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Sectarianism in Iraq | The Nation

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Sectarianism in Iraq

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Saddam Hussein's capture on December 13 ended the role of the minority Sunni Arabs as Iraq's ruling group since 1638, when the Sunni Ottoman Turks captured Mesopotamia (then comprising Baghdad and Basra provinces) and incorporated it into their empire. But, as a majority among Baghdad's 6 million inhabitants, and some 20 percent of the total population, Sunni Arabs remain a crucial factor in the complex Iraqi equation.

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Dilip Hiro
Dilip Hiro is the author of Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians (Interlink), Between Marx...

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Its ‘generosity’ toward Cairo notwithstanding, Washington has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.

With Saddam's removal as the nominal leader of Sunni Arabs, the community felt an urgent need to fill the gap. It did so on December 25. That day eighty-five community elders, meeting at Baghdad's famed Umm al Qura Mosque, established the State Council of Sunnis. It consists of various religious-political strands--from mystic Sufis to Salafis (who advocate return to the pristine practices of early Islam) to the Muslim Brotherhood, the forerunner of many Islamist groups in the Arab world--all of them anti-Saddam. The event was a signal to Shiites and Kurds that after a painful period of meandering, the disoriented Sunni Arab community was getting organized to join the fray for power in the new order.

While Shiites want an Islamic republic and Kurds are for a secular, federated state with autonomy for an expanded Kurdistan--administered from its regional capital in Kirkuk with the hefty revenue derived from that region's oil--many Sunni Arabs point out that it was the escalating insurgency by the Sunni-dominated guerrilla movement that forced George W. Bush to reverse his policy in mid-November and opt for a quick handover of sovereignty to Iraqis, and that this entitles their community to a fair share of power in an independent Iraq.

The Sunnis' argument is unlikely to wash with the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), where Sunnis are poorly represented, so the forthcoming reordering of Iraq is going to be anything but orderly. Indeed, the first shots in the intercommunal tension were fired on December 31 in Kirkuk. When thousands of Arabs and Turkmen, protesting Kurdish plans to include the multiethnic Kirkuk within an enlarged Kurdistan Autonomous Region, marched on the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party's militia fired on the protesters, killing six and wounding at least twenty.

This internecine power struggle is being conducted under the hegemony of the US occupiers, who have their own scenario of the New Iraq: secular, democratic, unabashedly capitalist and openly tied to Washington politically (with its government committed in advance to welcoming US military bases), economically (with unfettered access to Iraqi oil) and strategically (as a pressure point against the regimes in Iran and Syria).

Washington's vision is a nightmare to most Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Militant Sunnis, imbued with Iraqi nationalism, are in the forefront of the continuing armed resistance.So far Shiites, three-fifths of Iraq's population, have generally been quiescent, hoping to emerge as the leading political force by exercising their franchise. But even as early as last April, some 1.5 million Shiites marched to Karbala to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein (martyred in AD 680), shouting, "No, no to America! Yes, yes to Islam!" At Hussein's shrine, a deputy of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani declared, "Our celebration will be perfect only when the American occupier is gone and the Iraqi people are able to rule themselves by the principles of Islam." Recent demonstrations in the Shiite cities of Basra, Amara and Kut are symptomatic of rising Shiite discontent against Anglo-American occupation.

In the wake of the dissolution of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, the Shiites are now the most organized community, led by the redoubtable Sistani. In June he issued a religious decree that only directly elected bodies have the right to administer Iraq or draft its Constitution; he reiterated this demand on January 11. In between he stated that he wants clerics to act as watchdogs to insure that Iraqi legislation does not contradict Islam, and he has disapproved of the way the Coalition Provisional Authority and its handpicked IGC altered laws on nationality and foreign investment, both of which impinge on Islamic principles. He has pointedly refused to meet CPA chief Paul Bremer.

Although Bush dropped the earlier plan of having Iraq's Constitution framed by a committee of "experts," he and Bremer have been unwilling to let Iraqis elect the provisional assembly to take over sovereignty from the CPA by July 1. The reasons offered--electoral rolls not being up to date and ration-card identification disenfranchising returned exiles--are spurious. Since every Iraqi carries an ID giving name, address and age, and since the 250 parliamentary constituencies are demarcated and have been used five times between 1980 and 2000, there is no need for updated electoral rolls or the use of ration-card IDs. At an estimated 250,000, the number of Iraqi returnees is a mere 1 percent of the population.Washington's real reason for depriving Iraqi voters of the right to elect the transitional assembly lies in a poll by the Baghdad-based Center for Research and Strategic Studies, which found that 56 percent of respondents wanted an Islamic Iraq.

The only way Bremer can counterbalance the power of Shiites is by co-opting the Sunnis (which has proved next to impossible) and getting them to coalesce with the Kurds. But while Kurds are 95 percent Sunni, they identify themselves first and foremost on ethnic, not sectarian, grounds.And their leaders have been no more eager to form an alliance with the Shiites. Powerful Shiite clerics would most likely oppose Kurdish demands for a federated Iraq, on the ground that in Islam there are different sects but not different ethnic groups.

In the weeks and months to come, therefore, the labyrinthine politics of Iraq will get even more complicated.

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