Global Policy Forum

Fallujah Battle Deepens Divide in Iraq

Associated Press
November 15, 2004

Raids on mosques and the arrests of several hardline Sunni clerics have raised fears the U.S.-led assault on the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah will further alienate Iraq's religious minority from the majority Shiites and autonomy-seeking Kurds. Last week, Sheik Mahdi al-Sumaidaei, head of the Supreme Association for Guidance and Daawa, a conservative Sunni organization, accused interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government of "launching a war on Sunnis."

On Thursday, al-Sumaidaei urged Sunnis to launch a civil disobedience campaign to protest the assault on Fallujah. Hours later, Iraqi security forces raided his Um al-Tuboul mosque, a major landmark in western Baghdad, seizing weapons and arresting the cleric and about two dozen supporters. The arrests of at least four Sunni clerics in recent days were being perceived by many within the Sunni minority as a deliberate policy aimed at targeting and marginalizing their community, which is in the majority in the Islamic world. For many Sunni Arabs both here and elsewhere in the Arab world, Fallujah has become the symbol of Iraqi resistance against the U.S. occupation. But many Shiites and Kurds do not share that view.

Nawshirwan Mustafa, an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said Fallujah was a "hub of terrorists" and his only criticism of the U.S.-led attack was that it did not happen sooner. Former Kurdish guerrillas, now serving in the Iraqi National Guard, have provided reinforcements to battle Arab insurgents in the northern city of Mosul during the attack on Fallujah. Secular politician Modher Shawkat, a top official with the Shiite National Congress Party, warned that national unity would be the first victim of "a wide perception in the Sunni streets that they are targeted and such is a reality even if it is not intended."

Allawi, a secular Shiite, defended his decision to order the assault on Fallujah, saying it was necessary to bring enough stability for national elections to be held by Jan. 31. Allawi brushed aside suggestions the offensive would create a backlash among the Sunni minority. "There is no problem of Sunnis or Shiites," he said. "This is all Iraqis against the terrorists. We are going to keep on breaking their backs everywhere in Iraq. We are not going to allow them to win."

However, the Association of Muslim Scholars, considered the most influential Sunni group in Iraq with 3,000 clerics, has called for a nationwide election boycott to protest the assault on Fallujah. Shawkat said that as Allawi struggles to secure the coming general elections, any results would be invalid if Sunnis boycott them. "Forget about Sunnis," he said. "As I know from their leadership, they would boycott elections unless their demands are met seriously."

Sermons at Sunni mosques in the Baghdad area urged worshippers to refrain from "joyous manifestations" during the Ramadan holiday in a show of solidarity with Fallujah's people. While Sunni clerics are urging an election boycott, Shiite preachers have been telling their congregations it would be sinful not to vote. Shiites are estimated to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people and believe their numbers will guarantee a Shiite-led government.

Most leading Shiite clerics did not take a public stand over the attack on Fallujah, raising the danger of further widening the gulf between the two communities at a time when Sunni Arabs are worried about the loss of prestige to rival Shiites and Kurds. Al-Sumaidaei blamed the most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for not condemning the Fallujah attack. "We didn't hear from them at all," al-Sumaidaei said. "I assume they are either satisfied or they are afraid. However, when there were attacks on Shiite cities, the Sunni clerics in Iraq immediately condemned them. What about the Shiites?"

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terror mastermind responsible for many car bombings and beheadings in Iraq, also has accused Kurds and Shiites in the Iraqi military of abandoning their religion. In an audiotape posted on Islamic Web sites recently, al-Zarqawi accused al-Sistani of having blessed the Fallujah assault, calling him "the infidel's imam." Al-Sistani has issued no public statement on the Fallujah attack, but an aide in Karbala, Afdhal al-Mousawi, dismissed such criticism, asking whether the Shiites had been responsible for "the terrorists taking shelter in Fallujah."

Al-Mousawi said the assault on Fallujah was inevitable "to free the city of its kidnappers." He also said the attack on Fallujah paled in comparison to the suffering of the Shiites under Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni. "Well, Shiites were slaughtered over the past 40 years in the security headquarters and now they are slaughtered in the streets by the remains of the former Baathist regime," he said.

During a sermon Friday in Najaf, Sadr Eldin al-Qabanji of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said curbing terrorism in Fallujah was necessary to protect Iraqis. He warned that terrorists were targeting Shiites in several Iraqi towns. Mohammed Hussein Abbas, 40, a Shiite from Karbala, said the attack on Fallujah was God's punishment for the role played by that city under the Saddam regime. "Remember during the former regime, the security forces and the government officials all came from Fallujah," he said. "The Fallujah residents are the sons of Saddam who were torturing us."

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