BAGHDAD – Iraq has been enjoying one of its most peaceful holiday seasons in years; but fear of violence persists, and the country's first cardinal made a Christmas appeal for Iraqis who have fled to return and help rebuild their shattered country.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Church, told The Associated Press at his guarded compound in west Baghdad on Monday that his message was one of love and for "charity towards everyone.
"And for the emigrants to return home, to work for the good of their country and their homeland despite the situation which their country is in — that is my hope."
Sectarian violence in the country has declined largely because of a surge by thousands of U.S. troops, the help of Sunni Arab fighters who have turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq and are now funded by the U.S., and a cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
The issue of how to reintegrate the growing number of Sunni Arabs joining the volunteer forces looms for 2008. There are about 70,000 members of groups known as Awakening Councils, and their numbers are increasing fast. The Shiite-dominated government is deeply concerned about the groups, many of which are made up of former Sunni insurgents who once battled both the American forces and their Shiite allies.
But failing to bring them into the fold of Iraq's security forces could jeopardize the recent improvements in security, the country's Sunni Arab vice president said Monday.
"This experience should not be lost because of national discord on how to absorb these Awakening (Councils). Those people, I say very clearly, should not be ignored by the government," Tareq al-Hashemi said at a news conference in northern Iraq.
"These people have offered themselves as targets to fight terrorism, voluntarily. They must have the government's support," he added.
One road could be political empowerment. In Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province, Awakening Council leaders, the provincial governor, local officials and politicians formed an advisory group to help draw up policy for the region.
A document forming the "The Supreme Anbar Council" was signed by six leading figures in the province, including Ahmed Bizayie Abu Risha, the brother of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha who founded the awakening movement. He was killed by a bomb in September, 10 days after meeting President George W. Bush at a U.S. base in Anbar.
Abu Risha told reporters the council would seek to represent "represent the province in talks with the central government."
So far the holiday season has been peaceful. Last December, more than 2,300 people died in war-related violence compared to about 540 so far this month, according to an Associated Press count.
Violence has fallen across the country by 60 percent since June, according to U.S. military figures. But security is still poor and few Iraqis dare stray too far from home. The threat of kidnapping, car bombs and suicide bombers is never far, and the dead bodies of tortured kidnap victims still turn up almost daily along river banks or dumped on the streets.
As Shiites celebrated the end of Eid al-Adha Monday, one of the Muslim calendar's most important holidays, members of Iraq's small Catholic community gathered in churches for Midnight Mass — held in the middle of the afternoon because few people dare venture out after dark. Eid ended for Sunnis on Sunday.
"Let's hope that it's getting better," said Delly, colorful lights twinkling on a Christmas tree behind him. "But I think that it's the same because everyone is still afraid to go out ... because of the car bombs, etc.," he said.
The 80-year-old Delly became Iraq's first cardinal last month.
Less than 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people are Christians — the majority of which are Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics. Christians have often been targeted by Islamic extremists, forcing tens of thousands to flee and isolating many of those who remained in neighborhoods protected by barricades and checkpoints.
In violence on Monday, a bomb exploded in a minivan bus near the Baghdad governor's office, not far from the heavily guarded Green Zone that houses the Iraqi government and several western embassies. Two people were killed and six were wounded.
In northern Iraq, gunmen believed to be members of Ansar al Sunnah, a group linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq, attacked a police customs unit at the Garmek border area near Iran, killing a policeman and injuring three others, said police Brig. Hasan Noori, director of the Sulaimaniyah security department.