Wrapped in his brown abaya, Sheik Sayak Kumait al-Asadi, a spokesman in Baghdad for the revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is angry and forceful when speaking of both the US occupation and the suffering of the Shiites under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Above him hangs an ornately framed poster of Sistani.
The spokesman’s point is clear: After decades of repression, now is the time for the Shiites to have power, no matter the price. “Most of the Sunnis are accepted by us, but there are those among them who don’t want the Shia in the government, nor the Kurds. Some Sunnis will either kill us or make us slaves. We accept these elections now,” says Asadi, pulling the abaya close over his shoulders. “But many Shias and Kurds believe dividing the country is the only real solution.”
After all, the Shiites suffered horribly under the reign of the deposed dictator. Among the highly prominent Shiite ayatollahs killed by Saddam’s men were the revered Mohammed Bakr Sadr, executed with his sister in 1980, and his cousin Mohammed Sadiq Sadr (the father of Muqtada al-Sadr), who was assassinated in 1999.
But Shiite loathing of the Sunni elite that oppressed them under Saddam does not translate into sympathy for the US occupiers. “We cannot push the Shia to accept any of the Westerners in our country,” Asadi says while leaning forward for emphasis, “because they are the tail of the American snake.”
With Shiite domination in the National Assembly, they will have much power in writing Iraq’s new constitution. Will this lopsided dynamic provoke a violent reaction from the Sunni-dominated insurgency? If it does, will the Shiite militias, like the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), strike back, igniting a civil war?
When examining the statements of some political and religious leaders from both communities, one gets the sense that civil war is indeed imminent. Sheik Asadi’s venom toward the Sunnis is matched by that of some of his Sunni counterparts toward the Shiites. But Western media outlets, focusing on the sensational, have played up the potential for civil war, muting the voices of Sunni and Shiite leaders who are skeptical of such predictions and united against partition. And on the ground, Sunnis and Shiites are much more intertwined by bonds of tribal affiliation and family than is commonly understood in the United States. Descend from the politically charged worlds of the Shiite imams, Sunni sheiks and mainstream media to the realm of everyday people, and the danger of civil war seems more remote.
A gaunt mujahedeen fighter–fresh from the ruins of Falluja where he had been inspecting the rubble of his former home–agrees to meet me in Baghdad. He is ready to die fighting America, but he went back to Falluja because he’d also like to recover whatever belongings of his might still exist. By his account, even in Falluja–the geographic and political heart of the Sunni resistance–there are vivid examples of just how connected Sunnis and Shiites can be, not only by family but also in their opposition to the US occupation.