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Online Extra
June 2004



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Uncertain Future for an Unstable Iraq

Shiites of Iraq Online Extra
Photograph by Damir Sagolj/Reuters/Corbis


In a rare show of unity, thousands of Shiites joined Sunnis for Friday prayers in Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque on May 7, 2004.



By George Stuteville

"War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty."

—Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian officer and author of On War

Shocking photos of American soldiers committing atrocities against detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The gruesome beheading of American citizen Nicholas Berg. The state of siege and bloody clashes between U.S. troops and militiamen in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

These are the images of the war in Iraq, so powerful, and, like fog, moving so swiftly and unpredictably that experts have difficulty interpreting what is happening moment to moment. Equally challenging is their inability to describe a future when Iraq is self-governing and its diverse Muslim populations have a stake in its direction.

This much has not changed: A United Nations resolution on Iraq's future governing apparatus is expected to be voted on by the Security Council before June 10. And diplomatic discussions about the transfer of limited Iraqi sovereignty scheduled for June 30 continues to dominate the agendas of foreign ministers in the U.S.-led coalition.

At question in the long-run is how Iraq can achieve a civil government capable of balancing the volatility between the poverty-ridden, traditionally oppressed Shiite majority, the equally subjugated Kurds, and the Sunni Arabs who have wielded power for so long.

"It's rather complex," says Dahr Jamail, a Baghdad-based correspondent for The NewStandard, a small, nonprofit, online publication. "Most people here realize that Iraq remains a long way off from legitimate self-determination and that June 30 will not bring this about."

Whenever the elections do take place, he contends, the consensus seems to be that the Shiite population will gain power simply because of its large numbers, representing about 60 percent of the country's population.

Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, a liberal magazine based in Madison, Wisconsin, shares Jamail's observations. "If the United States ever permits Iraq to have self-rule and full sovereignty, it's likely that the Shiites will dominate the government by sheer force of numbers. As a majority that was effectively denied power by Saddam Hussein's regime, they believe their time has come."

But demographics will not be the sole arbiter. "It becomes more complicated when I speak with different people," Jamail says. "Many Sunnis don't want this to occur, nor do many of the Kurdish population, as each group hopes for its own self-determination."

There is some evidence, Jamail believes, that localized coalitions are emerging between the groups because of militia insurgency against the U.S. coalition. And the catastrophic recent events surrounding the prison atrocities and Berg's decapitation could influence relationships among all sides.

In a show of solidarity, thousands of Shiites prayed in the main Sunni mosques in Fallujah and in Baghdad on May 7, a follow-up to a large demonstration in April by Shiites who walked through a U.S. checkpoint in Falllujah to support and bring supplies to people inside the embattled city.

"In the town of Baqubah, the imams of both sects regularly pray together, as do the members of both sects praying in one another's mosques," Jamail says. "This is happening more and more in Baghdad as well."

Meanwhile, Sunni support for the Shiites in Karbala and Najaf has been forthcoming as well. "All of the imams I've spoken with lately say they are all Muslim and tend to shy away from making any distinction between the sects," Jamail continues.

Rothschild, who predicts insurgent resistance will grow as the self-rule deadline nears, says that a Shiite-Sunni coalition against the U.S. is not out of the realm of possibility. "If that occurs, there is a chance of a Shiite-Sunni coalition staying together. Some Shiite and Sunni religious figures, such as Dr. Ahmad Kubaisi, Iraq's leading Sunni scholar, have been proponents of Sunni-Shiite cooperation. And signs at protests have read: 'Sunnis Are Shiites and Shiites Are Sunnis. We Are All One.'"

Adds Jamail: "It is best simplified if we recall the Arab adage that says, 'Me and my brother against my cousin. Me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger.' "

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