“I always say that one Shiite from Baghdad is worth five Shiites like me from Najaf,” Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation’s most revered Shiite cleric, was quoted as telling Shiites who visited him at his home in Najaf, a city south of Baghdad.
“You are the majority and your enemies are trying to reduce your numbers,” Ayatollah al-Sistani said, according to one of the 30 men who attended the seven-minute meeting last November. “Go out and perform your rituals.”
The men took Ayatollah al-Sistani’s words to heart and swung into action when the next religious occasion arrived in January — the Arbaeen, which marks the passing of 40 days after the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a much revered saint.
The district known for its well-to-do professionals and businessmen took on a religious ambiance of the kind found in Baghdad’s poor Shiite areas or those hosting religious shrines.
Residents practiced the ritual of self-flagellation on the streets, hoisted hundreds of Shiite banners on trees and lamp posts, and served meat and rice from tents pitched on street corners.
In the Baghdad district of Azamiyah, for years a bastion of Sunni resistance to Shiite domination, the government has ignored repeated demands by Sunni residents to remove Ali al-Saadi, a Shiite who heads the local council. They also want to replace Hadi al-Jubouri, another Shiite, who is the district’s mayor. Both men were appointed by the U.S. military authorities in July 2003, when the Sunni insurgency against the American occupation was starting.
Among other perceived injustices, the Sunnis say that Health Ministry officials stonewall them when they seek help locating the remains of loved ones killed during the sectarian violence of the past decade and that, unlike Shiites living in the district, they are not allowed to keep a firearm at home for self-defense.
Sunnis who apply for government jobs also complain of stalling tactics.
A young university graduate from Azamiyah who wanted to be identified as Umm Omar, or the mother of Omar, said she was among 150 candidates selected last year for jobs in the public affairs departments in Cabinet ministries. When she goes to the ministry to find out when she can start work, she is told to come back another time for an update.
“All the Shiites I know who applied with me started work,” said Umm Omar, who did not want to identify herself or the ministry because she feared reprisals. “I think it is because I am a Sunni from Azamiyah, but I will not give up. Jobs must never be given based on sect.”
Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb, a close al-Maliki ally, is accused of implementing sectarian policies thinly concealed behind his goal of purging members of Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath Party from academic institutions.
He has ordered candidates for senior positions in universities and the ministry to submit declarations on their possible links with the Baath Party or security agencies.
Those found out to have withheld such information are banned from assuming the positions for which they applied, according to an aide to the minister who agreed to talk about the subject only on condition of anonymity.
Sunnis long have maintained that Shiite authorities use Baath ties as an excuse to purge the civil service and academic institutions of members of their community.
Mr. al-Adeeb has fired nearly 200 academic and administrative staff from the state university in the mainly Sunni Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, according to local tribal leaders and officials. The campus is in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.