Religious resentment feeds flames in Iraq
By VANESSA GEZARI
Shiites and Sunnis have lived peacefully, but with elections near bomb attacks raise fears of civil war.
Published December 21, 2004
They live as neighbors, pray at the same shrines, marry each others' sons and daughters.
Sunni Muslims are buried in the Iraqi city of Najaf, which is holy to Shiite Muslims. For centuries, Shiite merchants have bartered with Sunnis in Iraq's marketplaces.
But when car bombs exploded Sunday in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, killing at least 67 people and wounding about 155, Shiite religious leaders blamed Sunni insurgents, saying they were trying to spark a sectarian civil war six weeks before elections.
Is that a real possibility?
Since Iraq became a state in 1920, Sunni Muslims have held more political power than Shiites. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a Sunni who killed and persecuted Shiites and forced thousands more into exile.
Sunnis and Shiites read the same Koran and worship the same God, but they disagree about who should have succeeded the Prophet Mohammed when he died 1,400 years ago. Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25-million people, believe that Ali was chosen to take on the prophet's mantle. Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr, Islam's first caliph, was Mohammed's rightful successor.
Relations between the sects have been peaceful in Iraq. But unequal treatment has bred resentment. The U.S. invasion and the political upheaval and violence that followed have opened rifts that were invisible before.
An ABC News poll this year found that 66 percent of Iraq's Sunni Arabs felt that the U.S. invasion humiliated Iraq, while only 37 percent of Shiites felt that way. Thirty-seven percent of Sunni Arabs said attacks on coalition forces were acceptable, compared with only 12 percent of Shiites. Iraqi Kurds, who are mainly Sunni but not Arab, overwhelmingly support the U.S. invasion.
In Baghdad mosques, the tension that came through in the poll is also showing up in sermons.
Shiites accuse Sunnis of trying to obstruct the elections and remaining loyal to Hussein, said Dr. Louay Bahry, an Iraqi-born adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Sunnis accuse Shiites of ties to Iran, and say that in some parts of the country, Shiites took over Sunni mosques after Hussein's collapse.
"This could escalate with time," Bahry said. "It could turn into something ugly."
Shiite leaders have vowed not to respond in kind to attacks like those over the weekend, partly because they are looking forward to the elections.
"The Shiites know that the elections are the surest way to win political power commensurate with their majority in the population, power they have been denied throughout the history of modern Iraq," writes Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, in his Web log.
Abdulaziz Sachedina, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, believes the weekend bombings were the work of foreign militants belonging to the Wahhabi sect, a fundamentalist strain of Islam. Whether the attackers were former Hussein loyalists or foreign fighters, some experts say, their aim was unmistakable: to drive a wedge between Iraqis at a time when unity is essential.
"It's not a grass-roots movement, Sunnis against Shiites, Shiites against Sunnis," says Stephen Humphreys, professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "It's something that seems deliberately provoked by groups that would like to create as much chaos, disorder, whatnot as they can for their own purposes."
Others say a civil war would be out of character for the two Muslim sects in Iraq, where religious identification is less important than tribal allegiance.
"It's like Catholics and Protestants in this country," Sachedina said. "They may have doctrinal disagreements, but it's unthinkable that a civil war will emerge between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq."
Sachedina and others say the attacks were meant to threaten voters. Three Iraqi election workers were pulled from their car in broad daylight on a Baghdad street Sunday and executed.
The attacks brought unrest to a section of Iraq that has been relatively quiet while Sunni-dominated towns like Fallujah have been notoriously violent. The bombs exploded in crowded public places near the Shiites' holiest shrines. In Karbala, a bomb went off near the entrance to the city's bus terminal, and in Najaf, one was detonated in a crowded square.
Legend has it that Najaf and Karbala are sanctuaries.
"If you enter Najaf or Karbala, you are safe," Sachedina says. "When you enter, your blood cannot be shed. It's a law."
But in Iraq, there is no law, and no one is safe.
[Last modified December 21, 2004, 00:32:19]
Speak no Senate, no more?
Prosecutor: Blake killed wife to protect baby girl
With chief home, court stays busy
Baby may be tiniest survivor
Goal is to treat HIV in one pill
Record acupuncture study shows arthritis relief
World and national headlines
College footballArea talent shines on in Sun
In briefFreedom House: Russia 'not free'
IraqReligious resentment feeds flames in Iraq
Victim's computer led police to baby