- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The statement claiming responsibility for the assassination of the head of the Iraqi Governing Council offers the names of the “heroes” who conducted the attack and illustrates yet another attempt to spark sectarian strife in Iraq.

The names released in the statement of the “Arab Resistance Movement — the Al-Rashid Brigade” suggest that the homicide attackers on moderate Shia leader Izz al-din Salim of the Islamic Dawa Movement were from the Sunni Arab community of Iraq.

As many have pointed out, the attack bares the hallmark of Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose plan for instigating sectarian strife in Iraq was clearly spelled out in a letter captured several months ago.

Zarqawi’s strategy to force sectarian war in Iraq so far has been unsuccessful. But the structure of the current Iraqi government along Shia-Sunni sectarian lines does little to discourage this possibility.

With the forthcoming appointment of a new governing structure, U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi should ensure that criteria for selection this time are based not on sectarian identification, but on the real demographic lines in Iraq: ethnicity.

Iraq is an ethnic mosaic of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrian Christians. Within each of the first three groups, there are Shia and Sunni Muslims. Within each of the four groups there are also political organizations from across the spectrum, ranging from Communists to radical Islamists. In between, each ethnic group also hosts moderates, liberals and secularists.

The U.S. selection process last summer was based on Shia and Sunni sectarian lines, and allowed two extremely dangerous phenomena to emerge: the rise of hard-line Islamist leaders and fertile ground in which outside agitators could sew the seeds of sectarian strife. Zarqawi recognized the latter and has been quick to exploit it.

In labeling Iraqis by their sectarian identity, in this case “Shia” or “Sunni,” it is natural that the “most Shia” or the “most Sunni” leaders would emerge as symbols of their communities. This paved the way for more extreme elements to rise to popular leadership positions.

In addition, it left little political space for those who do not identify themselves by religious sectarianism — the more secular and moderate politicians. Within the Iraqi Governing Council, this sectarian configuration stifled the possibilities for coalitions along political lines such as conservatives, liberals and so on, as members were stuck in the Shia, Sunni or Kurdish blocs.

For example, the Iraqi Governing Council member of the Communist Party, presumably secular, is listed as “Shia” because he happens to have been born in a Shia family. The previous head of the Communist Party was a Kurd and, following this logic, had he been the current head, the position would have been listed as in the “Kurdish” camp.

What this means on the street is that, for example, a leftist-minded Kurd will be unlikely to join the Communist Party because he or she will most likely be Sunni and will not identify with a “Shia” party.

With this structure, the possibility of the emergence of a pan-Iraqi political party along strictly political lines (liberal, conservative, etc.) is nearly nil.

If the upcoming caretaker government is to allow for the emergence of truly political parties and popular support, there must be a revamping of the selection process away from sectarian lines.

The U.N. envoy, Mr. Brahimi, said recently that those who will take part in the caretaker government will be “respected figures who are capable, fair and faithful to Iraq.”

This statement was welcomed by moderate Iraqis who want to put a brake on the political ascendancy of the mullahs and warlords. But the statement is also vague. The concrete issue is whether the same sectarian criteria will apply to new appointees.

Since its inception, Iraq’s various constitutions have recognized the ethnic diversity of the country. And ethnic identity has long been openly recognized both politically and culturally. Iraqis feel comfortable identifying themselves as Arab or Kurd or Turkoman or Assyrian. They have never thought it necessary to identify their sect.

The new government should likewise recognize and embrace this ethnic diversity and give each a fair share in future decision-making.

The United Nations and the United States must acknowledge that within each ethnic group there are people who are secular and those who are religious, and that their political orientations may thus differ.

If appointments are made with that in mind, the influence of religious extremists from both sects will be minimized. More importantly, the barrier that has been driven between politically like-minded Iraqis who happen to cross the sectarian divide will be removed.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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