Sunni-Shi’ite Jihad in Iraq

And valuable lessons for Syria.

ALeqM5iXqGbomt7IwyPZIeIqajxjG9-P9gLargely overlooked as world attention focused on the jihad massacre in an upscale Nairobi mall was a series of jihad bombings last Saturday in Baghdad that murdered at least 92 people. The bombs went off as a funeral procession passed through the Shi’ite district of Baghdad known as Sadr City, making the likely perpetrator to be the Sunni jihad group formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and that now calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

It’s an endless cycle of hatred and revenge. The day after the attack in Sadr City, a Shi’ite jihad-martyrdom suicide bomber hit a Sunni funeral in Baghdad, murdering sixteen people and wounding 35.

The killers on both sides believed that they were doing what the Qur’an directs: “And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution” (5:45).

Nonetheless, they’re supposed to have been over this by now. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained in January 2007: “There’s still a tendency to see these things in Sunni-Shia terms. But the Middle East is going to have to overcome that.”

Six years later, they still haven’t. In fact, as Syria has become a battleground between the Shi’ites of Hizballah and the Sunnis of al-Qaeda (with Iran aiding the former and the United States, of all nations, aiding the latter), the ancient hatred is raging hotter than ever, and Rice’s glib prescription stands exposed as just as spectacularly naïve as it was when it was first uttered.

In fact, the idea that the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, which is 1,400 years old and goes all the way back to the murky origins of Islam, is something that can without undue difficulty be “overcome” is a sterling manifestation of the general superficiality of Washington’s analysis of the Middle East, during both the Bush and the Obama Administrations.

Unbeknownst to the tenured analysts who have influenced Washington policy for decades now, the Sunni-Shi’ite divide cannot be bridged by negotiations, or by bribes (“aid”), or by anything but the full surrender of one group to the other, which is not going to happen. This is because the divide has enough roots in each side’s differing understandings of Islam for hardliners in both camps to label the other “unbelievers,” and thus people who can lawfully be killed.

The split goes all the way back to the beginnings of Islam. Islamic tradition holds that after Muhammad died (which is supposed to have happened in 632 CE), the Muslim community chose his companion Abu Bakr to succeed him as caliph, or successor of Muhammad as the military, political and spiritual leader of the Muslims. But one group among them thought that the leadership belonged by right to Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law and one of his first followers, and after him to a member of the prophet’s household.

Ali finally did become caliph after Abu Bakr had been succeeded by two other companions of Muhammad, Umar and Uthman, but was assassinated only a few years later. Then in the year 680, his son Hussein was killed in battle with the caliph Yazid I at Karbala in Iraq, and the split between those who believed that the caliph should be the best man in the community (the Sunnis) and those who believed the Muslims should be led by a relative of Muhammad (the Shi’ites) became formal, bitter and everlasting.

There is not much doctrinal difference between the two camps, but since each believes that the other has departed from the truth of Islam, and each (particularly the Shi’ites) nurses centuries-old grudges over ancient wrongs done to them, this split is not going to be “overcome.” Saddam Hussein kept a lid on it in Iraq by brute force, but now that he is gone and a Shi’ite government is in power there, the Sunnis are determined to wrest control back from them, and the Shi’ites and their Iranian patrons are just as determined to keep it.

It is a recipe for endless warfare, until the Mahdi returns and reveals whether he has come as the Sunni or the Shi’ite version. In the meantime, the carnage in Iraq is a grim monument to the price of Washington’s false and faulty analysis, and a warning to Barack Obama not to get entangled in these centuries-old and undying hatreds once again in Syria.

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