Sectarian tensions rise in Iraq as US attack looms

A war to topple Hussein could unleash a revolt of Iraq's long-repressed Shiites.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The green, red, and black flags of the Shiites flew over Baghdad's Al Thoura shantytown on Friday, as Iraq's majority sect commemorated Ashoura, the day in 608 AD when the prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, was martyred by Sunni rivals.

The rite has long been a flash point for sectarian tensions in Iraq, but this year it has added significance as Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, prepares for war. Under Mr. Hussein, Iraq observes Ashoura as a national holiday. But rituals practiced by Shiite communities across the world are banned.

"We're civilizing the zealots," says a Sunni official from Hussein's ruling Baath party."Is it not enough that they're feasting at holy shrines?"

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The answer may well be no. Some Shiites boast that they will strike the Sunnis as soon as the first US missile hits Baghdad. In Al Thoura, an organizer of the Baath Party's neighborhood watch points at a picture of Saddam Hussein in his front room - then opens a side door to reveal a prayer room plastered with Iranian posters depicting the revenge Shiites dream of inflicting on Sunnis.

But despite widespread disaffection with Baathist rule, Shiites appear divided on whether again to risk the brutally suppressed revolt that shook southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Shiites note that President Bush, rather than repeating his father's call for a popular revolt, appears to advocate a change of the guard at the top. But with Sunni Baathist and army commanders left to dominate the hierarchy, many question how much regime change has to offer.

Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to quiet Shiite dissenters and rally his people behind his call to jihad, has relaxed some religious restrictions. But some pilgrims continue to be blocked from marching barefoot to Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, where Muhammad's grandson Hussein and his 72 companions were killed by a Sunni ruler named Yazid. And taxi drivers caught playing bootlegged tapes recounting the Karbala massacre say they can be sentenced to five years in jail.

As war-ravaged Iraqis retreat to their places of worship to beseech God for salvation, sectarian tensions are mounting. Marriage remains widespread between the sects, but most Shiites boycott Sunni mosques on the grounds that Sunnis do not prostrate themselves on toubas, or round crusts of mud. Observers also detect a growing trend of anti-Shiite rhetoric creeping into the Friday sermons of Sunni mosques, including accusations that the Shiites are a fifth column, loyal to the neighboring Shiite state of Iran. Diplomats believe some preachers receive funds from Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Wahhabi institutions.

For the most part, Iraq's Shiites deliver no Friday sermons - a convenience that saves the state the sensitive task of policing Shiite crowds, and spares Shiite clerics from acknowledging Saddam Hussein as their lawful imam.

"They see Iraq's rulers as ja'ir, or tyrannical - the same term Shiites applied to [Iran's pro-Western] Shah," said Wamidh Nadhmi, professor of political science at Baghdad University.

Reformers appealing for national reconciliation have called on the regime to relax its ban on processions. But a former Iraqi minister says Hussein has stated that he will not let the Shiites use Ashoura marches to rally followers and reestablish themselves as an open opposition inside Iraq. Iraq-watchers say the Shiite group Dawa - whose leader Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr was killed in 1980 - is the only clandestine political movement the Baathists have failed to suppress.

But while prohibiting political activity, Iraq's leader has funded a vast renovation of Shiite shrines. Karbala's walls now sport an engraving of a family tree tracing the Iraqi leader's lineage back to the earlier Hussein.

Shiite followers recount a modern-day history of persecution since 1968, when a Sunni clique from Tikrit, 60 miles north of Baghdad, assumed power in the name of Baath, a secular party peddling pan-Arabism, which Shiites equated to Sunnism. The Baath Party abolished the supreme Shiite authority following the death in 1969 of its incumbent, Mohsen Hakim, opened fire on Ashoura processions, and expelled Shiites of Iranian descent.

Despite the Baath Party's subsequent Islamization, the authorities eliminated revivalists, including Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, gunned down in 1999 with his two sons while driving his car in Najaf. Hussein Sadr, a Shiite leader in Baghdad, refuses to receive visitors without a letter from Iraqi intelligence.

Sunnis and Christians in plush suburbs of Baghdad fear war could unleash centuries of suppressed anger.

"The problem is the danger of sectarian war when chaos comes and the government cannot control the country," says Saad Jawad, a politics professor at Baghdad University who is a Shiite.

"The state is speaking in a religious tone to ride the tide and get the newly religious on side," says Professor Jawad. "The government is encouraging preachers to give sermons about jihad, in the mosques and on TV and radio. Every Friday, it's jihad and aggression."

But Shiites are split on whether the modern Yazid is Mr. Hussein or the Western powers poised to invade Muslim land.

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