”Not in the name of my religion. Daesh/ISIS does not speak for Islam,” said Imam Sayid al-Qazwini, former imam of the Islamic Center of America. Al-Qazwini was one of a handful of religious and political leaders speaking at the inaugural Iraqi-American Peace Conference on June 4.
Hosted by the U.S.-Iraqi Youth Institute, the conference’s stated goal was to denounce ISIS’s connection to Islam. At the same time, the conference served as a platform for strengthening support for a volunteer fighting force in Iraq, known as Hashd al-Shaabi or the People’s/Popular Mobilization Forces. From the setting to the messaging, the conference was marked by duality.
Decorated with silver chair covers, sparkling centerpieces, and glowing chandeliers, the room at Greenfield Manor was as ready for a wedding reception as it was for a peace conference. The conference opened with Muslim and Christian prayers and the singing of both the American and Iraqi National Anthems. Two emcees, one speaking in English, the other in Arabic, managed the night’s program.
Each place setting was accompanied by a tri-fold pamphlet bearing the USIYI’s logo and the title “First Annual Iraqi-American Peace Conference.” Rather than describe the USIYI or provide biographies of the night’s speakers, the inside of the pamphlet read like a marketing brochure for what it called the “Fighters for Peace,” the PMF. The PMF is a mostly-Shiite fighting force that has managed to defeat ISIS in several battles, one of the biggest for Tikrit, according to news sources.
Ahmed al-Asadi, an Iraqi Parliament member and spokesperson for the PMF, spoke through a translator about the devotion of the PMF to all the people of Iraq. Al-Asadi said the PMF includes, not only Shia, but also Christian, Yazidi and Sunni fighters and is loyal to the Iraqi government, not to a particular sect or to another nation-state. The media’s focus on “misleading information” about the PMF, said al-Asadi, is “not fair.”
According to many news sources, following the PMF’s win over ISIS in Tikrit in March, reports surfaced that the group committed atrocities against Sunnis there. However, the PMF has fought successfully against ISIS in other Anbar Province cities without committing atrocities, wrote Raed al-Hamed in Sada, an online news site published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In an interview, USIYI founder, Haitham al-Mayahi, said mistakes may have been made by the PMF, but no longer. He said the PMF does not act without permission from the Iraqi government. On April 7, the PMF officially came under the control of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, wrote Christoph Wilke in Human Rights Watch. Yet, according to Wilke, the atrocities have continued.
In an off-program moment, immediately following al-Asadi’s speech, one of the guests walked on to the dance floor. Speaking in Arabic and contrary to the conference’s message of a united, singular Iraq, this gentleman called on Shia Muslims to fight, said al-Mayahi. Though al-Mayahi said he did not appreciate the speech, guests applauded during and after the speech.
Michael Silverman, an author and retired U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq, also spoke in favor of the PMF. He recalled the 2007-08 period when his job was to recruit Iraqis to serve in the majority-Sunni provincial security force. Back then, non-Sunnis feared these forces and called them “Sunni militia,” said Silverman. Now, he said, non-Shia are calling the PMF a Shia militia. However, Silverman said, whether it is a Sunni provincial security force or the PMF, “it’s not militia. These are Iraqi patriots who are willing to die for their country.”
Silverman’s speech was primarily a call to action. To change Iraq, said Silverman, vote the right people into office and organize. In Iraq, he said, vote in leaders who represent all Iraqis, not a particular sect. In the U.S., said Silverman, President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq was a “political failure that we as voters bear.” Silverman advised the audience to organize PACs to get legislation passed and establish 501c3s that pay for advertising that will “make politicians pay attention to Iraq.”
Driving home the theme of duality was the last speaker of the night, Imam al-Qazwini. He called out the “hypocrisy” of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates for supporting ISIS covertly while publicly condemning its actions. According to al-Qazwini, al-Qaeda and ISIS have killed over 1 million Iraqis.
Also speaking at the conference were al-Mayahi; Congressman John Conyers; for Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, her District Director Kevin Hrit; and Iraqi Consul General of Detroit al-Manhal al-Safi.