The two car-bombs that rocked the Shi’a holy cities of Karbala and Najaf on December 20, killing at least 62 people and wounding 120, have focused attention once again on the deepening sectarian passions in Iraq that have opened the door to speculations about a looming civil war and the possible “Lebanonization” of Iraq. Sectarian and ethnic polarization in the country has been exacerbated by the foreign invasion and its aftermath, and by the widening rift over the impending elections along sectarian lines, especially between Shi’as and Sunnis.
But the current wave of sectarian feeling and antagonism that is now sweeping through Iraq did not emerge in a historical or social vacuum. Shi’a and Sunni affiliations have been part ofIraq’s social mosaic since the early Islamic era. Throughout the modern history of Iraq tensions between the two communities have largely been hidden. There has always been a sectarian undercurrent underlying Iraq’s political life. But the ebb and flow of this undercurrent has been hidden by a highly repressive state apparatus. Symptomatic of the ubiquitous, albeit latent, sectarian polarization in Iraq are the accusations of sectarianism in the political discourse of a number of Iraqi political groups of various hues, including the secular Arab nationalist and Islamist parties.
Saddam Hussein’s policies ripped apart the country’s social fabric and national unity. Sectarian loyalties hardened during the Ba’ath Party’s rule, especially after the Iraqi occupation ofKuwait. Saddam’s military campaign to crush the post-Gulf War uprising, in the predominantly Shi’a areas of southern Iraq in 1991, was charged with highly sectarian overtones. In response to the rebels’ use of slogans calling specifically for a “Ja’afari ruler” (after Imam Ja’afar b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, the sixth imam of the Ithna-Ash’ari Shi’as), tanks that rolled into and recaptured Karbala and Najaf carried banners that read: “No Shi’as after today” (“La Shi’at-a ba’ada al-yawm”).
The US invasion of Iraq was a watershed in Iraq’s drift towards a new form of sectarianism. With the collapse of the Ba’athist regime, the sectarianism that had been latent in Iraq’s socio-political system became institutional. The 25-member Iraqi Governing Council showed this shift: membership in the council was based on a rigid quota-system of proportional representation to reflect the relative demographic strengths of the country’s sectarian and ethnic groups. Fourteen IGC members were Shi’as, five were Kurds, and four were Sunni Arabs. The remaining two seats went to the Turkomen and Chaldeo-Assyrian Christian minorities. A similar formula was used for the current interim government. These arrangements confirmed the sectarian and ethnic divisions within Iraqi society as a basic organizing principle in government. In the process, the state became an stage where sectarian and ethnic divisions are displayed. Sectarian and ethnic conflict in post-Saddam Iraq, therefore, has become enshrined within state institutions.
Yet initial speculations about a possible Shi’a-Sunni civil war after Saddam’s fall have proven to be misplaced, though perhaps not totally wrong. That is mainly because of the realization of the Muslims of Iraq that falling into the morass of sectarian strife can only serve the occupation authorities. Slogans against sectarianism, appealing for national unity, were raised at Friday prayers and in numerous street demonstrations at the time. Worshippers were often heard chanting: “Islam Sunna wa Shi’ah, hadha al-watan ma nabi’ah” (“Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’as, we’ll never sell this country out”).
However, the rise of the salafi factor as a major element of the Iraqi resistance has served only to inflame sectarian passions. Salafi groups taking part in the resistance, especially those associated with the al-Qa’ida-linked organization Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (the Jihad Base in Mesopotamia), led by Jordanian Ahmad al-Khalayleh (better known as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi), have been involved in attacks against the Shi’as. Last February Zarqawi issued a statement calling for attacks on the Shi’as of Iraq. Investigations into the car-bomb explosion of August 29, 2003, outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, which killed more than eighty people, among them Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, have shown that salafi groups were behind the attack.
Differences over the questions of armed resistance and the impending elections have aggravated the sectarian divide. One needs only listen to Friday sermons in ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a’ mosques in Baghdad and elsewhere to realize that there is little room for agreement on these issues between large parts of the two communities. For instance, whereas armed resistance is often celebrated in ‘Sunni’ mosques as a heroic jihad aimed at liberating the country from the American occupation, many Friday imams at ‘Shi’a’ mosques condemn these acts as senseless acts of violence and terror perpetrated by the remnants of the Saddam regime and foreigners. While Sunni imams dwell on military operations targeting US-led coalition troops, their Shi’a counterparts emphasize and condemn attacks against Iraqi security and government officials, infrastructural installations, international humanitarian organizations, religious gatherings and places of worship, and civilians.
Beside the resistance, the elections are another of the acute fault-lines tearing apart any possibility of Sunni-Shi’a harmony. Whereas Sunnis, who are wary of losing their long-held power and influence, are divided over taking part in the balloting, Shi’as are largely in favour of the elections. For Iraqi Shi’as, who comprise about 60 percent of the population, the elections are a way to rectify the imbalance of political power that has characterised the Iraqi political landscape since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state. Political power has been monopolized to a great extent by the Sunni Arab minority since the Shi’a ulama led an unsuccessful revolt against the British occupation in 1920. After the violent suppression of this revolt, Shi’a ulama discouraged the faithful from participation in the government and its institutions. Since then, Shi’as have been largely excluded from the political structures of the country.
A number of Shi’a religious authorities, including Ayatullah Ali al-Hussayni al-Sistani, the most prominent jurist at the Najaf seminary, have urged Iraqis to take part in the voting, and characterize participation as a duty. A statement by Ayatullah Sistani broadcast on December 13 read: “All male and female citizens eligible for voting must make sure that their names are registered in the voter registration lists correctly.” The statement instructed the ulama to “set up public committees in their areas to assist citizens in fulfilling this important task so that everyone may participate in the elections.”
These developments have introduced a combustible factor into inter-communal relations in Iraq. Fortunately, these tensions have not yet led to inter-communal conflict. But if this trend of sectarian polarization is not checked, it threatens to push Iraq into the abyss of “Lebanonization”: the country may be torn apart along sectarian and religious lines, opening the door even wider to internal strife and external interference. To those who are familiar with Lebanon’s torments during its 15-year civil war, this prospect suggests nothing but the horrible spectre of chaos and civil war.