After 500 years of Sunni rule, Iraq's election will hand power to the Shia majority. This terrifies Sunnis, and gives Shia factions a common goal — masterminded by none other than Ahmed Chalabiby Bartle Bull / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
The Al-Askari Mosque is one of the most important Shiah mosques in the world. It was seriously damaged in attacks by Sunni extremists in 2006 and 2007
The hundred-mile drive from Baghdad to Najaf usually takes about three hours. It is hot country with low dusty towns and villages built of mud brick. About halfway along the road there is a turn to the right marked by an arch in the form of a pair of swords meeting at the tips. They are double-tipped swords, curved like those of the Imam Ali, whose defeat in war in 657 was the founding event of the Shia faith. The turning leads to Karbala but the bridge on the way was blown up during last year’s invasion and has not been repaired.
Iraqis call the middle part of this route the Bermuda triangle, on account of the kidnappings, ambushes and roadside bombs that happen there. This is Shia country, but along the road there are two adjacent towns called Mahmoudiya and Latifiya with Sunni minorities of maybe 25 or 30 per cent. Saddam Hussein used to give extra support to such pockets of Sunnis. He knew that his co-religionists in places like these had a special stake in supporting his rule: they felt surrounded, which they were, and embattled, which they would become if the Ba’athist order were ever upended. With jobs, construction and money, Saddam took extra pains to secure their loyalty. The Shias dominate the population here south of Baghdad, but today it is Sunni violence that sets the tone.
On a broader national scale, Iraq’s 60 per cent Shia majority faces a challenge similar to that posed by this local Sunni insurgency at the gateway to the holiest Shia cities: Najaf and Karbala. With the approach of the elections scheduled for January, the Shias are looking forward to their first chance to run their affairs since the Ottomans conquered southern Mesopotamia in 1534. But Sunnis, after five centuries as the ruling minority, do not want to let it happen.
In Najaf, an hour south of the Bermuda triangle, the Shias themselves have raised two insurrections this year, one from April to June and the other in August. The uprisings pitted the supporters of radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr against the US-led occupation but also highlighted major schisms within the Shia community. Iraqis have lots of theories about why these…