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Ethnic and Religious Fissures Deepen in Iraqi Society - Washington Post, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Ethnic and Religious Fissures Deepen in Iraqi Society Tensions Escalating Over Land, Power and Loyalties
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2003
      Ethnic and Religious Fissures Deepen in Iraqi Society
      Tensions Escalating Over Land, Power and Loyalties


      By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid
      Washington Post Foreign Service
      Monday, September 29, 2003; Page A01

      HAIFA, Iraq -- The Kurds who descended upon this
      hardscrabble Arab village in northern Iraq 11 days ago
      were so confident they would be able to evict everyone
      and seize the surrounding farmland that they brought
      along three tractors.

      But instead of responding by fleeing, as thousands of
      other Arab villagers in northern Iraq have done when
      confronted with similar Kurdish demands, the residents
      of Haifa refused to budge. "Our people went to them
      and said, 'What the hell are you doing here? This area
      doesn't belong to you,' " recalled Kadhim Hani
      Jubbouri, the village sheik.

      Words were exchanged. Threats were hurled. When the
      Kurds began tilling a field lined with golden flecks
      of harvested hay, gunfire erupted.

      Arabs contend the Kurds shot first. Kurds maintain it
      was the Arabs who opened fire. Both agree, however,
      that the 15-minute firefight was one of the clearest
      signs of the growing fissures between Iraq's two
      dominant ethnic groups -- its Arab majority and its
      Kurdish minority -- since the fall of former president
      Saddam Hussein's government.

      At the same time, in central and southern Iraq, fault
      lines have widened between the country's two principal
      religious communities: Shiite Muslims, who are a
      majority of the country's approximately 24 million
      people, and Sunni Muslims, Iraq's traditional rulers
      and Hussein's principal supporters.

      Although a rift between Sunnis and Shiites is
      relentlessly discouraged by leaders of both
      communities, tensions have escalated in recent weeks,
      raising new prospects of strife. Small bombs have been
      planted at a handful of mosques in Baghdad. In
      Khaldiya, a Sunni-dominated town west of Baghdad,
      unknown assailants ransacked the green-domed shrine of
      a Shiite saint and set off an explosive last month
      that damaged his brick tomb. In Basra, Iraq's
      second-largest city, some residents suspect that
      recent killings of former Baath Party members are
      inspired by religious zeal, and leaders of Shiite
      religious parties openly argue that vengeance is
      warranted against officials of a government that
      subjugated Shiites, particularly in its last decade of

      Hussein's Baath Party, which was in power for 35
      years, was dominated by Sunni Arabs and treated Shiite
      Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Turkmens as second-class
      citizens. Although Hussein's ethnic and religious
      favoritism fostered animosity, those feelings and past
      grievances were largely kept in check by his
      iron-fisted rule. When he was deposed, Iraqis suddenly
      found themselves with the freedom to redress old
      grudges -- and many have sought to right what they
      regard as injustices of the past.

      The deepening divisions between Iraq's principal
      ethnic and religious groups have unsettled many
      Iraqis, who generally oppose the idea of their country
      breaking apart. They contend that U.S. and British
      occupation forces have played down or ignored many
      warning signs of a larger conflict that have bubbled
      forth in the tumult of postwar Iraq.

      Many of the confrontations have taken place not in
      large cities where U.S. reconstruction specialists
      have their offices, but in tiny villages such as Haifa
      where there are no soldiers or prominent Iraqi leaders
      to defuse tensions. "I am sure," Jubbouri said, "the
      Americans have no idea what is happening here."

      "Relations in our country have become very tense,"
      said Anwar Assi Hussein Obeidi, a Sunni Arab who is a
      leader of the Obeidi tribe, one of Iraq's largest. "If
      the Americans don't resolve these problems soon, the
      people will start killing each other."

      In the North, Whose Land?

      The problem in Haifa is all about land.

      Hassan Abid, a farmer with a weathered face and
      gray-streaked hair, said he moved to Haifa in 1974
      along with dozens of other Shiite Arabs fleeing a
      drought in Diwaniyah, their ancestral home in southern

      "It was a wonderful new home," he said as walked
      through Haifa, a village of mud-brick houses and dirt
      streets 20 miles northwest of Kirkuk, a city in
      northeastern Iraq known for its oil fields.

      To Kurds, however, the steppe around Kirkuk is Kurdish
      territory. Tens of thousands of Kurds had lived in the
      area until Hussein's government, in a campaign against
      a group he deemed subversive, pushed many of them out
      and resettled the area with Arabs.

      But Abid contends Haifa was open land until the Arabs
      arrived. "There was nobody here before us," he said.
      "We did not displace the Kurds."

      He noted that the Arabs of Haifa arrived in 1974,
      before Hussein's forced relocations began. And, he
      said, the villagers are Shiites, while those moved
      under the Hussein government were typically Sunnis.

      "There should be no dispute here," he said.

      After Hussein's government collapsed in April,
      thousands of Kurds moved down from the northernmost
      regions of Iraq, where they had lived in an autonomous
      enclave since 1991. They came to reclaim property they
      deemed to be theirs. Entire villages were commandeered
      by armed Kurds, who sent scores of Arabs fleeing.

      On April 19, Arabs said, a band of armed Kurds arrived
      in Haifa. Panicked residents initially fled on foot
      and settled on the plain a few miles away, where they
      set up a tent camp.

      The Arabs returned in May, when the Kurds had moved on
      for reasons that are not clear. As the Kurds left, the
      Arabs said, they ransacked the village, peeling off
      roofs, ripping out doors and windows and looting
      whatever else they could.

      Then the Kurds came back Sept. 18. This time, the
      Arabs resolved they would not leave again. The land
      was theirs, they insisted. "This village belongs to
      us," said Mohammed Nafad Jabara, an 80-year-old
      retiree. He pointed to a grove of towering date palms
      which were planted, he claimed, upon his arrival in
      1974, as proof of his residency.

      Armed with that conviction and dozens of AK-47 rifles,
      the men of Haifa took positions in a trench between
      the village and the fields where the Kurds had arrived
      with their tractors and two pickup trucks mounted with
      machine guns. As the bullets whizzed by, recalled
      Mohammed Kadhim, "it felt like we were fighting a

      After a 15-minute firefight, residents said, the Kurds
      drove away.

      Nobody was killed or seriously wounded, a fact that
      amazes people who participated in the skirmish.

      Arabs in Haifa view the firefight as the opening
      skirmish of an impending battle. "We're expecting them
      to come back," Abid said. "And we'll be ready for
      them. We'll greet them with bullets."

      Who Should Control Tuz Khurmatu?

      Kurdish militiamen swooped into the town of Tuz
      Khurmatu on April 9, the day before Kirkuk fell. Their
      mission, according to Kurdish leaders, was to protect
      the town from looters and Hussein's loyalists.

      The militiamen, known as pesh merga, seized government
      buildings and deployed along the town's main streets.
      "We came to care for Tuz," said Karim Shukor, the
      local director of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan,
      one of Iraq's two largest Kurdish political parties.

      Tuz Khurmatu, built in the shadow of rolling brown
      hills about 110 miles north of Baghdad, is a
      nondescript way station of stucco buildings on the
      road connecting the capital to Kirkuk.

      Kurds contend that it used to be an entirely Kurdish
      area. Ethnic Turkmens, who migrated south from
      present-day Turkey hundreds of years ago, insist that
      the village was exclusively Turkmen until 1975.

      The Turkmens in Tuz Khurmatu viewed the arrival of the
      Kurdish militia as a power grab. The jobs of mayor and
      police chief, formerly held by Hussein-appointed
      Arabs, were claimed by Kurds. So were other powerful
      government posts. "They came with arms and took
      everything," complained Ali Hashem Mukhtar, the local
      director of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a coalition of
      Turkmen political parties.

      The dispute in Tuz Khurmatu is about political power,
      not land. Both Kurds and Turkmens believe they are in
      the majority in this area of about 70,000 people.

      Shukor argued that records from Hussein's Baath Party,
      which repressed both groups, lists Kurds at 52 percent
      of the population and Turkmens at 32 percent. Mukhtar
      insisted those figures include outlying villages.
      Within the town, he said, Turkmens are in the

      Turkmens argue that Kurds are trying to expand the
      area under their control so towns such as Tuz Khurmatu
      will be deemed part of a future Kurdish state in a
      federal Iraq. Kurds, in turn, claim that the Turkmens
      are agitating at the behest of neighboring Turkey,
      which opposes Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in the

      Although U.S. forces in the area attempted to quell
      the tension by creating a town council with equal
      numbers of Kurds and Turkmens, the powerful posts of
      mayor and police chief were given to Kurds, leading
      Turkmens to complain that the Americans were favoring
      the Kurds in return for their help during the war.

      As spring turned into summer, the animosity on both
      sides escalated. Finally, in late August, the town

      The spark was the destruction of green-domed Shiite
      shrine in the khaki-colored hills east of town. The
      shrine, which had been destroyed during the Hussein
      era and recently rebuilt, is venerated by the town's
      predominantly Shiite Turkmen population. In the early
      hours of Aug. 22, the shrine was blown to rubble with

      Turkmens blame the Kurds. The Kurds deny
      responsibility for the attack. The precise reasons for
      the blast are not known but Kurds, who are Sunnis,
      insist that the conflict with the Turkmens is about
      politics, not religion.

      Later that morning, hundreds of angry Turkmens flocked
      to the town's main Shiite mosque for a demonstration
      that turned into a protest march through the main

      A video now sold at the market shows what happened as
      the protesters made their way through the town: Amid
      the shouts of "God is great," shots rang out. It is
      not clear from where.

      Turkmens claim that the first shots were fired from
      Kurdish party offices. Kurds contend their security
      forces started shooting after Turkmen mobs began
      hunting down Kurds in the street.

      A battle ensued, with both sides shooting from
      rooftops and behind corners. U.S. soldiers in the town
      also began firing, in an attempt to halt the violence.
      Five Turkmens and three Kurds were killed. It was the
      worst ethnic clash since the end of the war.

      Now, Tuz Khurmatu is a town on the brink. There is
      open talk of revenge. And Turkmens who once welcomed
      Americans as liberators said they now regard U.S.
      forces as the enemy because of their perceived
      favoritism toward the Kurds.

      "After the war, I was so happy I was ready to put up a
      picture of [President] Bush in my house," said Muzhir
      Kassim Jaffar, a pharmacist whose 21-year-old son,
      Ashraf, was killed in the protest -- by what he
      believes were bullets from U.S. soldiers. "If I see
      Americans now, I will try to kill them," he said. "I
      only care about revenge."

      He is equally bitter about the Kurds. "Five months of
      them," he said, "is worse than 35 years of Saddam."

      Near Basra, the Muslim Divide

      The trouble began in the hamlet of Hamdan on Sept. 14,
      just as southern Iraq's summer heat was wilting. Along
      dusty roads lined with adobe huts and the palm groves
      for which the region is famous, hundreds of Sunni
      mourners marched, armed and angry, according to Shiite
      residents. Hamdan is a village about a half-hour's
      drive south of Basra, where the Shatt al Arab river
      flows into the Persian Gulf. It is the only city in
      Iraq's Shiite south where Sunnis make up a substantial

      The Sunnis were marching in a procession to bury five
      men they believed had been killed a week earlier by
      members of the Dawa party, a Shiite Muslim movement.

      In a 15-minute rampage at the local Dawa headquarters,
      the Sunni mourners ransacked the building, a former
      schoolhouse. They shot up the cream-colored stucco
      walls and tossed a grenade inside. They tore down
      pictures of Shiite clergymen from the entrance,
      stomped on them, then carted them away. Fires were lit
      in the mostly vacant rooms and, residents recalled,
      shots were fired randomly at the concrete and
      mud-brick houses that line Hamdan's parched groves and

      The residents, who stayed indoors, still recall the
      insults: Shiites are cowards -- and worse. And they
      still recall the chants.

      "There is no god but God," the Sunni mourners cried.
      "The Dawa party is the enemy of God."

      Residents call the trouble in Hamdan over that week in
      September fitna, a resonant word in Arabic that
      translates as strife, but suggests anarchy. In Islamic
      lore, fitna and the chaos it brings will precede the
      Day of Judgment.

      "Hundred percent, there will be more fitna," said
      Sayyid Murtada Hussein, a Shiite farmer who witnessed
      the rampage.

      In Hamdan and its nearby hamlets, the population is
      split almost in half between Shiite and Sunni
      residents, some of their neighborhoods separated by
      centuries-old canals that snake along farms. Now, a
      gulf of fear, suspicion and resentment divides them.

      As Hussein walked through the looted party
      headquarters, he acknowledged the deaths of the five
      Sunnis, but said the village had nothing to do with
      it. He blamed Wahhabis -- members of an austere Sunni
      sect dominant in Saudi Arabia and a term often used as
      code for any militant Sunni -- for inflaming the
      anger. He contended that a majority of the Sunnis in
      Hamdan and nearby villages follow the Wahhabi sect.
      Given the history of enmity between Shiites and
      Wahhabis, a feud that dates to the 19th century when
      Wahhabi tribesmen from Saudi Arabia regularly attacked
      and pillaged southern Iraq, Hussein predicted more
      troubles in hamlets where government exists in name
      only and police keep to themselves.

      "We can recognize them in the streets. They have long
      beards and dirty faces," said Hussein, a 46-year-old
      wearing a white gown and thumbing black worry beads.
      "If they return," he warned, "it will be a bloody
      fight. It will be killing."

      'This Will Bring Trouble'

      A 10-minute drive away, in the neighboring village of
      Abu al Khasib, Asad Shihab sat in his mud house, its
      roof built with trunks of palm trees and dried fronds.
      Green water collected in a metal bin. A rusted door
      leaned at the entrance.

      "If you say we are taking money, look at my roof, look
      at my water tank," he said. "What's your impression?"

      It was the death of Shihab's relatives that prompted
      the funeral march and rampage in Hamdan. Shihab blamed
      Sayyid Salman Sayyid Talib, the local representative
      of the Dawa party, one of Basra's largest Shiite
      political groups. The Dawa party acknowledges that
      Talib is a member, but denies having ordered him to
      take any action. Talib is now in hiding.

      On Sept. 7, Shihab said, Talib captured Shihab's uncle
      and two brothers in a nearby village after evening
      prayers. Then, escorted by 30 armed men, Talib headed
      down a dirt path, past okra plants and a pile of
      harvested dates, to arrive at Shihab's house, shrouded
      in dark by a blackout. Two white pickups were parked
      outside. Talib's men blocked escape routes.

      "They claimed that there were armed Wahhabis in the
      house," Shihab said.

      Shihab hid. But his father and 12-year-old brother
      were taken away. Two days later, police found two
      brothers in a busy street in Basra with gunshot wounds
      to the head, Shihab said. His father and the two
      others were tortured and killed by throwing acid on
      them, he said, their bodies dumped in a cesspool of
      engine oil and stagnant water near a fertilizer plant.
      He pulled pictures out of a black plastic bag, showing
      the bloated corpses in a row before the police
      station. Some had blindfolds; others had their legs

      "Those people are trying to ignite sectarian fitna
      between the people," he said, wearing the long beard
      of religious devotion and a face grim with smoldering
      anger. "These are not good tidings. This will bring

      Shihab said he took part in the funeral procession on
      Sept. 14. While he denied shooting up the Shiite
      neighborhood in Hamdan, he acknowledged the damage
      done to the party headquarters. They were angry, he
      said, and they deserved vengeance.

      "You found five people who were killed. They were
      innocent, and they were killed in a terrible way," he

      "Sayyid Salman," he added, "should die."

      In conversations in Hamdan and Abu Khasib, the degree
      of mutual suspicion is matched by the divide in how
      they remember the past and how they envision their

      Shiites in Hamdan celebrate their majority status, and
      insist that Sunnis should understand they are the
      minority. While Sunnis in the villages insist they
      were treated no differently by Hussein, Shiites there
      point out they were deprived of jobs, promotions and
      land rights. Sunnis are reluctant to talk about
      religious divisions; they are all Muslims, they
      insist. The presence of Wahhabis, they say, is a myth
      fabricated by the most militant Shiites to further
      their own agendas.

      The British who occupy Basra say religious differences
      are under control. The deaths and the protest that
      followed probably had "something to do with a tribal
      dispute," said Maj. Charlie Mayo, a military

      As for sectarian strife, "I'd say the lid is on it at
      the moment," he said.

      Shihab's grandfather, Ahmed Ismail, said he was not so
      sure. Sitting on a rickety porch, he said fitna had
      already arrived.

      "We are Sunni, we pray in the mosque, and they hate
      us," the 76-year-old said. "We don't know why they
      hate us."

      Chandrasekaran reported from Haifa and Tuz Khurmatu.
      Shadid reported from Hamdan and Abu al Khasib.

      © 2003 The Washington Post Company

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