U.S. Has Contributed to Iraq's Sectarian Strife

By Zunes, Stephen | National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

U.S. Has Contributed to Iraq's Sectarian Strife


Zunes, Stephen, National Catholic Reporter


The terrorist bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, Feb. 22 and the resulting wave of sectarian violence in which hundreds died is yet another example of the tragic consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Until the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation, Iraq had maintained a longstanding history of secularism and a strong national identity among its Arab population despite its sectarian differences.

Theologically, there are fewer differences between Sunnis and Shiites than there are between Catholics and Protestants. In small Iraqi towns of mixed populations with only one mosque, Sunnis and Shiites worship together. Intermarriage is not uncommon.

However, Shiite Muslims, unlike the Sunni Muslims, have a clear hierarchy. (Ayatollahs, for example, are essentially the equivalent of Catholic cardinals.) As a result, the already existing clerical-based structures in the Shiite community were among the few organizations to survive Saddam's totalitarian regime and were therefore more easily capable of organizing themselves politically. Sunni and secular groupings, then, found themselves at a relative disadvantage when they suddenly found themselves free to organize.

This was exacerbated by the decision of U.S. occupation authorities immediately following the conquest to abolish the Iraqi army and purge the government bureaucracy--both bastions of secularism--creating a vacuum that was soon filled by sectarian parties and militias. In addition, the failure of U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in Baghdad to provide the Iraqi people with basic security has led many ordinary citizens to turn to extremist sectarian groups for protection.

Since U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein from power three years ago, the bulk of the insurgency has targeted U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. However, some Sunni terrorist groups, which have included some foreign Salafi extremists, have also emerged, targeting Shiite civilians as well. They have been able to take advantage of the widespread resentment felt by the Sunni Arab minority over losing their once-privileged position in Iraqi society, which they enjoyed not just under Saddam Hussein and the Baathists, but under the Hashemites, the British and the Ottomans.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs, even those who opposed Saddam's totalitarian regime, have traditionally identified strongly with Arab nationalism. They fear that the Shiites may have more loyalty toward their fellow Shiites in Iran than to the Arab cause. Iraq's current ruling parties were based in Iran during their years of exile and received major support from Iran's Islamic regime. In addition, since the Shiites finally came to power in Iraq as a result of a U.S. invasion and occupation, there is also concern that they are too dependent on the United States to defend Arab or Iraqi interests.

Though in reality the vast majority of the country's Shiite Arab majority has no desire to be puppets of either Iran or the United States, the response by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and Shiite militias has done little to lessen Sunni fears and hostility. …

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