- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

BAGHDAD — A year ago, Mola Bakhtiyar wrapped the sash of a Kurdish Peshmerga warrior around his waist and prepared to fight dictator Saddam Hussein’s army.

With considerable help from the United States, he and his men captured Khaneqin, his hometown — a victim of Saddam’s policy of evicting Kurds from oil-rich areas.

Today, as Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups prepare to forge a new state out of the wreckage of postwar Iraq, the Kurdish warrior is girding for political combat to keep the spoils of war and retain control of as much “Kurdish” land as possible.

“The Western mentality can’t understand our mentality — that my suffering is much greater than [that of] the person who came to live in my house,” he said. “I was humiliated and my land usurped. The problem of what to do with the Arab who has taken my land is a very small problem.” He added, “I just want him to go back where he came from.”

A year after the war that toppled Saddam, U.S. occupation forces are preparing to hand over control of Iraq to a local government, a sign that the conflict that began with a U.S. bombing campaign, followed by a ground invasion, is entering another stage.

Iraqis, too, are preparing for a long struggle, but of a different kind.

In Mr. Bakhtiyar’s Kurdistan, in the pious Shi’ite south, in the simmering Sunni Arab center and in the secular quarters of Baghdad, Iraqis have begun political, social and territorial horse trading to define the future of Iraq — a nation hastily put together by Britain after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the region for centuries, after World War I.

At the heart of the conflict are basic questions about what it means to be an Iraqi, what common denominators tie the 25 million people in Iraq’s hectic cities, sleepy oasis towns, mountain villages and river-valley farms together.

“Until now, an Iraqi has not been a citizen in the technical sense of the word — someone who wants to take part in the civic culture and administration of the country, while respecting the rights of others,” said professor Albert Issa, an Iraqi Christian who leads the political science department at the University of Sulaymaniyah.

Sometimes the battle to shape that identity plays out peacefully in Iraq’s Governing Council, where 25 politicians handpicked by the American occupation bully, cajole and compromise with one another over questions of the country’s future.

At other times, the battleground is the Iraqi street, where the specter of sectarian and ethnic violence looms between Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Sunnis and Shi’ites, the largest group.

Since the March 2 bombings of Shi’ite religious ceremonies in Karbala and the Khadhemia section of Baghdad, at least six Sunni mosques have been attacked in Iraq, according to Hareth Alwar, spokesman for the Committee of Islamic Clerics, a Sunni group.

In an incident in northeastern Baghdad last week, unknown assailants in pickup trucks opened fire and tossed a grenade into the courtyard of the Badria Dulaymi mosque just as Sunni worshippers finished evening prayers.

One worshipper was killed and two were injured. The next morning, on his way to work after the funeral for the 32-year-old who was killed, another member of that mosque was fatally shot.

At the mosques, elders urge young worshipers to remain calm. They blame the attacks on Americans, Iranians, foreign operatives of terror network al Qaeda, and even the Israelis — anyone but fellow Iraqis. Still, Sunnis seethe with anger at Shi’ites, oppressed under Saddam but now holding the political upper hand.

“If they want to fight, we will fight,” said Mohammed Najid, a young Sunni outside the Badria Dulaymi mosque. “The reason we didn’t get these guys in the first place is that we don’t have enough rifles. Some of our guys have [AK-47s]. Maybe we’ll start carrying them around again.”

Not all signs point to sectarian war. Shi’ites, an Islamic sect that believes in a different line of succession for religious authority than the world’s Sunni majority, make up a majority in Iraq and Iran. Iraq’s Arabs still maintain strong ties to their tribal roots, whether Sunni or Shi’ite.

The religious split followed the death of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 with no designated successor. Although Sunnis and Shi’ites differ little in their beliefs about God and religion, the former trace their clerical legitimacy to Abu Bakr, a disciple of Muhammad, while the latter trace theirs to Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law.

Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites frequently intermarry, and during Iraq’s 1980s war with Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, Iraqis of that sect ignored the calls of Iranian ayatollahs for religious unity, heeding instead Baghdad’s appeals to nationalism.

In addition, decades of war and political repression have made Iraqis weary of bloodshed, and few want civil war. After bombings of mosques or political party offices, leaders quickly step in to calm their followers.

“Our greatest fear and worry is sectarian war,” said Alwiri, a Sunni cleric who goes by a single name.

But among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, who suffered under Saddam’s rule, there’s a sense that it’s time to take charge of Iraq. At the Ashura celebrations this month — marking the martyrdom in A.D. 680 of Imam Hussein, son of Imam Ali and grandson of Muhammad — Shi’ites led their once-banned processions into Sunni neighborhoods.

Many in Iraq privately worry that such triumphalism could push the country into civil war after the U.S.-led occupation force hands over power at midnight on June 30. To channel, shape and profit politically from Iraq’s sectarian politics, leaders are forming political organizations, associations and militias, many of which sprang up after the disorder that accompanied the war a year ago.

During the war, Alwiri was an imam, or prayer leader, at a mosque in Adhamiya, a suburb of the capital. As Baghdad’s authority collapsed, he and others began providing security for schools, clinics, telephone-switching facilities and mosques, bolstering his standing as a leader.

Now, the cleric promotes the political interests of the minority Sunnis, organizing meetings at mosques and presenting a united front at meetings with Governing Council members and occupation authorities.

“Religion here deals with politics as well as moral guidance,” he said. “We believe that God Almighty must be obeyed, whether in praying or living. We will not organize ourselves as a political front. But we’ll intervene in politics.”

Moderate, secular political groups without ethnic or sectarian allegiances exist in Iraq. They maintain strong ties to the U.S.-led occupation authority and hold a handful of seats on the Governing Council, but they have little popular support. Mostly led by exiles, these groups have little legitimacy among Iraqis who suffered under the previous regime or fought against it.

“What makes us angry is we feel like we fought against Saddam, but we’re not part of the ‘new Iraq,’” said Salman Sharif Duaffar, a Shi’ite warrior who organized an assassination attempt in 1996 that crippled Saddam’s son Uday.

In the poor Shi’ite slums in the west of the capital, 2 million Iraqis live amid crumbling buildings, mounds of trash and sewage. Portraits of Shi’ite saints martyred 1,300 years ago hang side by side with posters of contemporary political and religious leaders.

Politics and Islamic identity, welded together by centuries of suffering, have become one here.

Abdul Kareem Sheqeet’s tale is instructive. A decorated naval officer in the Iran-Iraq war who once trained in Canada, Mr. Sheqeet was jailed and tortured for four years because of his political activities, and freed after the U.S. invasion.

Under Saddam, Mr. Sheqeet lost his career, his savings and many of his relatives. Though he insists he has nothing against the Sunni Arabs who were Saddam’s political base, he can’t hide his resentment.

“It’s time for the Shia to collect,” said Mr. Sheqeet, a member of the Mahdi’s Army — a Shi’ite organization loyal to firebrand preacher Moqtada al-Sadr.

Even in the homogenous Shi’ite south, many fear that fighting will break out among the various Shi’ite political parties and groups once coalition forces yield control to the Iraqis — unless a strong leader, a benevolent version of Saddam, takes control.

The Italian, Spanish and British troops in southern Iraq govern with a light hand. In the absence of legitimate elected authority, militia groups such as Mr. Duaffar’s 15th of Shabaan, the Iran-linked Badr Brigades and Iraq’s Hezbollah fill the security vacuum left by a poorly trained and equipped Iraqi police force. A gunfight March 9 between Nasiriyah police and militiamen left at least three officers dead before Italian troops moved in to stop the shooting.

“Intellectually, socially, you have to change their minds,” said Col. Carmelo Burgio, a Nasiriyah-based Italian regiment commander. “But to do that, you need to stay here for 40 years and mentor, train and monitor them. Right now they can only exercise power the way they’ve seen it exercised.”

As for the Kurds, their territorial demands for an autonomous yet federated Kurdish state encompass a huge portion of northern Iraq that approaches the Arab cities. In addition to Kirkuk and Khaneqin, their demands include Jelola to the south, Makhmour near Mosul, and Sinjar near the Syria border, as well as the farmlands near Tikrit.

This month, Kurds attacked Turkmen offices in Kirkuk, hurling rocks and smashing windows. They have festooned that city with flags of the ill-fated Mahabad republic — the Kurdish autonomous government established in Iran after World War II. Last month, they handed a petition with 1.7 million signatures to the United Nations, calling for a referendum on the future of Kurdistan.

“Basically, Kurdish people got a lot out of the toppling of the regime,” Mr. Bakhtiyar said. “Our problem is not whether we can survive or not. It’s ‘what more we can get?’”

The U.S. war plans for Iraq depended on the participation of the country’s semiautonomous Kurds and the acquiescence of its Shi’ite majority. But a year later, the demands of these U.S. partners for cultural, economic and political power threaten to alienate Iraq’s other groups and destabilize the country.

Abdul Razzaq Abdul Fatah al Rawi, a businessman from the militant Sunni Arab stronghold of Fallujah, said he is disgusted by the sectarian turn Iraq’s politics is taking.

“This will divide Iraq into five sections,” he said. “All of this political posturing will lead to a partitioning of Iraq. What about unity? What about Iraq for Iraqis?”

Iraqis have shown mixed reactions to the overthrow of past regimes. After the collapse of Ottoman rule, Shi’ites and Sunnis united to fight the British occupiers in the 1920s.

But after they were freed from Saddam’s chokehold in 1991, Kurds in the autonomous north quickly descended into four years of bloody civil war over territorial and economic differences. At least a thousand combatants died. But within their autonomous zone, Kurds since have tempered their politics and begun the process of unifying their two competing governments.

“Our civil society has grown remarkably over the last few years,” said Amanj Saeed, who runs a health center at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “We’ve learned that we can’t solve our differences with weapons.” Kurdish leader Nechirwan Mustafa studied in Baghdad during the 1960s and proudly considers himself an Iraqi as well as a Kurd.

The Iraqis’ triumphalism and “identity politics” are signs of an immature political culture experiencing growing pains, he said. “After 35 years of this totalitarian government, we need at least two years to reorganize this society,” he said.

And although many Iraqis cling to their territories and faiths and harbor doubts about building an Iraqi national identity, ordinary men and women who place their Iraqi identity before their ethnic or religious affiliation also are speaking out.

“As Iraqis, we are helpful, hospitable and will always go out of our way to give you a hand when you’re having difficulty,” said a middle-aged Sunni Arab employee of a currency exchange in Adhamiya. “At the same time,” he added, “we’re hot-blooded, and our impulsive reactions are violent and quick.”

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