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Iraq's History Still Divides Children of Mesopotamia

December 29, 2005|Borzou Daragahi and Louise Roug | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The myth of a unified Iraqi identity may have finally been laid to rest this month.

More clearly than any other measurement since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, preliminary results from the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections show Iraq as three lands with three distinct identities, divided by faith, goals, region, history and symbols.

Iraqis of all stripes say they are the descendants of Mesopotamia, the glorious great-grandchildren of the cradle of civilization.

Iraq, they point out, gave birth to law and the written word. And asked their faith, Iraqis often testily answer with the refrain: "There is no Sunni. There is no Shiite. We are all Iraqi."

But the preliminary election results, which have trickled out through a series of haphazard leaks and news conferences and remain disputed by all parties, show a nation starkly fragmented into ethnic and religious cantons with different aims and visions.

Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Shiite Muslim provinces of the south voted for religious Shiite parties, according to the early results from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in Sunni Muslim Arab areas of central and western Iraq voted for Sunni parties. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Kurdish provinces of the north voted for Kurdish candidates. Nationwide, only about 9% voted for tickets that purported to represent all Iraqis.

The results were like a bracing splash of ice water for U.S. officials, who had predicted that a secular, centrist Iraqi government would emerge after the invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein. Many longtime observers of Iraq had hoped this month's vote would foster national unity by bringing to power moderate politicians who might help draw down a minority Sunni Arab-led insurgency against a government now controlled by the country's majority Shiites, and stanch Kurds' secessionist tendencies.

Instead, more than 240 of the 275 legislators, who will decide the composition of the future government, will probably be Shiite Islamists, Sunni Arab sectarians or autonomy-minded Kurds. The Shiites, who make up about 60% of the nation's population, will hold by far the largest share.

"Iraq is still very much in a stage of identity politics," a U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition he not be identified, acknowledged after the vote. "Every community is very afraid of the other community. Kurds are afraid of Arabs. Shiites are afraid of Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis are afraid of Shiites doing to them what the [Sunni-dominated] Baathists did to the Shiites" during the Hussein era. "It's going to take some time for the communities to gain the trust of each other and to create cross-sectarian alliances."

Though Iraqis often speak lovingly of golden ages when they were one big happy family, Iraq has been a shaky proposition since its 1920s founding. Rather than a shared history, the paths of Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds diverged from the beginning of the nation's inception as a product of British colonialism.

Sunnis collaborated with the British, who supported the Sunni Arab monarchists. Shiite insurrectionists heeded the calls of their clergy and fought a jihad, or holy war, against the British, who crushed them and reaffirmed their second-class status. Kurdish nationalists unsuccessfully sought independence, first by diplomatic channels, later by the gun.

Iraq's post-World War II order was no less divisive. Sunni Arab nationalists forced their pan-Arab ideology on the diverse country after Britain's departure. Hussein's Sunni-run government magnified discrimination to the point of mass killings, with Shiites and Kurds punished not so much for who they were but for refusing to accept the Baath Party's version of Iraqi identity.

Nonetheless, Hussein's au- thoritarianism was the glue that held Iraq together for decades. Now that he is out of power, the nation's troubled identity has again been cast into flux.

Does the nation continue to bow before the philosophy of Arab nationalism, or that of Shiite mysticism? Is Iraq's national hero Hussein or the 7th century Shiite caliph Imam Ali? Or, for that matter, is it the late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani?

"What does it mean to be an Iraqi?" wonders Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician. "We didn't have something to be proud of, a development or an advance. The only thing we have in common is oppression."

A further erosion of Iraqi identity could pave the way for a partitioning of the country, with unpredictable results.

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