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Let the future begin now

Iraq | With a prominent Iraqi pastor feared dead, Iraqis are ready for new constitutional law and old order

Issue: "Miers doesn't fit the mold," Oct. 15, 2005

Members of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad are likely to go to the polls Oct. 15 with heavy hearts. Their founding lay pastor, Maher Dakel, has been missing since Sept. 12 and-along with four other church members, including Mr. Dakel's wife and son-is presumed dead.

The group was on its way back to Baghdad after attending a pastor's conference in Amman, Jordan. Road travel through Anbar Province is treacherous but few Iraqis have the option of air travel, given the inflated cost. Mr. Dakel alerted a friend by cell phone when he reached the border and was expected in Baghdad three to four hours later. "Then he just vanished," said Nabil Haj, an Iraqi resident and Lebanese-American friend of Mr. Dakel who helped with restoration and reopening of St. George's two years ago.

The missing include Mr. Dakel (also spelled Dakhil), 48; his wife, Eman, who leads women's ministries in the church; their son Yehya, 18, the church's pianist and music director; associate pastor Firas Raad; and an unnamed driver. Friends and fellow church members assumed the group had been kidnapped and awaited a ransom note.

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None arrived, but rumors showed up in force: U.S. or Iraqi soldiers had rounded up the group in Anbar for interrogation; insurgents held them as a bargaining chip with U.S. forces, according to another unsubstantiated report; or, the group was injured by al-Qaeda terrorists and had been taken to a U.S. military hospital. For the family's daughter, 21-year-old Rana, a university student living in Baghdad, absorbing both rumors and uncertainty is particularly hard.

Late last month a report came that a white SUV matching the description of the group's own vehicle was seen charred along the 325 miles of largely desert road between Baghdad and the border. Relatives of Mr. Dakel's missing driver traveled all the way to the Jordanian border but found no trace of the five. The burned-out SUV was not theirs. No evidence of the vehicle, of bodies, or of personal belongings has surfaced since their disappearance.

Canon Andrew White, until recently the church's liaison with Canterbury, told members of the press that the five travelers are presumed dead. "We are all devastated," he said. "This is the very core of our Anglican Church in Iraq."

The disappearances are a blow beyond the brick walls and newly manicured grounds of St. George's in downtown Baghdad. Once a prominent engineer and Baath Party member, Mr. Dakel brandished an outspoken Christian testimony and zeal for his community that brought him trouble with the Saddam Hussein regime but made him an asset to U.S. forces-and long-oppressed churchgoers-following U.S. liberation of the capital two and a half years ago.

Mr. Haj told WORLD many church members believe "it is too early to say that he is dead." Without corroborating evidence, the church may not be ready to admit its loss, but its members are preoccupied with the daily reality of violence. Last year insurgents gunned down two young children from one church family because the father made wine.

Last month over 1,300 Iraqi civilians were killed, nearly all by insurgent bombings and terrorist attacks, according to news accounts compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. At least 600 Iraqi civilians are officially regarded as missing since the U.S. invasion. As the country prepares to cross critical political thresholds-a national referendum on the constitution Oct. 15, the trial of Saddam scheduled to begin Oct. 19, and another nationwide election in December-it is hard for many Iraqis to take the future as seriously as the deadly present. "Everything under consideration is good for the future, but what about today?" said Mr. Haj. "Every morning we must tell our kids goodbye when they go to school because we may not see them again."

Under the circumstances public interest in the referendum is astonishing. More than 14 million Iraqis-or nearly 98 percent of those eligible-are registered to vote Oct. 15, and turnout is predicted above 80 percent. Voters will be asked a simple single question: Do you approve of the draft constitution of Iraq?

High interest is in part the result of organized registration by Sunni parties, many of whom boycotted last January's elections. While Sunnis may more likely vote "no" on the constitution, they are unlikely to carry what is expected to be a positive outcome. Further, the Shiite-Kurd coalition currently governing Iraq has encouraged high Sunni participation.

"If a legitimate government emerges that is broadly seen as being representative of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish interests, I think there is no reason to suppose that we can't bring force levels down in the spring," said General John Abizaid, U.S. commander in the Middle East.

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