Iraq: April 17, 2005


Sunni Arab nationalists are accused of trying a new tactic; mass kidnapping and extortion. But the government is having a problem finding out who is kidnapping who. In the town of Madain, 40 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, armed Sunni Arabs have been confronting Shia Arab militiamen for months. The Sunnis have terrified the Shia half of the population, and destroyed  a Shia mosque. The Sunni Arab gunmen then demanded that all Shia Arabs leave the town, or the hostages will be killed. The town is described as having about a thousand households. The Shia Arab gunmen already in the area, are being reinforced. 

Many towns in central Iraq have mixed Sunni Arab and Shia Arab populations. This has been the case for over a thousand years, and most of the time it is not a problem. But occasionally, war or local politics will change this. During the past thousand years, Shia Iran has controlled what is now is Iraq about half the time, and the Sunni Turks, the rest of the time. When the area is dominated by people of one Islamic sect or another, that is less of an issue for individuals than is family and tribe. So when the central government is Shia, the Shia families are favored, and when the big shots in Baghdad are Sunni, the Sunni families dominate. Now, after four hundred years, the national leadership is Shia, rather than Sunni. The last time that happened, back in 1534, it took over a generation for the Sunni Turks to get the local Shia Arabs persuaded that they were no longer top dogs. The Shia Iranians have never come back, although they had controlled Baghdad and the rest of what is now Iraq for centuries. Iraq contains the major shrines of Shia Islam, and the Iranians  were persuaded to make peace with the Sunni Turks to preserve those shrines. Until Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1980, the border had been relatively quiet (except for the smugglers) for centuries. But now many Iraqi Sunni Arabs are nervous about the new Shia dominance. And some of the Sunni Arabs are desperate enough to kidnap  civilians and destroy a mosque in order to intimidate the increasingly militant Shia majority. It won't work. The police and army have surrounded the town, and local Shia and Sunni clergy called in to negotiate. The Shia population won't leave the town, and if the Sunni Arab gunmen start killing Shia Arab hostages, the killers will be condemned throughout the Moslem world.  But like so many things in Iraq, this crises appears to be more smoke than fire.


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