Thursday, October 28, 2004

Falah Al-Naqib at the National Council 

Yesterday there was a live transmission on Al-Iraqiya of a National Council hearing in which Falah Al-Naqib, minister of interior, was supposed to demonstrate his ministry's achievements and security arrangements over the last four months. Al-Naqib was also required to answer a list of 33 questions related to his ministry prepared by a security committee from the National Council.

The National Council, according to the Transitional Adminstrative Law, has the authority to impeach ministers and governmental officials in cases of negligence, corruption or failure to carry out their duties. The council had called for Al-Naqib several weeks ago but, for some reason, he appeared only yesterday. The minister defended his position by explaining that he had not recieved an official subpoena to his desk and that he had no knowledge of the hearing except by word of mouth.

He started by speaking generally about recent attacks against Iraqi security forces and his ministry's plans and preparations. He was interrupted short by Mish'an Al-Juboori, the council member heading the security committee. Al-Juboori told the minister, a bit roughly, that this was not a press conference but an 'interrogation', and that the minister was expected to reply to the 33 questions. Al-Naqib looked as if he was taken aback by this statement and his facial features and the tone of his voice changed. He tried to cover his obvious embarrassment by smiling sheepishly and looking left and right. Al-Juboori then scolded someone (offscreen) who had entered the hall, asking him/them to leave. The camera was still on Al-Naqib and his eyes were now wide with disbelief. He motioned in the direction of the door asking the person to leave. He said the person was one of his relatives and that he worked as his escort.

He then proceeded nervously to answer the list of questions, with several interruptions and side topics from council members. He was accused of appointing several family members from Sammara (his hometown) and ex-Ba'athists to the ministry. Of course he strongly denied that. At this point, Ayad Allawi entered the hall and briefly interrupted the session. The manner in which Allawi entered and seated himself reminded me of someone entering an Iraqi coffee shop. You enter and greet everyone left and right with 'Al-Salam Aleikum'. After you sit down, others around you greet you with 'Allah bil khair', and you should respond to each Allah bil khair with the same provided you turn to the person, lift your right hand to your forehead and bow your body slightly (this was the old Baghdadi greeting before handshaking). This was exactly what took place in the council hall.

Al-Naqib proceeded to answer the questions and while he was mentioning some statistics regarding numbers of weapons and vehicles a council member expressed his concern about mentioning such critical details in a public session since it might be of benefit to terrorists. Others agreed and a long argument followed on whether to stick to general issues without details or shutting down the camera. Al-Naqib said that he couldn't possibly answer the questions without the relevant details. After some commotion, other members suggested a future session which would be closed. Every single member wanted to offer his personal suggestion, and one said that it was almost time for Iftar (breaking the fast) and that they would better postpone the whole meeting and go home. Hussein Al-Sadr jokingly said that time was no problem since the Prime Minister could invite them all at his residence for the Iftar and if he didn't, they would just invite themselves.

Laughter, more joking and further commotion followed. Finally they agreed to leave the whole matter to the minister since he was better informed on the details that threatened national security. Al-Naqib described the difficulties of restoring order to some parts of the country and he provided some valuable numbers and statistics in the process. Below for example, a table detailing casualties from suicide attacks over the last four months:

Month Suicide Killed Injured
(2004) attacks
June 18 128 462
July 34 245 235
August 20 28 122
September 20 168 419

Total 92 569 1238

The minister also mentioned that a total of 650 attacks have been carried out against Iraqi police during the last four months killing 130 policemen and injuring over 200. Some 70 policemen have been kidnapped, 31 of them unconditionally released, 35 by ransom and the rest killed.

A short discussion followed after which the council decided to postpone the session for a week. Falah Al-Naqib stepped down and Ayad Allawi delivered a short talk about elections and security precautions. In the end he turned to Mish'an Al-Juboori and told him that the word 'interrogation' was a bit extreme and that it would be preferred to describe the session as an 'inquiry' instead.

A holy month of beheadings and assassinations 

This year's holy Ramadan has indeed turned out to be 'holier' than that of last year. Last year, the Mujahideen received Ramadan by bombing infidels and crusaders at the Red Cross and several police stations. This holy month, however, has a peculiar flavour.

Another series of unsuccessful attacks were carried out against several churches. Iraqi Christian women have been offered a choice between 'observing the holy month' by covering their sinful heads or to face death. I kid you not. This threat was not carried out by foreign terrorists, Zarqawi or Al-Qaida, but by Muslim Iraqi student unions at Mosul University.

Leaflets and handbills signed by Ansar Al-Sunna have been circulated in Mosul starting from early Ramadan warning women of a terrible fate if they venture in public without the hijab. At Mosul University, several student groups handed notices to Christian students also warning them from showing up at college with their heads uncovered. As you know, Mosul is inhabited by the largest Christian community in the country, so we are talking of thousands of students here not a hundred or two. The Chaldo-Assyrian student union has been issuing statements of condemnation for days but no official move has yet been made to ensure the safety of Iraqi Christian students at university. Several thousand students have gone on strike while a few have chosen to accept their fate and cover their heads.

Ironically, this reminds me of all the hype in the media and the 'Arab street' about the French hijab ban. I lost count of the number of talk shows and symposiums condemning the cruel and barbaric French decision and lamenting 'basic human freedoms'. As far as I know, French Muslim girls have not been threatened with death or beheading if they wear the hijab in public. Is it then impudent to ask Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya for one single talk show with a seething enraged fist-shaking table-banging Arab 'intellectual' or commentator denouncing the act of Muslim student groups in Mosul? ... I thought so. We are always the loudest people to ask for rights while we offer none to others.

We may go on endlessly about the rights of our religious minorities in the Arab world, about our solidarity and peaceful coexistence, etc. Sadly though, it would be hollow speech because actions on the ground are the true indicator. Once political Islam takes hold of our societies, peaceful coexistence goes out the window, and it sets out to achieve its vision of an Islamic Ummah where religious minorities "pay the Jizya with the hand of humility." But no, that is surely not the real Islam, I can hear someone say.

Ramadan has also witnessed an increase in assassinations of Iraqi public figures and professionals. Several members of municipal and local councils have been targeted in Ba'quba, Hilla, Kirkuk, Ammara and Mosul. The Sheikh of the Ghrair tribe south of Baghdad was assassinated. Two mutilated corpses of a doctor and his fiancee were found in Al-Qa'im close to the Syrian border. They were kidnapped three weeks ago near a hospital in Nahrawan, 20 kilometres east of Baghdad. Two female employees at the Iraqi conference center were killed in broad daylight while they were returning home from work. A former Iraqi embassador to the UAE was assassinated yesterday in Adhamiya, he had just returned to the country. Several people were beheaded in Kirkuk and a closed liquor store was blown up. 3 DVD rental stores were blown up in Karbala by fundamentalists. Fundamentalists in Baghdad have been touring several coffee shops (which usually prosper during Ramadan after the Iftar) around the city warning customers from playing dominoes, backgammon or cards because that is 'haram'. I know at least 4 coffees shops that have been threatened this week.

In a far more barbaric development, some 49 National Guards were killed execution style east of Baghdad. The soldiers were reportedly unarmed, dressed in civilian clothes and returning home on a bus from a training camp in Karakush. They were found systematically shot in the head with their hands tied in groups of 12 on the main road of Baladruz-Mandali-Badrah. Most of the soldiers were from the Wasit (Kut), Thi Qar (Nasiriya) and Maysan (Ammara) governorates, which prompted several (Shi'ite) tribal Sheikhs from these areas to issue threats of a large scale armed assault against (Sunni) tribes west of Baghdad to avenge the slain soldiers.

Sheikh Hassan Hatem Al-Ghadhban of the Bani Lam tribes in Kut and Ammara strongly warned tribes west of Baghdad from the consequences of providing aid and refuge to terrorists. He also mentioned that southern Iraqi tribes can easily mobilise an army of tribesmen to overrun Yusifiya, Mahmudiya and Fallujah, and that neither multinational forces nor the interim government can stop them from carrying out this threat. Another Sheikh from Bani Lam said that he can do nothing to prevent his angry tribesmen from taking revenge for their brothers and sons, while a spokesman for the Congregation of Southern Tribes, a Sheikh from the Rubaiy'a tribes in Kut, called on the government to intervene and put an end to these massacres or they would be forced to act by themselves.

This is the third time in 5 months that southern Iraqi tribes threaten military action against Fallujah and surrounding areas. This in itself is not an encouraging sign for the future, but to go back to details of the NG incident; Zarqawi's group, renamed to Qa'idat Al-Jihad Fi Bilad Al-Rafidain (The Base of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) claimed responsibility for the attack against the NG. I find this both troubling and dubious. Troubling because if Zarqawi's group can set up a checkpoint of at least 15-20 armed men in a distant area on the Iranian border (Mandali-Badrah), which is not usually their traditional area of operations, to capture some 50 trained Iraqi soldiers, to tie them up and execute them one by one, to dispose of their corpses in such a way and to retreat unscathed, then something is seriously wrong. It would indicate that Zarqawi's network is getting stronger and bolder despite the US reports of daily bombings against Zarqawi's hideouts.

I find it dubious because the tactics are not those of Zarqawi or foreign terrorists. I have reason to believe that this was the work of former Iraqi security forces. These remain the only organised groups in Iraq today with the required experience and precision to carry out such an operation. This was completely planned beforehand. We know that there have been infiltrations in the current Iraqi police and NG, not only by criminals and former prison inmates, but by informers, Ba'athists, Fedayeen and Mukhabarat members. I do not doubt for a moment, unlike many Iraqis, that Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi indeed exists or that he is behind much of the turmoil in the country. His family and comrades have been interviewed on several documentaries made on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and his activities and movements have been traced in Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past. However, I am more inclined to assume that the present strategy of the underground Ba'ath party (and there is such an organisation) is not to claim direct responsibility for its actions, and for obvious reasons. It may operate under the guise of Zarqawi's group to give an impression of a holy war in Iraq and to cloak its activities.

There have been rumours and tidbits here and there over the last year and a half that the Ba'ath and its security apparatus is still at large in most of the country and that it remains the most organised political and military entity in Iraq. Its leadership has been purported to be in Syria. Its methods are familiar to Iraqis and they can be easily recognised and singled out. Intimidation, extortion, sabotage, executions, kidnappings, beheadings and coordination with the Arab media have all been employed in the past by the Ba'athist regime, and the same methods largely apply today to the resistance. While Iraqi Salafi groups and foreign terrorists are also active, they remain restricted to certain areas and their operations are limited in scope.

The Arab media persists in labelling these criminal elements as freedom fighters in a legitimate conflict with an occupying force, and that this resistance is nationwide, spontaneous and widely supported by the Iraqi people as an immediate result of US actions in postwar Iraq. The media chooses to ignore the fact that the main victim of this resistance is the Iraqi people itself, and that only a tiny fraction of attacks are now directed at occupation forces. This resistance realises that if free elections supervised by the UN and the international community take place in January 2005 and if a legitimate representative government assumes power in the country then the resistance would have to cease to exist.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Marji'iya of Najaf: Voting is a legal duty  

Sayyid Ahmed Al-Safi, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, reiterated during the Friday prayers sermon at Karbala the call of the Maji'iya for widespread participation and voting in the upcoming elections late January 2005. Al-Safi stressed that 'heavy participation in the voting procedures is a national and legal (religious) duty,' adding that those who refrain from voting would 'enter Jahannam (Hell)'.

Al-Safi strongly denied rumours appearing in the media last week that the Marji'iya or Sistani had prepared or endorsed any slate of candidates. This following attempts by several Islamic parties in the south (such as the Da'wa party, SCIRI, and Hizbollah) to mislead Shi'ite Iraqi voters that they are backed and supported by the Marji'iya, or that voting for candidates from these specific parties is an 'order' from the Sayyid (Sistani). Some have even presented forged statements with Sistani's seal on them to convince potential voters.

Meanwhile, the Association of Muslim Scholars continues its threats to boycott the elections especially if a military campaign is carried out against Fallujah or other 'Sunni' towns and areas. On the other hand, several Sunni clerics as well as the Islamic party have issued statements strongly encouraging Iraqi Sunnis to vote in order to guarantee representation in the government and not to fall into the trap of avoiding the elections.

Another Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Muhammed Al-Ya'qubi, leader of the Islamic Fadhila party and a disciple of the late Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, also stressed in a recent statement that voting is an imperative duty for all Muslims the same as prayers or fasting.

As far as public Iraqi opinion. I sense that Iraqis in the north and south are the most eager to vote, unlike Iraqis in Baghdad and the surrounding areas. This is probably due to security concerns as voting centers in Baghdad are easier to come under attack. The same applies to the areas north, west and east of Baghdad. One example is the continous suicide bombings of IP and National Guard recruiting centers, no security measures have been successful in preventing these attacks. Recruits still stand in long queues on the street just like sitting ducks waiting to be bombed. If the voting procedures would be in a similar fashion then I doubt anyone would be willing to vote, and nobody can possibly blame them for that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Apologies for the long hiatus. I haven't been online lately for several reasons. One, I have been busy completing my transfer procedures which are taking too long. I am supposed to have finished my residency in Basrah, and will now move to work in Baghdad. Two, the daily situation in Baghdad is sadly too depressing to live through, let alone write about. And three, I have been busy with some personal stuff.

A close friend of mine was seriously injured but thankfully he survived. He works at an Internet cafe (I have posted about him before in a blog entitled 'funny Internet stories'), and was shot in the abdomen when an armed gang sprayed a car belonging to a lawyer they were threatening to abandon a case with bullets. The incident took place in front of a courtroom. IP were close by but they did nothing to interfere.

Another acquaintance, a doctor called Zeyad Walid, was found decapitated in Yusifiya, southwest of Baghdad. He worked with a pharmacist, Zena Al-Qashtini, who was also found shot in the head. They were both kidnapped from a pharmacy in Harthiya by 10 armed assailants a few weeks ago at mid-day in front of a large crowd of customers. His brother abroad collected a ransom thinking he was kidnapped by petty criminals. Turns out that the pharmacy had previously sold some pharmaceuticals to the US army and this was their punishment for 'collaboration'. I remember it was reported that two bodies 'with western features' were located in the area, that was because the girl was blond. They have only been identified a few days ago.

One should wonder how kidnappers or terrorists are able to move so freely in and out of Baghdad with their victims unnoticed.

Will be offline again for a couple of weeks.

The roots of Iraqi Secularism and present challenges 

In just a few months after April 9, the Committee for Defending Secularism in Iraqi Society (CDSIS), the first organised Iraqi secular group to emerge following the war, was formally announced in September 18th, 2003 during a press conference attended by representatives of Iraqi political parties and the international and Arab media.

The official announcement was made by Issam Shukri, a renowned architect and also a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Workers Communist party. Other members of the group included Yanar Mohammed, a women rights activist and founder of the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), Iraqi lawyer and human rights activist Faleh Maktuf, and Falah Alwan, member of the Federation of Workers Councils in Iraq.
The goals of CDSIS were expressed in this excerpt from the opening statement of the group: "The immediate promotion of secular and free thought values, respect of human rights, egalitarianism and the rejection of religious dogmatism and its interference in civil society. CDSIS calls for freedom of speech, freedom of thought and consciense, freedom of and from religion, unconditional freedom of choice in dress, freedom of academic and scientific research with no constraints, and absolute unconditional freedom of criticism."

The committee, which was later renamed as the Organisation for Defending Secularism in Iraqi Society (ODSIS), faced violent opposition from Islamic parties and groups within and outside the Governing Council, mainly because ODSIS had forcibly spoken against the infamous Resolution 137, passed last January by Islamic members of the GC, which was to replace the Iraqi civil personal status and family affairs law with Islamic Sharia.

Yanar Mohammed, in particular, recieved two death threats to her personal email account from an anonymous group which called itself Jaish Al-Sahaba (Army of Compatriots). The first message which was titled "Killing Yanar Mohammed within a few days" threatened to murder Yanar if she persisted in her "psychologically disturbed ideas about women's freedom." The second email threatened to blow up activists working with Yanar. Yanar was active in organising symposiums and sit-ins for Iraqi women organisations against the resolution, and for speaking against forced veiling, intimidation and abduction of women. She was also responsible for opening the first shelter for Iraqi women threatened with domestic violence and honour killings at a secret location, which was an unprecedented step in the region.

Yanar asked US forces for protection but to no avail. She was supported by the Iraqi Workers Communist party for a while but she had to eventually leave the country especially when mosque sermons from Sadr city to Kirkuk were mentioning her name and after attempts were made against her life. Her cause has since been taken up by various international women and human rights groups, and she has appeared on several media outlets and given speeches and talks at universities in Europe, the US and Canada.

In March 2004, after US appointed GC members signed the Transitional Adminstrative Law, which was to serve as an interim constitution until an elected body was in power, the ODSIS strongly protested against Article 3 of the preamble, paragraph A, which lays down that "no amendment may be made" to the Law that would "affect Islam or any other religions or sects and their rites," Article 7, paragraph A, which cites Islam as "the offical religion of the state and to be considered a source of legislation," and also against paragraph B of the same article which described Iraq as an "inseperable part of the Arab nation." ODSIS stated that these additions would pave the way to a new religious and chauvinist despotism in Iraq.

Apparently this was the last straw. Shortly afterwards, Al-Fartusi, a senior aide of Muqtada Al-Sadr in Sadr city, condemned ODSIS as a tool for the decadent west and Zionism to introduce immorality and depravity into Iraq's 'conservative' society, describing its members as apostates. Fardusi had previously instigated young Shi'ite extremists to attack liquor stores, music and DVD rental shops in Baghdad, after which several Christian liquor merchants were gunned down and their stores burnt in the Al-Bayaa and Karrada districts. There was no doubt that the organisation would soon face similar reprisals.

Lacking the neccessary protection from authorities and public support, ODSIS had no choice but to close down it's offices and go underground. Most of its few members are now abroad and seem to have suspended their activities inside Iraq. The organisation recently published the first issue of its online magazine 'Secular' (in Arabic).


The modern Iraqi state that was established in 1921 under British mandate, gaining independence and joining the League of Nations in 1932, was largely secular. The Monarchy (1921-1958) built its local power base on Sunni military officers and businessmen in the center, on powerful Shi'ite tribal Sheikhs and elders, and on Kurdish chieftains in the north.

The Shi'ite religious establishment in Najaf was dealt a powerful blow in 1923. After senior Hawza clerics issued fatwas to boycott the National Assembly elections, the government of PM Muhsin Al-Sa'doun reacted by arresting three senior clerics (Grand Ayatollahs Sayyed Abu Al-Hasan Al-Asfahani, Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Al-Na'eeni and Sheikh Mohammed Mahdi Al-Khalisi) and sending them into exile to Iran. One year later, King Faisal offered them amnesty and allowed them to return to Iraq provided they would not interfere in politics. The clerics reluctantly agreed. Since that day, the Shi'ite Marji'iya adopted a quietist attitude regarding Iraqi politics until the mid-sixties when Ayatollah Khomeini arrived on the scene in Najaf.

The first Iraqi constitution in 1924 borrowed heavily from western secular constitutions, but King Faisal I, in order to support his tumultous power base and to control the fragmented country, issued (with British support) the Tribal Disputes Regulations granting supreme power to tribal Sheikhs over their local areas including judicial powers and tax collection responsibilities. Reactionary tribal and religious courts became widespread in rural areas of Iraq, and civil laws on personal status and family affairs were only valid in urban centers.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi educated class, known as efendiyya, continued to challenge popular superstitious religious beliefs and dogmas which were predominant in Iraqi society. This divide had started during the 19th century Ottoman reforms of Midhat Pasha (governor of Iraq) when modern western innovations and ideas began to pour into Iraq. The clergy prohibited everything that came from outside including telegraphy, press, newspapers, typewriters, phonographs (unless they were used to recite the Quran), etc. Hospitals and schools (only religious and military schools existed before that) were opened in several Iraqi cities and were also widely condemned by the clergy.

Many Iraqis took heed to the warnings of clerics at first, but in time and after they witnessed young men who were sent to schools by their parents grow up to become respectable and well-groomed efendiyya and governmental employees, they started sending their children en masse to schools, and soon clerics sent their own children to schools as well. A greater uproar followed the opening of the first school for girls in Baghdad. One Baghdadi who was about to enroll his daughter in the new school was being warned by a cleric of the eternal torture he would face in the afterlife as a result of this action. The Baghdadi responded to the cleric: "Look here. We believed you in the past and listened to your sermons and did not send our sons to schools. Years went by and we realised that our sons grew up to work as janitors for your sons in governmental departments. I will never allow my daughters to become maids to yours."

There was even fiercer opposition against Arab liberal writers whose audacious works appeared on several scientific journals and papers in Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. Al-Muqtataf (the Excerpts), one journal that was published in Egypt starting from the late 19th century until Nasser's coup in 1952, dealt with religious and philosophical subjects that one can only dream about reprinting in today's Arab world. A similar paper in Iraq was called Tanweer Al-Afkar (Enlightening Thoughts). There was a popular saying at the time; "Egypt writes, Lebanon prints, and Iraq reads." Arab publishing firms, at the time, were dominated by liberals and seculars, unlike today where the state and religious establishments have reversed this trend and freely censor anything they wish.

The efendiyya in Iraq introduced and promoted secular and scientific theories that were shocking to the clergy such as Darwin's evolution and natural selection theories, Einstein's relativity principles and quantum physics, Marxist dialectical and historical materialism, Freudian psychology and socialist political theories. The clerics were awed and unable to draw from their dusty centuries old theology volumes and trusty Aristotelian logic to debate the new ideas. One such cleric wrote a whole book called "The Decisive Sword Against Those Who Claim Rain Is From Steam." Another cleric wrote a book in which he argued that there is no way the earth revolves around the sun since the holy Quran explicitly provided 'scientific' proof that the sun sets in a black muddy spring in Surat Al-Kahaf:86; "Till, when he [Dhu Al-Qarnain (Alexander the great)] reached the setting-place of the Sun, he found it setting into a black muddy spring.."

But the progressive secular tide was stronger than the clerics, and soon their voices drowned and their influence restricted to illiterate and impoverished rural areas. Secularism continued to dominate the political Iraqi scene following the fall of the monarchy in 1958, and the Ba'ath regime that assumed power after the 1968 coup openly rejected (in theory) religious sectarianism , racism and tribalism. However, the seventies witnessed the awakening of religious Shia aspirations in the south to impose an Islamic theocracy in Iraq based on the doctrine of Wilayet Al-Faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent) held by Ayatollah Khomeini. One of his disciples in Iraq, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, who had been active politically since the early sixties when he found the Da'wa party, challenged the Ba'ath government and issued a fatwa prohibiting joining secular 'infidel' parties such as the Ba'ath and the Communist party.

Sadr and his ideology turned into a more serious threat after the Islamic revolution in Iran led by Imam Khomeini. He was arrested and summarily executed by the regime shortly before the Iraqi-Iranian war (1980-1988). Saddam's regime grew more wary of the political and intellectual activities of Iraqi Shia and openly persecuted them and banned their religious ceremonies and publications. Gradually, the Ba'ath adopted an increasing sectarian policy against other Iraqi religious groups. Following the 1991 Gulf War, and during the strenous years of UN-imposed sanctions, Saddam implemented a 'Faithfulness Campaign' in which religion became state-sanctioned. Civil personal status laws were modified according to Islamic law, 'honour killings' were now unpunishable by law 'to protect the deep-rooted moralities of our society', blasphemy laws were introduced, secular publications were limited, religion was heavily incorporated into school textbooks and social life. People who were observed violating the Ramadan fasting periods were imprisoned or beaten, alleged prostitutes were beheaded in public.

After April 9, and during the lawless phase which followed shortly, religious establishments (or at least people acting on their behalf) in the south reportedly ransacked rations depots and relocated food and medicine to mosques and husseiniyas. Clerics distributed these goods to local populations, assigned duties and organised daily affairs giving an impression of authority, especially at a time when Iraqis were in need of any leadership to help control the chaos that erupted all over the country.

As the power-crazed clerics realised their position, they started issuing all kinds of fatwas and statements. Former opposition Islamic parties and groups (Islamic party, Da'wa, SCIRI, Hizbollah) and a score of new ones (Al-Fadheela, Intiqam Allah, Tha'r Allah, Qawa'id Al-Islam, Al-'Amal Al-Islami), almost exclusively Shi'ite, came to dominate Iraqi postwar politics. For one reason or another, they were rewarded a position of authority by Bremer's adminstration. After ministries (the spoils of war) were divided among them, each party-ministry started to reward its adherents and followers, and a few ministries (Oil, Health, and Education in particular) openly adopted sectarian and partisan policies in appointing their employees. Governmental departments, schools and colleges have been filled with religious symbols and posters of Shi'ite saints and Ayatollahs.

On the streets, intellectuals and professionals were threatened, intimidated to leave the country and targeted for assassination in a blatant attempt to wipe out the former secular face of the country. Secular political parties, to this day, are often targeted. The Iraqi Communist party in Basrah was raided and ransacked by the police (which is loyal to the Islamic Da'wa party) for no reason. The offices of the Workers Communist party in Nasiriya were set to fire and several members kidnapped and tortured. INC and INA parties in Amara, Basrah and Nasiriya are also regularly attacked. A women rights organisation office in Basrah was taken over by Tha'r Allah and the women threatened with death if they return.

Liquor stores, social clubs, music shops, DVD rental vendors, barbers and hairdressers have all been subject to criticism, threats and armed reprisals. Columnists, reporters and writers (including yours truly) who dare to criticise are regularly threatened. Reactionary hardliners in the interim government have recently been lobbying to seperate genders in educational institutions (including colleges), this system was carried out in primary schools of the south shortly after the war.

Practice has proven that after each concession made to religious hardliners, they soon come back with further demands. Today they want to seperate boys from girls in schools and colleges, tomorrow they will demand the same applied to governmental departments, in a few days they will demand mandatory veiling, and in the future they will probably demand that women be stoned for adultery.

Iraqis today, more than ever, are in terrible need for secular voices to face the rising fanaticism in Iraqi society. Most Iraqis have turned to religious parties and demagogic groups due to the lack of organised alternatives. Mosques and Husseiniyas provide charity for the impoverished, militias provide jobs for the unemployed and promise paradise if they take over the country. They keep repeating the mantra "Islam is the solution" and point out former Iraqi governments as an indication of the failure of secularism.

Unless we work together to reach our voices to the confused Iraqi public and start speaking out against fanatics, whether they be in the street, the government, or the 'resistance', we are condemned to a fate far worse than that of Iran, the Taliban or Saudi Arabia.

I would be interested to hear the opinions and recommendations of Iraqi readers.

Sectarian trends in Iraqi society 

It is not uncommon today to hear an Iraqi say "We never heard anything about Shia or Sunnis before, there was never any difference, we are all the same" or "It doesn't matter to me whether a Sunni or a Shi'ite rules Iraq," or "Saddam was just in his injustice against all Iraqis, whether they be Shia or Sunni," and "Imperialists and Zionists are trying to play on sectarian chords to divide Iraqis and plunge them into civil war."

Such statements, at first, may sound comforting and reassuring, but to what extent do they accurately reflect the reality on the ground? And is it true that most Iraqis do not discriminate on sectarian or ethnic grounds? Or that the successive governments in Iraq did not follow out a sectarian policy against certain sections of the Iraqi people? Which is better? To bury one's head in the sand and hear no evil, see no evil? Or to face the problem, discuss its origins and propose solutions?

A renowned Iraqi scholar once wrote: "Those who deny the existence of sectarianism in our society are usually the most sectarian people in the country."

Even this day, there is overwhelming evidence that the actions of both the interim government and the various factions of the 'resistance' (local and foreign) are largely driven by sectarian ideologies. The false impression that they are trying to sell to the world, one of harmony and unity of different Iraqi sects in face of common threats, is hardly a new one and has precedent in recent Iraqi history. Sectarianism shortly resurfaced after each of these public displays.

Foreign fighters and terrorist organisations have made no secret of their utter contempt for Iraqi Shia and Iraqi Kurds. Zarqawi described the Shia in his famous intercepted letter as the "sect of treachery and betrayal.. fifth columnists.. polytheists and worshippers of graves.. a bone in the throat of the mujahideen.. the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom." In flowery eloquent Arabic, Zarqawi proceeds to blame the Shia for the demise of the Abbasid Caliphate, for the halting of Jihad at the gates of Vienna, and for almost every internal trouble that has plagued Islam. He goes at great lengths to cite evidence from the Hadith and works of early Sunni jurists such as Imam Malik, Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal, Al-Bukhari, Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taymiyya.

Mainstream orthodox Sunni Islam has a gigantic heritage of anti-Shia bias in literature. Sunni jurists referred to Shi'ites as Rafidha (rejectionists), since they had, according to Sunnis, rejected the example of Muhammed's companions and instead had turned to Ahl Al-Bait (the household of the prophet and his descendants through his cousin and son-in-law Ali bin Abi Talib) as the true inheritors of Muhammed's spiritual legacy. The derogatory term Rafidha is still used in dozens of fundamental Islamic websites and forums on the Internet, and in messages by Zarqawi, Zawahiri and other self-appointed guardians of Islam.

Starting from the 9th century, around the time of the disappearance of the twelfth Shi'ite Imam Muhammed Al-Mahdi (a descendant of Ali bin Abi Talib), Shi'ism became more influenced by Greek philosophy and Persian pre-Islamic religious beliefs. Increased importance was placed on the divine rights and the infallibility of Shi'ite Imams and they were gradually elevated to the position of prophets. This lead to further alienation and their status as a renegade sect was officially established. In the face of this vitriolic campaign, Shi'ism responded with a counteroffensive of its own. They also produced their own version of Hadith and historical records to justify their beliefs and practices. Ibn Al-Atheer provides accounts of sectarian clashes, instigated by Seljuk Turks, against the Shia in Baghdad during the 10th century in which their schools and libraries were set to fire. This forced Al-Tussi, a senior Shi'ite scholar, sometimes described as 'the Sheikh of the sect', followed by others to move to Najaf establishing the Hawza, setting it forever as the center of Shi'ite Islam.

However, it was under Ottoman rule that sectarianism became a pressing issue, especially around the time of the conflict between the Turkish Ottoman and Persian Safawid states during the 16th and 17th centuries. Both states were openly and officially sectarian in their foreign and domestic policies. The Shi'ite Safawids converted a large part of the Sunni Persian population to Shi'ism by force, and it was only natural that Sunni Persians would regard the rival Ottoman state as a saviour and guardian for their interests. The same applied to Shia Iraqis, even though the Ottomans had not yet invaded Iraq, they looked upon their Safawid invaders as liberators and protectors of the sect. On their first invasion of Baghdad in 1508, Safawid armies destroyed Sunni religious shrines such as the Abu Hanifa shrine in Adhamiya and slaughtered hundreds of Sunni clerics, on the other hand they spent lavishly on the reconstruction and expansion of Shia shrines in Kadimiya, Karbala and Najaf.

This led the Ottoman Sultan Selim, who was busy waging Jihad in eastern Europe, to declare war on the Safawid state and on all Shi'ites under the dominion of Ottoman rule. Encouraged by a fatwa issued by top Sunni clerics in Turkey, he ordered his Janissaries to massacre over 40,000 Shi'ites throughout the empire and he placed the remaining 30,000 under arrest. Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, the Ottoman Caliphate was announced and the Hanafi Sunni sect was declared the official sect of the empire. His son Sultan Suleiman was unique according to the standards of that period, he conquered Iraq with almost no bloodshed and was known to be just in his treatment of Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shia. In the second Persian invasion of Baghdad, Shah Abbas ordered lists of Sunni Baghdadis to be made so that they would be executed. Sayyed Darraj, the Kelidar of Imam Hussein's shrine in Karbala, who was appointed to make the list, tried to put as many Sunnis as possible under the list of 'Ali's supporters' to save them from execution. Nevertheless, he was among the first of the Shia to be executed by Ottomans upon their bloody retake of Baghdad from the Safawids in 1638.

There was a short lived movement starting in 1743 to reconcile between the two sects. Nadir Shah, a ruthless Persian military leader who came to rule after the death of the last Safawids, implemented radical religious reforms (also by force) in Persia to rid the Shia of Safawid practices such as cursing the prophet's companions, self-flogging and mourning processions of Ashurra. Afterwards, he wrote to the Ottoman Sultan asking him to officially recognise the Ja'farri (Shi'ite) creed as the fifth Islamic creed (along with the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali creeds of Sunni Islam). The Sultan responded with a fatwa from Ottoman clerics that the Shia were apostates from Islam and that it was lawful for Muslims to kill them and take their women as captives. Nadir Shah was naturally enraged, he declared war on the Ottomans and invaded Iraq. After a short failed siege on Mosul he made peace with the governor of Baghdad, Ahmed Pasha, and moved to Najaf.

Once in Najaf, Nadir sent to the governor of Baghdad demanding a Sunni jurist to represent Sunni Iraqis in a theological debate with Shia clerics. Nadir had brought 84 Shi'ite clerics from Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and arranged for an unprecedented conference to reconcile between the two sects. Abdullah Al-Suwaidi, the Mufti of Baghdad, was sent to Najaf by the Ottoman governor. "I have two groups in my Kingdom, Afghans and Turkomen," Nadir told Al-Suwaidi, "They both call my people 'infidels'. Infidelity is repugnant and I will not have people in my kingdom throw that accusation at each other. It is your duty to end this and to certify against the third party." The Shah had instructed Shi'ite clerics in advance to facilitate the debate as much as possible and to reach a conclusion no matter the cost. The conference proceedings went well, to the delight of the Shah who had imagined that he put an end to the strife once and for all, and a middle ground was reached by the different clerics followed by widespread celebrations. According to a clause in the conference agreements, Shi'ite pilgrims at Mecca would have their own corner for prayers the same as Sunnis. When the Shi'ite Imam attempted to follow out this term during the pilgrimage season, riots broke out in Mecca and the Shi'ite Imam was arrested and sent to Istanbul, later he was poisoned in prison. All efforts of reconciliation died ever since that incident.

These related historical events set the foundations of a distinctive sectarian policy to be carried out by consecutive rulers and governments of Iraq to this day. Ottoman Turks barred Iraqi Shia from entering military schools, whereas the majority of officers in the Turkish army prior to WWI were Sunni Iraqis. Primary and secondary schools were built in Sunni areas and Sunnis held the lion's share of governmental and adminstrative positions. Shi'ite schools were exempt from religious endowments, unlike Sunni schools. Following the Turkish constitutional movement in 1908, representatives of Iraqi Shi'ite areas in Turkish parliament were exclusively Sunni individuals from other areas; for example, Ahmed Baban, a Kurd from Suleimaniya was a representative of Diwaniya in the south. Ma'ruf Al-Rasafi, an Iraqi poet originally from Kirkuk, represented Ammara, and Abdul-Majeed Al-Shawi, a Baghdadi Sunni cleric represented Nasiriya.

British forces entered Baghdad in 1917, ending four centuries of Turkish rule. General Sir Stanley Maude his famous pronouncement: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators." But in reality, Iraq was to be a mandated territory under direct British military rule according to the San Remo conference. Iraqis started pressing for independence and elections. Joint Sunni-Shi'ite religious celebrations were held in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities for the first time in history, the proceedings of which were entirely political and directed against British occupation. The 1920 5-month Iraqi insurrection, in which the British suffered some 2,500 casualties, pressured the British adminstration to set up some form of local government. Sharif Faisal, son of the Hashemite Sharif Hussein of Mecca, was brought and arranged to be monarch of Iraq and an interim government of nine appointed ministers with Abdul-Rahman Al-Naqib, Baghdad's senior Sunni cleric, as prime minister. Only one seat was given to a Shi'ite, Sayyed Mohammed Mahdi Bahr Al-Uloom from Karbala.

The British encouraged Arab nationalism and they chose to design a Sunni dominated state to ensure that the ruling minority would always look towards imperial Britain for support against the majority. It would always be that way for decades to follow: power in the hands of Arabs and never Kurds, precisely Sunni Arabs and never Shia Arabs.

The new Iraqi government continued to refuse the admission of Shia into the military academy for all kinds of reasons (strangely most of them never passed the medical examinations), but the underlying reason was that since the army would serve as the power base of the ruling minority, it would be unacceptable to have military officers from the ruled majority. The same applied to parliament, the Ottoman practice of appointing Sunni delegates from other areas to represent Shia southern cities continued with only a few exceptions. It was quite common for someone to be a representative of Ammara in parliament one day, and a representative of Nasiriya or Diwaniya the next while still remaining in Baghdad all the time. The Shia that were appointed to parliament were usually feudal Sheikhs with strong economical ties to the government. The number of times that Shi'ites were appointed as prime ministers during monarchic rule (1921-1958) was 5 for less than 2 years, while 19 Sunnis headed 54 cabinets. Under republican rule, Naji Talib was the only Shi'ite to become prime minister in 1966.

After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, Gen. Abdul-Karim Qasim attempted to break out of the sectarian cycle. He introduced agricultural reforms that abolished feudalism in Iraq, which resulted in a huge wave of peasant migration from the south to the outskirts of Baghdad (forming Al-Thawra district or today's Sadr city), thus gaining a reputation as the 'supporter of the impoverished'. He also ordered an end to sectarian discrimination in the army and government departments. His rivals soon started digging for his roots and since Qasim's mother was known to be a Faili (Shi'ite) Kurd, he was nicknamed 'Ibn Kaifiya' (the son of Kaifiya) in Sunni opposition areas of Mosul and Ramadi. He was also accused of 'regionalism' as opposed to Pan-Arabism or Arab nationalism by nationalist parties such as the Ba'ath and by Arab regimes of Egypt and Syria because of his lack of enthusiasm for a 'united Arab republic'. He had also lost the support of the Shi'ite Marji'iya due to his sympathy for the Iraqi Communist party and his infamous amendment of family laws to allow equal inheritance shares for males and females. This caused Islamic parties to join the ranks of the Pan-Arab Ba'athist led opposition and soon there was another superficial movement of joint Sunni-Shi'ite religious celebrations and prayers in Adhamiya which was a strong Sunni opposition stronghold.

Qasim was overthrown and executed in February, 1963 by a coalition of Ba'athists and Pan-Arabs. A coup within a coup brought the Pan-Arabs led by Gen. Abdul Salam Arif to power nine months later. Starting from this date, state-sanctioned sectarianism took its ugliest forms, when 'villagers' assumed power (especially after the second Ba'athist coup of 1968). For the next four decades, a small minority from certain Iraqi towns would gradually infiltrate the highest governmental positions as well as the top officer ranks in the army. Three Iraqi governorates (out of 18) would basically rule the country from now on. Tikrit (Salah Al-Din), Mosul (Ninevah) and Ramadi (Anbar). Top positions went exclusively to Sunni Iraqis from Tikrit, Samarra, Mosul, Al-Dor, Ramadi, Fallujah, Ana, Rawa and Haditha. It was ironic that the same people who had originally revolted against Qasim for his regionalism adopted the worst kind of regionalism imaginable. Officials were now chosen for their regional and sectarian backgrounds not for their merits.

Iraqis are probably unique in their flavour of sectarianism in that their worst sectarians are secular in nature and have nothing to do with religion.

When we speak of the high possibility of a future Iraqi civil war, it is not to give the impression that Sunnis would suddenly start killing Shi'ites or vice versa. It would be closer to a conflict between factions that are fighting to reintroduce the old sectarian policy employed by the Ottomans and later encouraged by the British and factions that have suffered under that policy for centuries and would also fight to resist it.

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