Sects and Solidarity in Iraq

Despite Talk of Civil War, Sunnis and Shiites Seem More United Than Divided

Baghdad-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 for 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 Sunni 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.

“We sent fighters to Najaf when the Americans were attacking our Muslim brothers,” says the nervous, high-strung muj fighter, referring to the intifada Sadr called last summer. “They helped us when the invaders were attacking our city last April; they helped us again this time and we will never forget that.”

During the April siege of Falluja I saw crowds of Shiites at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the heavily Sunni and Baathist Baghdad neighborhood of al-Adhamiya loading trucks with bags of food, blood for transfusions and many young male “humanitarian” volunteers-all ready for shipment to besieged Falluja.

And today a sampling of opinion among regular Baghdadis, both Sunnis and Shiites, makes the chances of civil war appear slim.

“I don’t believe civil war will happen,” remarks Amin Rathman, a 43-year-old owner of an internet cafe in Baghdad. College students bustle about, making copies of term papers and drinking tea together as a patrol of US Humvees rumbles by outside a window recently shattered by gunfire. Rathman says he believes that although Iraq is in a precarious position and vulnerable to the provocations of the worst elements in the political parties, Islam, nationalism and patriotism will prevail. “There are reasonable people in these political parties who will see that at the end of the day we are all Muslim, and we are all Iraqi, so sectarian differences are certainly no reason to begin a civil war.”

Some leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, echo this view, but tensions are rising. The January 30th vote-forced upon the United States by Sistani’s January 2004 call for protests demanding elections-was marred by a widespread Sunni boycott. The elections, which produced a triumphant slate of Shiite politicians, the United Iraqi Alliance backed by Sistani, has amplified friction between Sunni and Shiite leaders. The UIA includes the Dawa and SCIRI parties, as well as the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, among others.

Even among the more religious and politically active Shiites, however, many feel that a geographical divide along sectarian lines is not the answer to Iraq’s problems.

“We are against any kind of division to the country,” says Ahmed al-Asadi, the public relations officer for the Dawa Party, speaking from his office in the upscale Monsoor district of the capital city just after the elections. He believes dividing Iraq would lead to foreign control of the political, social and economic sectors, which he vehemently opposes.

“We will not fight each other as they mention in the media,” Asadi says while folding his hands together and leaning back in his chair. “There is no hope for civil war as our enemies want, and I don’t think true Iraqis want this.” The spokesman acknowledges divisions between the sects, but adds, “This doesn’t mean that these divisions will fight each other.”

At the headquarters of SCIRI in Baghdad, Redah Jawad Taki expressed similar views. “There are divisions and each division has its thoughts, but it doesn’t mean that these divisions will prevent the Shiite from unity with our Sunni brothers and among ourselves,” he says. “Our enemies are waiting for us to start fighting each other, [but] that will never happen.” Their headquarters was car-bombed before the elections, but Taki dismisses concern that the attack might have set off a cycle of violence. “We have no evidence saying that an Iraqi Muslim Sunni is assassinating an Iraqi Muslim Shiite,” he says. “The one who will accept the division of our country will agree that our country stays under the occupation.”

Sheik Ghaith al-Timini al-Kadhimi, deputy spokesman for the Sadr office in the sprawling slum of Sadr City, Baghdad, is further out on the spectrum of opinion. When asked if he feels recent attacks on Shiite mosques and assassinations of Shiite political figures could spark civil war, he replies, rather ominously, “I don’t think that our brothers, the Sunnis, will commit such crimes against the Shiite, but if we find some persons who commit these crimes they are executing a foreign and a Zionist plan inside the country aiming that we will fight each other, and this is the civil war that the Americans and most satellites are speaking about.”

Dr. Wamid Omar Nadhmi, a senior political scientist at Baghdad University and a Sunni, believes any talk of division is an overreaction to past grievances.

“When we’ve had a society with no free flow of ideas, you get obsessions from certain groups and individuals,” he explains on his porch overlooking the Tigris River in Baghdad. But Nadhmi believes that these are peripheral ideas that lack broad popular support. “Don’t underestimate Iraqi patriotism, and don’t overestimate sectarian divisions, because in the final analysis, Shia and Sunni are Muslims,” he says, while Apache helicopters rumble low over the brown muddy waters that separate his home from the concrete blocks demarcating the Green Zone.

Expressing a commonly held view in Baghdad, Professor Nadhmi says, “This civil war is only in the brain of the American decision-maker, and perhaps he himself is aware that there is no civil strife between Shia and Sunnis, but [attempts] to use it as a pretext.”

After watching the black silhouettes of the helicopters grow smaller against the setting sun, he adds, “The Americans are actually saying, ‘Let us stay in your country, let us kill you, Iraqis, because we don’t like you to kill each other.’”

Imam Mu’ayad al-Adhami of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad also blames foreign influence for the recent talk of rising sectarian tensions. “The Americans are using divide and conquer to try to split the Muslims of Iraq,” he says softly, while gesturing with his large hands. “But Iraqi society is Muslim first and tribal second. That means Sunni and Shia are relatives, often in the same family with so many links and intermarriages. This is our society and anyone trying to divide us is blind to these facts.”

The sheik offered several examples of solidarity between the two sects. Last year, when his Shiite neighbors in the Khadamiya district just across the Tigris from Adhamiya were struck by a devastating suicide bomb attack during the Ashura holiday, his was the first mosque to ask people to donate blood.

“We didn’t feel any different from them,” emphasizes Sheik Mu’ayad. “They are Muslims and we must help them. When they analyzed the donated blood for our brothers and sisters in Khadamiya, they couldn’t tell if it was Sunni or Shia blood.”

A visit to Baghdad University reinforces the sense that Iraqi nationalism and Islamic identity are more deeply felt than sectarian allegiances. Despite the fact that the university suffered looting in the aftermath of the invasion and much of it remains in disrepair, the campus, now home to more than 100 refugee families from Falluja, remains an island of normalcy for college students of both sects of Islam. Most do not foresee sectarian differences necessitating civil war or the partition of their country.

“There is not a split between Sunni and Shia here, we are all Iraqi,” says Intisar Hammad. The 21-year-old physics student, who is a Shiite, adds, “There are enemies of Iraq who want us to be separate, but we are all Muslims and our constitution is the Koran.”

Another Baghdad University student named Saif feels the same. “There is no split. We are together. We are one.”

Such declarations of national unity aside, the specter of civil war looms in the back of Iraqi minds as the political machinations grind forward. Tensions continue to swirl over Kirkuk, the oil-rich city claimed by the country’s Kurdish minority, whose power was emboldened by its strong showing in the recent elections. The lack of Sunni representation in the National Assembly, meanwhile, could set the stage for a reinvigorated insurgency, threatening the new government. The Bush Administration declared the elections a success simply because they occurred, but their success or failure will truly be decided as these possibilities unfold in the coming months.

Even before the National Assembly drafts the new constitution, debate over US withdrawal is likely to intensify, with Sadr and Sistani staking out distinct positions: While Sistani appears to favor allowing more time for withdrawal, Sadr announced just days after the elections that an immediate timetable for US withdrawal was the only solution.

The highly influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars recently restated its demand that occupation forces provide a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and remain in their bases until this is accomplished. The group also announced that they regard the recent elections as completely illegitimate and would not respect any government created by them. Interestingly, however, they also said they would be open to joining the political process in drafting the constitution if a timetable for the withdrawal of occupation forces was announced.

Whatever their views on the timetable, one theme most Iraqis seem to agree on, whether Shiite or Sunni, religious leaders or ordinary people, is that the foreign power in Iraq must depart, leaving Iraqis to sort out their sectarian and ethnic differences.

As Wamid Nadhmi says, “It will take Iraqis something like a quarter of a century to rebuild their country, to heal their wounds, to reform their society, to bring about some sort of national reconciliation, democracy and tolerance of each other. But that process will not begin until the US occupation of Iraq ends.”