"Can I forgive the people who killed my husband?"
It was perhaps the most practical and personal question asked during a recent meeting of Iraqi civil society leaders who had gathered to advise the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) about its future peacebuilding work in Iraq.
The young Iraqi woman who asked the question saw it as the litmus test of whether "peacebuilding" is just nice talk, or whether it holds promise in an Iraq that has fractured along ethnic and religious lines, and where thousands of families have lost loved ones as a result of the U.S.-led war.
During the buildup to war, I fasted for 40 days. Each day I sent a letter to President George W. Bush, urging him to consider alternatives to war with Iraq. In my 40th letter, I wrote: "The question is not whether the United States can 'prevail' on the battlefield in Iraq. Likely it can. The more important question is what kind of world will there be a year from now and five years from now as a result of war? Will Iraq and the Middle East be more stable?"
Five years, $500 billion, and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of human fatalities later, the situation in Iraq is fragile at best. Almost 700 Iraqis were killed in February 2008. Across the country, many Iraqis are out of work. Most still don't have basic services like regular electricity.
And contrary to President Bush's promise in 2003 that the road to peace in Jerusalem goes through Baghdad, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a low ebb. The U.S.-led war in Iraq has contributed to the popularity of more radical groups like Hamas. Ironically, the democracies the president promised five years ago have produced leaders that the U.S. fails to recognize or fully support today.
It is true that the number of war casualties has dropped during the last six months - although the numbers are still quite high and have begun to rise again this February and March. U.S. leaders credit the military surge for the positive trend. But the Iraqi leaders who gathered to advise MCC said that casualties are down because Iraqi society has now become almost completely segregated according to ethnic group membership.
They said that a healthy future for Iraq depends not on segregating Iraqis by homogeneous groups, but by developing projects that require Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Muslims, and Christians to work together for a united Iraq.
The weakness of war as a foreign policy tool is that it undermines the very conditions necessary to create stable societies. Courageous Iraqi civil society leaders will play a critical role in pointing Iraq toward a better future. They deserve our full support.
J. Daryl Byler and spouse Cindy Byler are Mennonite Central Committee's representatives for Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. They live in Amman, Jordan.