The Fear Factor
August 21, 2006: Over the weekend, Sunni terrorists attacked a large procession of Shia pilgrims, killing or wounding 322 of them. The procession, of over 5,000 pilgrims, was hit when it went through a Sunni Arab neighborhood, on its way to a Shia shrine in Baghdad. The attackers used AK-47s and sniper rifles, and over a hundred Shia security guards returned fire. The Sunni neighborhood will probably be attacked by Shia death squads over the next week or so, and lose most of its population, as the Sunni Arabs flee to safer areas. Ever since Saddam fell, Sunni terrorists have attacked this two day Shia religious festival, which was forbidden during Saddam's rule. The police were relieved that their security efforts were able to prevent the use of roadside or suicide car bombs against the pilgrims this year.
This war against religion within Islam is a great shame for most Moslems. While Shia and Sunni Moslems have disagreed for over a thousand years, the two sects have largely been able to get along. Both go on the pilgrimage (hadj) to Mecca, and live side-by-side in over a dozen countries. But the Wahhabi sect, founded in Saudi Arabia, and now present throughout the world, preaches that the Shia are heretics and should be destroyed. No Moslem government accepts this, but in several nations the animosity between Sunni and Shia has led to years of violence. Pakistan experiences this on a monthly basis, as Sunni and Shia extremists kill each other. Lebanon has a powerful Shia militia, Hizbollah, which uses the threat of a new civil war to prevent attacks on the minority Shia. All the Arab Persian Gulf states contain Shia minorities, and all have been trying, over the past decade, to patch up relations with their Shia citizens. This is mainly because Iran, the "big brother" for Shia everywhere (even though most of the principal Shia shrines are in Iraq), has been supporting Shia rebels for the last twenty years. At first, the countries affected, violently fought back against their Shia rebels. This brought temporary peace, but a fundamental change in attitude towards, and treatment of, Shia minorities has now been accepted as a better long term solution.
Iraq, however, occupies a unique position in all this. Iraq is the only Arab state with a Shia majority. For centuries, that Shia majority has been ruled by Sunnis. Saddam Hussein was the last in a long line of Sunni tyrants who not only ruled the Iraqi Shia, but persecuted and terrorized them. Generations of this has had an impact. Shia tend to be afraid of Sunnis with guns. The Sunnis tend to believe that the Shia can't run their own affairs, and need the sure hand of a Sunni despot to make things work. Add to this the Islamic conservatism found in Iraq, and the attitude that Shia are heretics that must be converted to the Sunni view of things, or destroyed, and you end up with a volatile mix. The mixture of radical politics, and radical religious views, is highly combustible, and has, in the past, led to savage wars that lasted for years. The Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 is but one of the more recent examples. That one featured a major Shia-Sunni component, and the death of five percent of the Lebanese population. The violent Taliban rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s was partly about violent persecution of the Shia minority.
The Iraqi government is trying to cut short the violence between Shia and Sunni extremists by restoring law and order. That is proving very difficult. That's mainly because it's been decades since Iraq has had law and order. What passed for law and order under Saddam was actually terror. Saddam's rule has aptly been called "The Republic of Fear." The fear is still there, and the police are having a hard time driving it out. The government is in the midst of an effort to clean up and reform the national police. New uniforms, new commanders, new training and new monitoring methods are all coming in. But the heart of the problem is the willingness of over a million Sunni Arabs to continue supporting Sunni religious and political terrorists. The Sunni fanatics cannot win, because the Shia are too numerous, and too unwilling to return to the old ways. But resolving this dispute may take several years of violence, no matter what anyone does.