In Iraq, Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds Wonder: Is This the Beginning of the End?

Amid the onslaught of Sunni extremists in ISIS, Shi'ite and Kurds are watching with fear and wondering how Iraq can hold it together, or whether it's time to go their separate ways.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Volunteers joining the Iraqi army, in Baghdad, June 17, 2014.
Volunteers joining the Iraqi army, in Baghdad, June 17, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

On a Friday in June 2003, Amina dressed me in black and took me to prayers at the shrine of Imam Khadim in northern Baghdad. She felt that as an American journalist trying to understand Iraq, I should understand what it means to be an Iraqi Shia, should experience the grandeur and spirituality of worship at the most important Shi'ite shrine in Baghdad.

She also wanted me to understand the sermon, far beyond the grasp of my colloquial Palestinian Arabic, the key message of which was that nothing good could come of a long American occupation in Iraq.

Good Muslims should be wary of the Americans, the imam recently returned from exile in Iran told the crowd of thousands that Friday, and be careful not to be influenced by them nor to adopt their decadent ways.

It took another eight years for the United States to pull its troops out of Iraq, as it finally did in late 2011. Just two-and-a-half years later, no one is sure what’s worse – having left a weak and unstable Iraq to descend into the state it’s in now, or having gone in and toppled Saddam Hussein in the first place.

Through Amina, a literature professor who became my closest friend in Iraq, I came to know Iraq’s Shi'ites a bit better, came to see understand how they differ from Sunnis, and why. Perhaps most importantly, I came to realize how little we in the West understood their feelings of colossal injustice, both in modern times – under Saddam Hussein – and in early Islam, following the death of Mohammed, after which Shi'ites believe Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law and cousin, should have been named successor to the Caliphate. Today, the succession struggle continues.

Moreover, the sense of injustice persists, despite the fact that starting with Iyad Allawi, who took office 10 years ago this month as the first prime minister of the Iraqi interim government, he and every politician to succeed him has been a Shi'ite.

The shocking images of executed government soldiers – all Shi'ites by Sunnis – only adds to the sectarian blood feud, to the sense of victimhood that, even a decade in, power has not erased. Shi'ites in Baghdad and throughout the south of the country are terrified of the onslaught of fundamentalist Sunnis in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaida-affiliated militia which has made lightning advances throughout northern Iraq over the past week.

Despite Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s promise that he would rebuff the Sunni militants’ threats to push on into Baghdad, ISIS fighters on Sunday grabbed Baquba, about 45 minutes north of the capital, and on Monday occupied Saqlawiya, a town west of Baghdad.

In the capital, people fear the worst. Men are cleaning their guns and stocking up on ammunition; women are stocking up on food and cooking fuel; and Maliki is looking East and West – to Iran and the U.S. – for help.

A month ago, he had asked for the Obama administration to carry out airstrikes on ISIS, but the U.S. president declined. The way things look now, it seems unlikely that Maliki’s forces can successfully hold down the fort in the country’s capital without foreign assistance.

Tehran and Washington haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and have differed sharply over Iran’s nuclear program. The fact that the two suddenly see fit to coordinate efforts to prevent a complete disintegration of the Iraqi state shows just how grave the situation is.

“I am afraid. I wish to see an end to this dark tunnel,” Amina wrote to me a few days ago. “If I have to choose between this government with all its shortcomings and Islamic rule, definitely I would choose this government.”

Iran, of course, is already deeply engaged in Iraq’s affairs. The average Iraqi isn’t particularly happy about that, and would not voluntarily sign up for yet more control from Tehran.

One of the things I learned in my many visits with Amina – and other people I met along the way – is that Iraqi Shi'ites are still Iraqis, and, for some, first and foremost Iraqis. They are Arabs (save a small minority of the Kurds who are Shi'ite) who do not want to be ruled by the Persian nation next door.

Fearful for the future of her country, Amina changed her Facebook profile picture this week to a map of Iraq decorated in the flag’s colors. Across it are the words: “Whoever wishes bad things upon us, please God, do not raise his banner and do not help him achieve his wishes.”

To many Sunnis, of course, what’s happening is a kind of backlash against having been given a raw deal over the past decade. Maliki, prime minister since 2006, hasn’t done a particularly good job of not making the ousted Sunnis feel like it’s payback time. Whereas America-as-occupier discovered a way to fight Sunni extremism during the 2007 “surge” – by convincing (and let’s face it, paying) Sunni tribal groups to oppose the Al-Qaeda linked insurgents – Maliki seems to have fumbled the handoff.

Sunnis view themselves as being handed what feels like an unacceptably small slice of the political and economic pie, unable to find work, and facing worse discrimination than Shi'ites faced under Saddam.

One of the greatest fears of these Sunnis – and of Iraqis overall – is that this is the beginning of the end. The map of Iraq was drawn in 1920 by the League of Nations, and placed under the U.K.’s authority as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. What’s so holy, some argue, about borders drawn by Western powers hardly a century ago?

The belief that Iraq may actually be due for a break-up with itself is something expressed not just by the radicals in ISIS – who are gunning for the establishment of a Sunni Caliphate that would stretch from across large swaths of Syria and Iraq – but also by the largely pro-Western Kurds.

While Washington dithers over how involved to get, Iran and all the other countries that share a border with Iraq – including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Kuwait – are watching with no small measure of terror as a de facto partitioning is taking place before their eyes: A Sunnistan in parts of the north and center, meanwhile pushing an aggressive finger toward Baghdad; a Kurdistan holding its own cities such as Irbil, Suleimaniyah, and the all-important oil-rich city of Kirkuk; and a Shiastan effectively in place through the south, holding on to its holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, but unsure it could rebuff an onslaught in the capital.

Poised to suffer the most is Baghdad, a once integrated, cosmopolitan and diverse city whose people used to be proud to live in a mixed neighborhood that Iraqis of many backgrounds called home.

The break-up of Iraq would be considered a monumental failure by many, making a mockery of all the plans – and lack of postwar plans – laid out by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But some Iraqis think it’s the only answer.

Many of my Kurdish Iraqi friends and colleagues would welcome this outcome, just as they happily welcomed the overthrow of Saddam. One of them, Pishtiwan Faraj, says Kurds hope this is the moment when the world will come around to reimagining and redrawing Iraq.

“The political geography of the Middle East in the 21st century is undergoing radical change, and Iraq de facto is three states with an artificial union imposed by the West. Maliki’s authoritarian rule has ignited the age-old rivalries and animosities among Sunnis and Shi'ites, and we Kurds have our fingers crossed to seize this opportunity not only for independence but also for repossessing the disputed areas of Kurdish land,” Faraj, a writer and academic currently living in Wales, explains in an exchange we had Monday.

“Kirkuk for Kurds is like Jerusalem for Israel, and Kurdish leadership has also shown the West that they can rule a semi-democratic and peaceful country -- not only for Kurds, but also for a save haven for Arabs and Turkmen who live free in Kurdistan,” Faraj adds.

“I think Iraq cannot be ruled successfully unless it is divided into Sunnistan, Shiastan and Kurdistan. I think if there is a political will from the U.S. and other powerful countries, the conflict can be solved by dividing Iraq into three states. Turkey seems to support this idea, even Iran is willing, but Saudis, former Ba'athists, and other oil corporations seem to benefit from this destabilization.”

Then as now, Amina helps open my window into Iraq. Given the tone of her last note to me, I’ve been keen to hear more from her. But in the government’s efforts to limit news of ISIS’ successes, they have shut down Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, The New York Times reports, and the government has blocked mobile data connections as well. I hate that I can’t reach her now, but I hope her prayers are being heard.

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