Since 2006 the group Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT) has been a major force in fostering peace and civil society in Iraq. I learned about this group from Father Bob Holmes, who leads tours of Canadians to Palestine and who put me in touch with Sami Rasouli, the man who launched and continues to direct the movement. Like many Iraqi Shia Muslims, he moved to the United States to escape from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
In Minneapolis Rasouli became a successful restaurateur, owner of the Sinbada Restaurant. With the end of Saddam’s rule, he returned to his home community of Najaf. A city of around a million people, Najav’s economy is tied to pilgrimages to its shrine. Najaf is also a center for Shia seminaries and libraries.
After his return to Najaf, Rasouli was shocked by the impact of Iraq’s continuing unrest. The country was divided by violence. At the same time, the cities where most of the population lives were at risk from sand dunes as deserts spread, encircling them.
With only two hectares in forest cover, Najaf is one of the most deforested regions of Iraq. When MPT was launched, Rasouli write that planting green belts around cities to protect them from sandstorms was one of the goals of his nonviolent movement.
Rasouli found that “At one time sandstorms occurred about three times a summer but, with climate change, there are now sandstorms every week during the summer months.” He understood that tree belts were natural windbreaks which would provide shelter from the blowing sand. The civil unrest was at the same time causing destruction on a daily basis.
Rasouli had to wait for civil peace to launch mass tree planting but he began MPT work with practical efforts to provide safe water and encourage sanitation. Their first actions involved self-protection by adding household bleach to hot water for bathing, washing dishes, and clothing.
After a cholera outbreak happened in Iraq, MPT launched the Najaf Cholera Prevention Project. Another important breakthrough came from its Water for Peace Project. It found an Iraqi supplier who provided effective and affordable water purification systems. Through these systems pure water was provided to schools, clinics, and hospitals.
The most dramatic MPT project followed a period of bitter fighting in Fallujah to correct the lack of garbage collection for several months. Rasouli recalled, “We put on the orange jump suits of sanitation workers and cleaned up the streets around the mosque. They cried and kissed us and asked us to stop to pray with them. It was Shias and Sunnis and Christians working together in peace.”
Since 2017, Basra has been conducting a campaign to plant 16 million trees, with a million being planted in the first year. The campaign has a hundred volunteers and 15,000 online supporters. As with MPT’s clean water initiative, the initial focus was for trees planted around schools, health institutions, and government buildings. Another area targeted is oil fields, since these lands have abundant water for irrigation. The project has given a boost to Iraq’s national unity. An important figure in providing the seedlings is a farmer who operates a tree nursery in the Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah, Hassan Ali Mohammed.
Hassan Ali was got involved after being shocked by the environmental devastation around Basra. He recalled that it inspired him to donate a thousand seedlings. He urged nurseries across Iraq to match his donations “as much as they can.”
The work of MPT and CPT in Iraq shows how the pennies spent by committed peace groups can do much more good than the billions wasted by military machines. It is through such committed rational actions that the world can address the enormous challenges posed by climate change.
John Bacher is a peace and environment activist in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2020, page 27. Some rights reserved.
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