By Suleiman al-Khalidi
AMMAN, April 9 (Reuters) - Mainstream Sunni Muslim clerics in Iraq have formed a body to issue edicts aimed at curbing the influence of al Qaeda militants whose activities kill civilians, not only foreign troops, a leading cleric said on Monday.
Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai told Reuters the "council of ulama of Iraq", set up by a founding committee of 40 prominent religious scholars in Amman last week, was prompted by a need for balanced fatwas -- religious edicts -- within his community as violence grew in Iraq.
"It’s high time our clerics unify their utterances. Religious scholars have to work on teaching Muslims respect for the others ...," he said referring to radical Islamists with ideological links to al Qaeda.
Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in Iraq wields influence in several western and central provinces. Its militants are gaining support by their preaching in a country beset by U.S.-led foreign troops and sectarian fighting with Shi‘ite militia.
But their indiscriminate killing of civilians and a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam have alienated traditionally minded tribal leaders and escalated a power struggle in Sunni ranks.
Suicide bombings by Sunni militants have not only killed Shi‘ites indiscriminately, but also have been directed at fellow Sunnis seen as collaborators with the Iraqi government or U.S.-led forces.
Samarrai, who ran a state body that oversaw Sunni religious sites in Iraq but was fired last February for criticising Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi‘ite Islamist, said extremist groups who killed on flimsy evidence must be fought.
"They kill by suspicion and commit senseless bloodletting and boast about it ... Whoever kills a Muslim believer should be penalised by going to Hell," he added.
The new grouping includes some of the most illustrious Sunni scholars in the first such body to be formed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, Iraq’s leading Sunni cleric who is regarded as the de facto mufti of the community, will head a group within the council that was empowered with issuing fatwas drawing on Islamic beliefs and sharia (Islamic law) doctrine.
SOLE RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY
Samarrai said he believed Iraq’s mainstream nationalist insurgent groups that focused their energies on fighting U.S troopsm, and not on fellow Iraqis, would regard the scholars’ edicts as their sole religious authority.
"Our scholars will meet and issue fatwas and I am full of hope the proper resistance that does not kill fellow Iraqis will heed the views of these scholars," he told Reuters.
"The authentic resistance considers the blood of Iraqis as sacrosanct. But those who masquerade as resistance and for whom the lives of Iraqis are cheap -- this is not resistance against the occupier, this is terror...," he added.
The prominent cleric said the council’s composition of top religious advisers enjoying the right credentials would ensure their fatwas conformed to Islamic law.
Preachers and scholars would not be silenced despite a campaign of intimidation by hardliner clerics adhering to uncompromising interpretations of fundamentalist Islam.
"Scholars should speak and not have fear of anyone but Allah (God). We have to speak out and say that blood is precious. We will stand against those who have no value for human life and speak out against them openly," Samarrai added.