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Iraq: The Growing Sunni-Shi'a Divide

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> Prime Minister al-Ja'fari, a Shi'a, has worked to maintain unity between Shi'ites and Sunnis As the debilitating security situation in Iraq threatens to widen the Sunni-Shi'ite rift, leaders on both sides are trying to allay fears of a sectarian war -- a tall order in an atmosphere charged with accusations, power struggles, and growing animosity.

Part of the problem stems from the Iraqi transitional government's failure to completely disprove allegations that government forces are behind a recent surge of attacks on Sunnis -- particularly in Baghdad, but also in areas north, south, and west of the capital. Sunni leaders opposed to the government use the attacks to fuel the notion that the government is supporting a campaign led by former Shi'ite militiamen from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Corps -- many of whom now work for the Interior Ministry's commando Wolf Brigade -- and other sanctioned security forces.

The Shi'a are also regularly targeted in Iraq by Ba'athists and Sunni Islamists working under Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn, as well as the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, and scores of other armed groups sympathetic to the Sunni insurgent movement. Al-Zarqawi's group claims attacks daily against Badr Forces and officials on Internet websites.
Justice Minister Abd al-Husayn Shandal accused "local and foreign groups" of carrying out massacres against Sunnis, "Al-Hayat" reported. He cited the existence of detention camps outside the control of the ministry as one of the reasons for human-rights violations against the Sunnis.

The situation is compounded because attacks against both sects are often carried out by men in uniform, leaving the victims to question whether the attackers are government forces or insurgents in disguise. There are dozens of documented incidents over the past two years in which insurgents disguised as police or security forces attacked civilians at makeshift checkpoints, in home raids, car bombings, and in suicide attacks inside government-controlled buildings (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 May 2005).

Iraqi leaders have said that insurgents and foreign elements are killing both Sunnis and Shi'a in an effort to stifle political development and spark a civil war.

For Sunni Islamist insurgents, the struggle is for an Islamic state based on Salafist ideology. Al-Zarqawi and his sympathizers view the Shi'a as "takfir" (declaring someone a nonbeliever; from "kafir" -- infidel). Sunni Islamist insurgents also refer to the Shi'a as "alqami" -- a reference to Mu'ayyad al-Din Muhammad Ibn al-Alqami, a Shi'ite minister in the last Abbasid caliphate, who purportedly assisted the Mongols in conquering Baghdad in 1258.

The motivation for Ba'athists and other secular Sunni insurgents is to wreak havoc, destabilize the Shi'ite-led government, and stifle the political process while driving the multinational forces from Iraq, thereby creating the opportunity for a Ba'athist return to power.

Outside agitators Syria and Iran are motivated by a desire to keep Iraq weak, thwarting what they see as the "American project" in Iraq; and preventing the Shi'a from gaining any real power. Syria would also prefer to see a Sunni-led state. For Iran, the goal is to keep the Shi'a dependent on Iran and to maintain the dominance of the Shi'a clergy from Qom -- which gained prominence during the Saddam Hussein era when the Shi'a were oppressed -- rather than in Al-Najaf, the historical seat of Shi'a Islam.

There is little doubt that some Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis are also engaged in infighting, retaliatory attacks, and power struggles. And both sides have elements that are linked to insurgents and outside agitators. The extent of infighting among Iraq's Muslim communities is therefore difficult to gauge.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites have escalated in recent weeks. Sunni leaders -- including Iraqi National Dialogue Council Secretary-General Khalaf al-Ulayyan, blamed Shi'ite members of the Interior Ministry's security forces on 30 August for the arrest of more than 70 Sunnis who were later found dead -- bound by hands and feet and shot execution style (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005).

The claim was supported by Justice Minister Abd al-Husayn Shandal, who accused "local and foreign groups" of carrying out massacres against the Sunnis in Iraq, "Al-Hayat" reported on 31 August. Shandal cited the existence of detention camps that are outside the control of the ministry as one of the reasons for human-rights violations against the Sunnis. Sunni parliament deputy Mish'an al-Juburi told "Al-Hayat," "An official figure from the [Shi'ite] 'Alliance' list heads a special assassination department and we know him very well. He supervises the kidnapping and execution of the Sunnis."

A former leader of the Shi'ite Badr forces, Abu Akbar al-Sa'idi, denied that Badr has had any role in the kidnappings and assassinations of Sunnis, and pointed out that "hundreds" of Badr members identity cards were taken in attacks on Badr offices, suggesting that they may have been used by the real perpetrators of the attacks on Sunnis. He added that Ba'athists, supporters of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and extremists on both sides, are trying to provoke Muslim infighting.

Meanwhile, Shi'ite leaders were quick to claim that the 31 August stampede on a bridge leading to Al-Kadhimiyah that left more than 800 Shi'a dead was the result of a terrorist attack on the procession of worshippers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005). Seven people were killed about two hours before the stampede in a mortar attack on the crowd that was later claimed by the Victorious Sect Army. The stampede, they say, came after rumors spread that there was a suicide bomber among the thousands of worshippers.

A number of people familiar with the bridge said that concrete blocks were recently placed on the bridge to control traffic, which added to the tragedy.

A spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told Al-Jazeera television that al-Sadr's Office held the Iraqi and U.S. governments responsible for the tragedy. "We and our Sunni brothers lived for centuries in harmony and such things never happened until the occupation forces entered Iraq in such a barbaric, savage way and started trying to fragment unity between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, and between the Shi'ites themselves in a sick attempt to divide and fragment Iraq," claimed Abbas al-Rubay'i.

Meanwhile, Sunni leaders extended their condolences. Sunni Imam Mu'ayyad al-A'zami told Al-Jazeera that the incident was an "act of fate" and the result of overcrowding, adding: "There were no terrorist attacks or any collapses in the bridge." A number of Sunni leaders called on their followers to assist the Shi'a in whatever way, including through the donation of blood.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari appealed for calm, and declared three days of mourning for the victims. He also reiterated calls for national unity.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i was able to find one unifying action during the tragedy. He told Reuters: "My heart goes to those who have reacted in a patriotic way, not in a sectarian way, and also the next-door neighborhood, which is a Sunni neighborhood -- al-Kadhamiyah -- their inhabitants came out to help visitors, who are mainly, or exclusively, Shi'ite visitors, and this shows the unity of these people."

For more on events in Iraq, see The New Iraq