A 'religious war' in Iraq?

November 17, 1993

Under a front-page banner headline "Iraq on brink of religious war", the February 24 Australian claimed that "Iraq was on the brink of civil war with up to 50 Sunni mosques destroyed and three imams slain in a wave of violence to avenge the bombing of one the holiest Shia shrines".

The attacks upon Sunni mosques, some of which were burned and others ransacked, and the murder of three Sunni clerics followed widespread demonstrations of anger by Shiites in the wake of the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, 100 kilometres north of Baghdad.

At 6.55am on February 22, men dressed in police uniforms tied up the mosque's guards and planted explosives. After the destruction of the mosque, Shiite politicians in the US-backed Iraqi government blamed the attack on "insurgents". What interest, however, would the Sunni-based insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq have for provoking hostility between Iraq's majority Shiites and its minority Sunni communities?

Even the US military has been forced to acknowledge that "some of its units" have provided assistance to death squads within the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police force that have targeted Sunni clerics and politicians sympathetic to the anti-occupation resistance.

The February 17 Washington Post reported that the "bodies of Sunni men — bound, shot and left in dumpsters, on side streets and in patches of desert — have turned up frequently since the middle of last year, shortly after the Shiite-led government was named in April... Sunni leaders estimate that 1600 people have been killed in what they say is a campaign of sectarian violence. Survivors often say their attackers were dressed in police uniforms and drove police vehicles."

In an interview given the previous day to the Chicago Tribune, US Army General Joseph Peterson, who oversees the training of Iraqi police, confirmed that a 22-member death squad within the Iraqi highway patrol detailed by US troops in January were affiliated to the Badr Brigades, the militia of the main Shiite religious party in Washington's puppet Iraqi government.

The US occupiers and their Iraqi collaborators are the only ones who gain from trying to portray the conflict in Iraq as a sectarian struggle between its two Muslim communities.

Among the Shiite poor, this attempt has already been undermined by the stand taken by their most popular leader, Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. On February 23, the Aljazeera television network reported a spokesperson for Sadr's Mahdi Army militia saying that its fighters had been ordered to protect Sunni mosques in majority Shiite areas in southern Iraq.

Speaking via Aljazeera from the Iranian holy city of Qum earlier that day, Sadr said: "Shiite and Sunni mosques are being attacked as if we were enemies. No, we are brothers, we are brothers in Islam and peace... the unity of Iraq is your responsibility."

Echoing comments made the same day by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Sadr warned against "a plan by the occupation to spark a sectarian war". Khamenei blamed the intelligence services of the US and Israel for being behind the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. He said they were plotting "to force the Shia to attack the mosques and other properties respected by the Sunni. Any measure to contribute to that direction is helping the enemies of Islam and is forbidden by sharia."

The February 23 British Independent reported that following Sadr's remarks "thousands of young men marched shouting anti-American slogans through Sadr City, the great Shia slum [in Baghdad] with a population of two million. About 3000 people marched through the Shia city of Kut shouting slogans against America and Israel and burning US and Israeli flags."

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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