Western hostages.

Sunni Muslim Clerics: Voting a 'Religious Duty'

Sunni Muslim Clerics: Voting a 'Religious Duty'

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Alex Chadwick speaks to New York Times reporter Ed Wong about the latest developments in Iraq. On Friday, Sunni Muslim clerics used prayer services to call voting in the upcoming elections a "religious duty," and also called for the release of four Western hostages.


In Iraq today, several leading Sunni clerics used Friday prayers to call for the release of four Western hostages whose captors have threatened to kill them by tomorrow. The clerics also declared that it is the duty of Sunnis to vote in next week's parliamentary election because that might help end the American-led occupation. In the last election in January, many Sunnis boycotted voting. Ed Wong of The New York Times joins us from Baghdad.

Ed, how about particularly this call to release the hostages? Is this something new for these Sunni clerics?

Mr. ED WONG (The New York Times): Well, it's not exactly new. The Sunni clerics--there are certain groups of prominent Sunni clerics in Baghdad who have often called for the release of hostages, especially if the hostages are not American or British. In the past, one prominent group, the Muslim Scholars Association, has actually often acted as a middleman, so to speak, between some insurgent groups that are holding the hostages and the people, the countries, the companies, the families negotiating for the release of these hostages. That Muslim Scholars Association claims to have a lot of ties with insurgent groups, and so it's only natural that may be used as a filter through which to speak to these groups. Some of the clerics who spoke out today are members of the Muslim Scholars Association. And a few days ago, the Muslim Scholars Association specifically mentioned these hostages who are part of the Christian peace-makers teams and asked for the release.

CHADWICK: Well, do they actually know who is holding these hostages, and are these calls going to do any good?

Mr. WONG: Well, what we know about the groups is basically what they've put up on the Internet. The group that's holding the Christian aid workers calls itself the Swords of Righteousness, for example. There's more than a hundred insurgent groups, some of them small, some of them larger with various names, various affiliations, whether it's with the former Baath Party or with more religious elements. And we don't know very much about the Swords of Righteousness and I don't think the military or other people know very much about them, either.

CHADWICK: Ed, let me just ask you this. How about the calls for participating in the elections by the clerics? Isn't that a kind of a statement that these elections are legitimate, that indeed the government is legitimate on the part of view, on the part of the Sunni clerics?

Mr. WONG: I think there's several ways you could interpret that. One is that it does seem to imply that the clerics might be giving a nod to the government, saying that, yes, this political process does mean something and we need to take part in it. You could also say that maybe they're looking at it on a purely practical level and they realize that we got shut out of any position of power because we boycotted last January. And on a practical level, we need to get our foot in the door and then maybe we can work to change what's going on both from the inside through the political process and also from the outside by supporting the insurgency.

So some people interpret the Sunni participation in the elections as a possible, say, Trojan horse for the insurgency where they then basically get a seat in the government and can work politically in the government to maybe undermine Shiite and Kurdish rule while also keeping up attacks from the outside. Of course, the Americans hope it's the opposite, and hope that there'll be--that bringing them into the political process would basically entice them further and further away from the use of arms.

It's not--this isn't the first time in recent weeks that the Sunnis have called for participation in the elections. Last month they said that, `We'll be boycotting the constitutional vote, but we still intend to take part in the elections because that's much more important.'

CHADWICK: Ed Wong of The New York Times from Baghdad.

Ed, thank you again.

Mr. WONG: Great. Thank you.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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