Nationalism grows in Iraq

Baghdad Shiites bridge their historical divide with Sunnis in the wake of the US siege of Fallujah.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

He saw it with his own eyes: a young boy with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a rocket launcher in the other, fighting an American tank. "He was only 10 years old," says Hussein Subhi with reverence, "but he was a man."

Mr. Subhi just got back from Fallujah. A polite, soft-spoken youth from the Shiite slum of Hurriya in Baghdad, he went with a convoy of cars and trucks delivering aid. But his real reason, he says, was to join the Fallujans in fighting American forces. "[The US was] counting on a Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq," but that hasn't happened, he says. "We will be victorious, God willing."

Subhi has no reason to fight for Fallujah. After all, the hardcore Sunni Triangle city is a hotbed of foreign insurgents and former government agents who would - and often did - gladly kill hundreds of thousands of Shiites like him when Saddam Hussein was still in power. But the US siege of Fallujah has awakened newly militant nationalism among Shiites now eager to fight the American occupation, based on Muslim religious identity and feelings of Arab unity. This Baghdad neighborhood is a microcosm of what may happen around Iraq if the situation if Fallujah continues.

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"Don't underestimate nationalism," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "And don't exaggerate Shiite-Sunni differences, but remember that they are both Arabs. They have the same religion. There is no religion called Shiism and no religion called Sunnism. They are both Muslims."

The American attack on Fallujah has tapped into widespread frustration simmering in once-friendly Shiite Baghdad neighborhoods, where the US is blamed for failing to bring back electricity, clean water, and jobs.

"From the beginning, we supported the liberation of Iraq by Americans," says an unemployed market porter from the Shiite slum of Sadr City, who gives his name as Abu Ali, father of the Shiite martyr Ali. Mr. Ali once cherished hopes of getting a government job in Iraq's new Shiite-friendly government. But now that hope has turned to disappointment, even anger.

His anger grew after the US announced April 5 an arrest warrant against Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has been battling coalition forces ever since the US Army padlocked his newspaper on March 28 for inciting violence. Ali, like many moderate Shiites, is not a follower of Mr. Sadr, but he supports his opposition to American forces.

Once the new Iraqi government takes over on June 30, it's possible that the current Shiite-Sunni unity will dissolve back into their historical differences.

But for now, many Shiites are expressing their newly awakened nationalism as support for Sadr. In Shiite neighborhoods, fliers call on Iraqis to rally around him as a liberator of his country. But in Shiite slums, it is Fallujah, more than Sadr, that is the rallying cry. "There is no difference between Fallujah and us," says Ali Sa'addoun Abadi al-Shammari, a neighborhood sheikh. "They are Iraqis - there is no difference between Shiites and Sunnis."

Around 700 Fallujans are estimated to have been killed since the siege began, all "insurgents," according to the US. But now that Fallujah's refugees have begun pouring into Baghdad, bringing tales of carnage, Iraqis are even less likely to think of the Fallujans as insurgents. "I saw it with my own eyes: they shelled all of Fallujah," says Subhi, collapsing into an armchair, exhausted and sweating after his return journey, in which he brought about 400 refugees back with him.

Like the vast majority of working-class Shiites, Subhi and his neighbors look to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for guidance. For now, they believe, Ayatollah Sistani does not want them to rise up on their own against the occupation. Yet. "Sistani wants Iraqis to wait, to mass their ranks, to be ready to fight," says Jabar Nadaf al-Azzawi, Subhi's neighbor.

But once Sistani gives the word, they say they will be ready. "If Sayyid Sistani gives the [order], we will carry the tanks on our backs," says Mr. Abadi. "If we die, we will be martyrs. This is jihad."

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