Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Sunnis and Shiites must play equals role

More unites Iraq's rival religious factions than divides them. Cooperation is needed if a realistic nationalism is to be forged

By Martin Woollacott  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

It is typical of how Middle Eastern politics is rooted in past history that the date which sprang to many Shiite minds after the bombs in Kerbala this week was May 1801, when Wahhabi warriors swept in from what is now Saudi Arabia and sacked the city. According to a European chronicler, the raiders converted the shrine of Imam Hussein "into a cloaca of abomination and blood."

Two centuries later that assault by the Sunni Muslims most intolerant of Shiism reverberates down the years, even though most of the Sunni world is far from sharing such views. What these memories underline is that intervention in Iraq has severely shaken up both Sunni and Shiite society across the Middle East. On the one hand they are drawn toward embracing a common solidarity against extremism and expressing a common distaste for outside interference. On the other, their interests diverge, their religious choices still divide them and, in particular, their attitudes to the US attempt to transform Iraq are very different.

The Kerbala and Baghdad attacks in themselves say nothing about the over-emphasized and overwrought question of whether there is a possibility of civil war in Iraq. They are clearly the acts of an extremist minority, and, equally important, it is highly unlikely that Iraqi Shiites will respond to them by attacking the Sunni community. Well controlled by their generally sensible religious leaders, they are in any case surely aware that a sectarian conflict could take away from them the chance of a normal life in a state in which for the first time ever they will get what is due to them in terms of power, position and religious freedom.

Solidarity

It cannot be ruled out that the same group or groups who bombed Kerbala might bomb Sunni places of worship as well, in the hope of sparking a general conflict, but such acts would be so transparent that they would almost certainly fail of their object. The spontaneous acts of Sunni solidarity which Baghdad witnessed as the Shiite dead were carried past reinforce that view. When an Iraqi government -- with significant powers and responsibilities and with Shiites in a leading position -- comes into being, it will have to deal more directly with the insurgency, but is likely to be shrewd enough to use only Sunni forces to do so in majority Sunni areas.

Although the attacks should not be seized on as a harbinger of civil war, they are another indication of how Iraq is a cockpit and a frontline place for so many different forces in the Middle East -- Sunni and Shiite, radical and moderate, Persian and Arab. This is not just a question of the fight with al-Qaeda and its affiliates and other violent extremists which US President George W. Bush evoked with the phrase "Bring 'em on." It has had a long development. Once British influence in Baghdad ended with the Iraqi revolution of 1958, conflict between an Arab nationalist regime in Baghdad and the Western-backed shah, both sides aiming to meddle in the politics of the other, was inevitable.

It was followed by a far worse crisis of relations after the Iranian revolution. In 1978 the Sunni world was rocked by the spectacle of Shiites and Persians, about whom it had known little, taking the lead in both a movement of religious reform and a decisive repudiation of foreign control and influence. Some were admiring, some were perplexed, some, later, cynical, and some were profoundly hostile.

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