Americans, enter sectarian strife By Karlos Zurutuza
RAMADI, Iraq -
Barely three months after the pullout by United
States troops, sectarian clashes between Sunni and
Shi'ite Muslims have begun to take a heavy toll
The population of Iraq (about
32 million) is 60% Shi'ite, according to official
sources, a claim disputed by Sunnis. The Shi'ites
dominate the government led by Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki. Sunnis, who were dominant in the days
of former president Saddam Hussein, have been
growing increasingly restive under the new Shi'ite
Armed groups from both sides have
reportedly clashed on Iraqi soil in recent months.
In a video posted on the Internet, a Sunni
insurgent group under the name of the Anbar
Brigade claimed an attack on a convoy of buses
escorted by Iraqi army vehicles and
Shi'ite militiamen to the Syrian border.
Anbar region to the west of Baghdad has
been a hotbed of Sunni militancy in the past.
Many fear that the overwhelmingly Sunni
local population in Anbar and the long and porous
border with Syria is a perfect environment for
al-Qaeda to turn this region into the massive
insurgent stronghold it used to be.
Shi'ite groups on the other hand are
alleged to be receiving weapons from Iran. Al
Alwani, a Sunni member of parliament, tells Inter
Press Service (IPS) at his house in Ramadi, the
administrative capital of Anbar region, that the
local airport at Najaf, a Shi'ite holy city in the
south of Iraq, is the main hub for receiving
"We have documented
evidence that Iran is logistically and financially
backing al-Qaeda in Iraq," Anbar region governor
Mohamed Qasim Abid, by profession an engineer who
trained in Germany, tells IPS at his fortified
office on the outskirts of Ramadi.
the very beginning, every action by terrorists has
helped to justify the repression and
marginalization Iraqi Sunnis are facing since
The gap between Shi'ite and Sunni
Iraqi Arabs grows by the day amidst a crisis that
has sparked fears of renewed sectarian conflict.
Maliki triggered a political crisis in December
when he ordered the arrest of Iraq's Sunni Vice
President Tarik Hashemi - just one day after US
troops officially left Iraqi soil - over
allegations of promoting terrorism.
Shi'ite prime minister denies such moves are
politically motivated, but Sunnis say they are
being increasingly marginalized from political
Now hosted by local Kurds
in the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the north of
Iraq, Hashemi has been constantly blaming Maliki
for the sudden surge of violence.
Body Count has recorded the killing of hundreds
since the Americans pulled out in December. A
suspected al-Qaeda group sympathetic to the Sunnis
has claimed several of these attacks which it
linked with both Hashemi's arrest and to the Arab
summit being held from March 27 to 29 in Baghdad
for the first time in more than 20 years.
On March 20, more than 30 coordinated bomb
attacks across the country left 50 people dead and
more than 250 injured. The Islamic State of Iraq -
the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda - claimed
responsibility for the bombings. In a statement
the group called this week's gathering "the
meeting of the Arab tyrants".
concrete walls of Baghdad's Green Zone, Ali
al-Shalah, member of parliament from Maliki's
ruling coalition categorically rejects his Sunni
"I've heard about
volunteer fighters crossing the border from
Lebanon to join [Syrian President Bashar al-]
Assad but I assure you that the Iraqi government
is working solidly to prevent the participation of
any armed group from our territory." Any changes
on the other side of the border, he says, "will
inevitably affect Iraq's integrity."
also rejects the idea of any links between Tehran
and al-Qaeda. He points to "other Arab countries"
behind the Islamic militants - meaning Sunni
groups. The last wave of attacks, he says, has
been "a show of force by the Sunnis and an open
challenge to the Iraqi government.
"Despite the constant aggression, we will
keep fighting to claim our rightful space between
our Arab and Persian neighbors; between Sunnis and
Shi'ites, but avoiding any foreign interference,"
Shalah says. He describes himself as "a writer and
poet with a strong political responsibility".
Saad Yousif al Muttalibi, a senior
official at the Ministry of Dialogue and
Reconciliation, makes a distinction between
"insurgents" and "terrorists".
"Reconciliation is underway with those
Sunni fighters who fought against the American
occupation; they have either joined the Awakening
Movement or simply pulled down their weapons when
the Americans left," says Muttalibi from his
residence in downtown Baghdad.
obstacle for security are those Sunni religious
extremists like al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Sunna. They
are terrorists and it's impossible to bring them
back to society so we don't bother to speak with
"Unfortunately we have discovered
that certain government officials have been in
close collaboration with al-Qaeda by providing
them with either weapons or intelligence."
But the reconciliation process might not
be as smooth as Muttalibi claims. IPS spoke with a
Sunni fighter who said: "We have enough
infrastructure to operate throughout the whole
country, we're just waiting orders from our