- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

BAGHDAD

Through 20 years of prison and exile, the Shi’ite Muslim preacher waited for his chance to return to his mosque. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, he came back and now is expanding his ornate house of worship, teaching the masses about everything from God to the trial of Saddam and warning of growing sectarian strife.

The reborn Sayed Idris mosque signals the long path that Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims have taken to this critical moment in their history, an opportunity for justice after centuries of discrimination and pain at the hands of rival Sunnis.

“We bought our freedom with our own blood,” said Imam Abbas Ritha al-Zubeidi, 64. He was banished from the mosque by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime in 1983, imprisoned for three years and barred from Baghdad until the government collapsed in 2003 as U.S. forces entered.

The outbreak of open fighting last week between Sunnis and Shi’ites was the result of an ancient rivalry, aggravated under Saddam’s brutal leadership and let loose by the instability of Iraq since the U.S. invasion.

Iraqi Shi’ites, a majority long oppressed by a Sunni elite, have used the ballot box to win a leading role in the new government.

Sunnis, seeing abuses by the Shi’ite-led security forces, fear payback that will engulf them wholesale — guilty or not.

As lawlessness increases in Iraq, people of both sects are retreating into the tribal and religious social structures that have offered protection in the past.

A spasm of religious violence last week started with the bombing of a religious emblem: the Shi’ites’ golden-domed Askariya Shrine in Samarra. Militants from a radical Sunni group suspected of ties with al Qaeda attacked the holy site.

The bombing in Samarra, after hundreds of other attacks against Shi’ites in the past two years, unleashed a wave of retaliation. Shi’ites sought vengeance on Sunni mosques, attacking dozens and killing scores of people.

Centuries of division

Iraq was already soaked in blood from al Qaeda attacks on Shi’ites and a homegrown Sunni insurgency striking U.S. troops and the Shi’ite-dominated government, but the shrine episode threatened to open a sectarian civil war and create ripples that could lead to instability elsewhere in the Middle East and the Muslim world, where Shi’ites have long been the oppressed minority.

Some Iraqis saw the Shi’ite retaliation for the shrine attack as a show of strength and a message to both Sunnis and U.S. officials, who have angered Shi’ites by urging them to share power in the new government.

The Muslims originally split into sects in the seventh century in what was essentially a political dispute over who should lead Islam after the prophet Muhammad.

The Shi’ites wanted the leadership to pass through the prophet’s family. When Muhammad’s cousin Ali was passed over for the job, his followers became known as the “Shiat Ali,” or “partisans of Ali.”

The rivalry continued through the centuries, alternating among warfare, conquest and cooperation. Saladin, for example, was a hero to Sunnis for recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, but he was notoriously harsh to Shi’ites.

Shi’ites now comprise about 10 percent of all Muslims but make up a majority of perhaps 60 percent in Iraq.

To outsiders, the sects can seem superficially indistinguishable, roughly like trying to tell a Catholic from a Protestant. As Iraqis note insistently, Sunnis and Shi’ites live and work side by side, intermarry and, broadly speaking, follow the same core religious tenets.

Identifying sects

A few given names that can reveal whether someone is Shi’ite or Sunni. Some family or tribal names are indications, though some Iraqi tribes are mixed.

They observe holidays and prayer rituals differently, and Shi’ites tend to be more reverent of religious symbolism. It is usually Shi’ites who hang posters of the early Muslim leaders, and shrines, such as the one blown up last Wednesday, are especially important. The shrine marked the tombs of two ninth-century leaders descended from Muhammad.

“They attacked my forefathers,” said Shi’ite Jassim Mohammed Abu Ragheef. A 23-year-old police officer helping guard a Shi’ite mosque last week, he noted that he is a “Sayed,” someone who can trace his lineage back to the prophet Muhammad. Shi’ites see that distinction as especially significant.

Geography also can help distinguish the sects, as a Shi’ite living next door to a Baghdad Sunni mosque found out last week.

When Shi’ite gunmen dismounted from four pickup trucks to open fire on the mosque, they found the neighbor and put a gun to his head, asking him who he was.

“I am from [the Shi’ite city of] Hilla,” said the man, who refused to identify himself to a reporter. “OK,” they answered, “Hilla is precious to us.”

Each group has exhibited a sympathetic and sinister side since the U.S.-led invasion.

Power switch

The majority Shi’ites in Iraq think the fall of Saddam means they finally will get their slice of power and freedom.

It is the Sunnis, they note, who have been at the heart of the violent resistance to the newly elected government and the Shi’ite-led government is fighting those “terrorists.” Last week, Shi’ite leaders complained that Sunnis have been too tolerant of the militant bombers who have killed untold thousands of Shi’ites.

But the Shi’ite forces have increasingly doled out abuse, torture and killings of Sunnis.

Peaceful Sunnis, who feel unfairly stigmatized by the actions of Saddam’s Sunni regime, fear a season of murderous payback. They note the Iraqi Shi’ite brotherhood with neighboring Shi’ites in Iran, and worry about a new fundamentalist dictatorship led by the dominant Shi’ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

“When the Shi’ite party took power, it began to act in a racist way against Sunnis, which caused increasing hatred between the two,” said Imad Ahmed al-Rawi, 46, a Sunni teacher. “Shi’ites are continuing to control everything in Iraq and keeping Sunnis away from any important position in government.”

During a press conference last week, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged that the fighting had roots in ancient history and in Saddam’s repression. The smoldering bitterness was inflamed by the “change in the balance of power, a move toward building a democratic society” with the new Shi’ite emergence.

“These transitions are not easy. They are difficult; they have complications,” he said, adding that calls for calm by Iraqi leaders show that they realize “they must come together, that they must lead and compromise with each other to bring the people of Iraq together and save this country.”

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