Ethnic and Religious Fissures Deepen in Iraqi Society - Washington Post, USA
- 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
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
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
"We are Sunni, we pray in the mosque, and they hate
us," the 76-year-old said. "We don't know why they
Chandrasekaran reported from Haifa and Tuz Khurmatu.
Shadid reported from Hamdan and Abu al Khasib.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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