Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A nation divided

With increased sectarian tension, the world has finally awakened to the grave dangers unbridled violence poses to Iraq's national unity, writes Salah Hemeid

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A car bomb exploded outside the popular Habayibna restaurant in Baghdad on Monday killing at least three people and injuring more than 70

Last week the leader of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, Harith Al-Dhari, accused Badr Brigades, the militia of Iraq's leading Shia group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of being behind the killing of several Sunni Muslim clerics. Al-Dhari also accused Shia soldiers of raiding Sunni mosques. The association and the Iraqi Islamic Party, another Sunni faction, ordered dozens of Sunni mosques temporarily closed to protest the deaths.

The charges brought angry reaction from Shia leaders and the brigade's secretary-general, Hadi Al-Amri, denied the charge and said the Sunni association was trying to incite sectarian strife. "These accusations aim to push Iraq into a sectarian conflict, we condemn all these terrorist operations, and we also condemn and denounce all these irresponsible declarations which encourage terrorism and justify the bloodshed in Iraq," Al-Amri said.

The sharp exchange followed numerous killings of clerics in recent weeks, both Shia and Sunni. Some 550 people, mostly Shia, have also been killed since the Kurdish-Shia-dominated government took over on 28 April in what seemed to be sectarian-motivated attacks or ambushes.

Many of these attacks were claimed by Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi's terrorist groups. Last Wednesday the Jordanian terrorist denounced Shia, as "collaborating with the worshippers of the cross", a reference to the Americans. He accused the Shia of turning Iraq into "a bastion of apostasy".

Shia leaders say such fiery rhetoric and crimes are not condemned strongly enough by the Sunnis and also blame them for giving sanctuary to the terrorist groups in their towns. Saad Qandeel, a spokesman for SCIRI, described Al-Dhari's remarks as "sectarian incitement" while other leaders accused the Sunni cleric of "firing the first bullet in the civil war".

The war of words sparked fear in the region still haunted by the memory of Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit was quick to warn of such a quagmire and called on Iraqis to unite. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa warned against "a sectarian sedition" and called for self restrain. News papers' columns across the region warned that with the wave of deadly car bomb attacks that strike Iraqi cities and towns daily the war-torn country is on the verge of civil war with some saying it is already in the middle of it.

On Sunday, aids of radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr met Al-Dhari and top leaders of his Sunni group trying to defuse tensions. Al-Sadr said the talks were aimed at settling the feud between the association and the Badr Bridges. After the meeting Al-Dhari did not retract his accusations to Badr and said the charges meant to be "a piece of advice and not an incitement". Badr leader, Al-Amri, was not quite satisfied and demanded a retraction. Qandeel accused Al-Sadr of not being impartial and asked Al-Sadr -- who sympathises with some Sunnis in opposition to the new government and the US military forces that support it -- to step aside from the mediation.

Whatever the reason behind the current flare, Shia- Sunni relations have been facing greater constrains since the January elections that was turned away by most Sunnis and brought a Shia majority to power. Al-Dhari's association spearheaded the disgruntled Sunnis in boycotting the political process in an attempt to deprive it of establishing nationwide legitimacy.

Yet on Saturday about 2,000 Sunni Arabs formed a political alliance and said they wanted to take part in writing Iraq's new constitution and compete in the elections for Iraq's permanent parliament due in December. The meeting, attended by religious, tribal and secular representatives, was the first wide-scale effort by Iraq's disaffected Sunnis to join the democratic process. At the meeting, held at the Engineers' Club in Baghdad, delegates called on fellow Sunnis to cast aside past doubts and throw themselves into politics to try to weigh in on the drafting of Iraq's permanent constitution, which is already under way in a Shia-Kurdish controlled committee in the transitional National Assembly. The move was an implicit acknowledgment that it had been a mistake to boycott the political process.

Shia leaders welcomed the end of a Sunni Arab boycott of politics and urged the newly formed Sunni bloc to distance itself from insurgent attacks against civilians and security forces. The Shia-dominated alliance in the assembly also began consultations with Sunnis on enlarging the 55-member constitution drafting committee which has only two Sunni Arab members on its board.

Other efforts have also been made to reach out to Sunnis willing to join the political process including re- organising the de-Baathification committee, in charge of ridding the government and the security forces from loyalists to the former regime of Saddam Hussein who are still sympathetic to the insurgents. Lower-and middle- echelon Baathists will be allowed to serve. The purge is one main reason behind the disaffection of the Sunnis who used to form the backbone of Saddam's army and his notorious security apparatus.

With threats of more sectarian violence and two active factions bickering, the dream of a new and united Iraq will ebb away unless leaders of the Shia and Sunni communities reach out boldly and bravely to one anther. It is true that millions of Iraq's Shias and Kurds, who suffered so much under Saddam's brutal regime -- and now from terrorism -- are uncomfortable about letting people who served his predominantly Sunni regime back into positions of power but Iraqis have to come to terms if they want to build a better, more democratic Iraq.

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