BAGHDAD - Wrapped in his brown abaya, Sheik Sayak Kumait al-Asadi, a spokesman
in Baghdad for the revered Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is angry
and forceful when speaking of both the U.S. occupation and the suffering of the
Shi'ites 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 Shi'ites 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 Shi'ites suffered horribly under the reign of the deposed dictator.
Among the highly prominent Shi'ite 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 Moqtada al-Sadr), who was assassinated in
But Shi'ite loathing for the Sunni elite that oppressed them under Saddam does
not translate into sympathy for the U.S. 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
With Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite 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 Shi'ites. But Western media outlets, focusing on the sensational,
have played up the potential for civil war, muting the voices of Sunni and Shi'ite
leaders who are skeptical of such predictions and united against partition.
And on the ground, Sunnis and Shi'ites 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 Shi'ite imams, Sunni sheiks,
and mainstream media to the realm of everyday people, and the danger of civil
war seems more remote.
A gaunt mujahedin fighter fresh from the ruins of Fallujahh, 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 Fallujah because
he'd also like to recover whatever belongings of his might still exist. By his
account, even in Fallujah the geographic and political heart of the Sunni
resistance there are vivid examples of just how connected Sunnis and
Shi'ites can be, not only by family but also in their opposition to the U.S.
"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
During the April siege of Fallujah, I saw crowds of Shi'ites at the Abu Hanifa
mosque in the heavily Sunni and Ba'athist 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
And today, a sampling of opinion among regular Baghdadis, both Sunnis and Shi'ites,
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 U.S. 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 Shi'ite, echo this view, but tensions are rising.
The Jan. 30 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 Shi'ite politicians,
the United Iraqi Alliance backed by Sistani, has amplified friction between
Sunni and Shi'ite 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 Shi'ites, however, many
feel that a geographical divide along sectarian lines is not the answer to Iraq's
"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 Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite,"
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 Shi'ite mosques and assassinations
of Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite, 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 Shi'ite 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 Fallujah, 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 Shi'ite, 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
U.S. 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
U.S. 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 Shi'ite 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 U.S. occupation of
Reprinted courtesy of The Nation.