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March 6, 2006

Iraq Then (Like, Two Weeks Ago) And Now

(click images to enlarge)


Has Iraq undergone a sudden metamorphosis or were we just a little slow to catch on?

This story in the NYT on Friday (Shiite Militiamen Reclaim Mosque From the Sunnis – link) is about the escalating conflict between Sunni and Shia, and how the “new kids” appropriated a mosque in Baghdad.  The accompanying photo, however, has as much or more to say about Iraq’s new iconographic landscape, and the prevailing (or at least perceived new) power structure.


(image: Johan Spanner/Polaris, for The New York Times. March 3, 2006.

  • Pyrrho

    This is because as much as our government doesn’t want it discussed, Iraq isn’t just ramping up for civil war, but that very civil war has already begun. Over 2,000 dead, 33+ mosques attacked. Massive sectarian violence. What other rational description is left?

  • Tracy

    Mosque-Mullah-Militia. Not such a holy trinity.
    A better trinity is a three-part article in the New York Times about the adjustments that have to be made by a new, immigrant Imam in Brooklyn and the members of his congregation, who come from all over the world. I have not read the whole thing because the third part of the article will be published tomorrow, but so far I don’t recall any mention of sectarian problems or even disagrements among the Imam’s faithful. They have their problems just like anyone else, but they are not sectarian problems. Years ago, I asked a Muslim friend of mine to tell me the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni. He told me the explanation given by his father, who was an Imam in the Middle East: Before praying, a Shiite washes from the elbow to the fingers; in contrast, a Sunni washes from the fingers to the elbow. I think that most of the time, people who fight religious wars are the unknowing tools of secret chessmasters.
    Here are the first two parts of the article (registration required). The site also has a video with an interpreter translating into English one of the Imam’s sermons, followed by the Imam giving the sermon in Arabic.
    Part 1:
    Part 2:

  • marysz

    According to today’s Washington Post, an astonishing eighty percent of Americans believe Iraq is in or headed for civil war. How is the Administration going to spin this away? What new issue will they come up with to distract the public as the midterm elections come up? The Vietnam war ended only when Americans demanded that Congress pull the plug on the military. But in this war, middle and low-income Americans are the ones footing the bill–the rich got themselves fat tax cuts and are profiting from military spending–they have no incentive to end the occupation. Only the anger of ordinary Americans will get the troops out of Iraq.

  • PTate in MN

    “Has Iraq undergone a sudden metamorphosis or were we just a little slow to catch on?”
    You are asking if the dynamic of Big Mullah-feeble government-US Army/Iraqi militia triangle is a NEW dynamic? What a good eye you have! Interesting question!
    My first take is that the changing iconography reveals that the US government is losing its ability to manage the message coming out of Iraq. In the absence of WMD, Bushco sustained support by painting the heartwarming picture that the US military went to Iraq to end an evil regime and install a democratic government. Freedom is on the March!
    That particular fiction has become harder and harder to sustain. Bushco may have played their last card when “free” elections occurred last December. It’s very inconvenient for Bushco that the new government has yet to form.
    The Mullahs have always been in the picture. They have authority and the respect of the Iraqi people. To maintain his power, Saddam kept them repressed. Now Saddam is gone, and the failure of Bushco’s democratic government to coalesce has caused a power vacuum. The mullahs have moved to the foreground of the picture, to the place where Bushco’s democratic government was meant to be.
    All in all, it strikes me as a bad sign.

  • rchsod

    no surprise..i`ve been following the iraqi bloggers on this for the last few months. it will make no difference if we stay or leave the fight is between the iraqi people and who will rule them. bush opened pandora`s box and there is nothing the united states can do about it now…

  • Rafael

    The Mullah as leader, not a religious icon, but more like buisness leader, trading stocks over the phone….the two other figures might appear as just regular young men, except one is carriying a Kalishnikov. It’s doesn’t strike me as new, more like, buisness as usual.

  • donna

    The religious separations are the front for the political power struggle, just as they are here. Bush and the Republicans are certainly not religious, but use the right wingers and their “mullahs” to move the masses. The Iraqis are doing the same.
    The shift to the younger mullahs is simply appealing to the youth – they relate more themselves to the younger mullahs, and then are easier to pull into the militias, seeing a potential place for themselves in the power structure.
    The powers in Iraq are shuffling for position. Of course there will be a civil war.

  • ummabdulla

    Tracy, your Muslim friend is quite mistaken; there are many serious differences in beliefs and practices between Shias and Sunnis, which is why they have separate mosques. Usually, they don’t marry each other either, although news reports from Iraq say that that has been more common in Iraq (although less so now).
    In Kuwait, they have separate mosques and separate court systems – not for criminal cases, but for the kind that are handled by Islamic law (marriage and divorce, custody, inheritance) because the laws are so different. It’s pretty much unheard of them for them to marry each other, unless one first converts to accept the other’s sect.
    The imam in Brooklyn is Sunni (Al-Azhar University in Cairo is Sunni) and I assume the Muslims who go to his mosque are also Sunni, since they are mostly immigrants from Sunni Arab countries (Palestinians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Moroccans and Algerians); this is why there are no sectarian differences mentioned in the article. In the U.S., Shias and Sunnis might co-operate in lobbying for their rights to pray and wear Islamic dress, etc., but they still have their own beliefs.
    A lot of Muslims, especially those who grew up in countries where there were no Shias, don’t even realize what the differences are, which I guess was the case with your friend or his father. Even when people know, they sometimes prefer to sort of paper over the differences.

  • ummabdulla

    The way the BAG has put the two photos, with the two triangles, is definitely food for thought. I agree that the mosque has somewhat replaced the role of the government, and the militias taken over the role of the army.
    I’m not sure we can say that the younger mullahs have taken over from the senior clerics, though. It’s hard to tell what’s really going on, since the reporting is pretty shallow, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true that the people have given up on senior clerics and started following the younger ones.

  • Tracy

    Thanks Ummabdullah. I was assuming that there must have been some Sunnis in the congregation because the people were from so many different countries. Now I understand that if there are Sunnis in Brooklyn they would start their own mosque just like Catholic immigrants would start their own church rather then go to a Protestant church.
    On your other point, my friend’s father was a Sunni, but I don’t think made a mistake. He was a high-ranking cleric. As my friend explained it, his father did not mean to be taken literally that the only difference was washing from top to bottom or from bottom to top. It was a little joke by which he meant that the differences between the two systems were trifling in comparison to all that the two groups shared and that the differences should not cause strife among brethren. I’m sure the Brooklyn Imam would give the same advice, but I guess things in Iraq are too far along for anyone to take it. It’s so sad.

  • Tracy

    Correction: the father was Shiite.

  • jt from BC

    UMMABDULLA, thanks for your counsel, Shia/Sunni, the directional washing difference ( with all respect to TRACY’S Muslim friend ) was much to simple, after all the hours I’ve spent trying to follow Juan Cole, which is mind bending at times.
    Working from the assumption that conflicts usually involve three parties, I was pleased to learn that EDWARD WONG a balcony bound NYT reporter has finally flagged this and colored it red…very observant. In MHO I see a black square in this red flag ( International Hurricane Warning Symbol)
    “War is a series of catastrophes leading to victory”-Churchill.
    The US & UK have made such a series of them surly victory must be imminent.
    TRACY, I’ve read your last comments and think that Muslim sectarian differences of belief are problematic in other countries not only in Iraq.
    Iraq has a Shia population of 65% and Iran with 90%. Saudia Arabia’s Sunni population is 89%. And those are just two neighbors which keep the Pentagon boys awake at night.

  • Lightkeeper

    I would argue that both Ummabdulla and Tracy are correct. In the long run however, it is sad to see how divided people can become over the little things rather than looking at the larger picture. (ie, Does it really matter if someone sees something that happened hundred of years ago a little differently from yourself?)

  • weisseharre


  • tina

    My understanding is that the differences between Shia and Sunni have to do with who should have succeeded to the caliphate back in the early days of Islam. The people who now make up the Shia felt it should have been Muhammed’s grandson, who was subsequently killed (others may correct me if I’m wrong). The Shia now reverence very highly this grandson, while the Sunnis not as much. Mourning Hussein’s (the grandson) martyrdom is the cornerstone of Shia belief.
    That’s the substantial difference that has led to all kinds of misery over the centuries. Eventually it sort of became this self-sustaining thing.
    I’ve also observed Shia praying with some kind of small clay tablet under their forehead. I think it might be made of earth from Mecca. I’m not sure. Anyway Sunni don’t do this. There’s more to the differences than meets the eye.

  • tina

    Oh, yeah, and apparently (again, let me now if I am misinformed) the Shia believe only a direct descendent of the Prophet has a right to be Caliph (early Muslim royalists?). They believe that if the caliphate were brought back today this would still be true. Since after the death of his entire clan during the assassination of Hussein, Muhammed left no living descendants (he had already died by that time), that makes it kind of interesting.

  • ummabdulla

    That’s part of it, Tina, but the clay that Shias use is from Karbala in Iraq, where Hussein was martyred; the Shia mourning for Hussein lasts for a month of every year (it just finished) and involves weeping and bloodletting. Since Islam was finalized during the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh), it’s hard for me to understand how Hussein’s martyrdom – long after the Prophet died and revelations ended – could be a religious event at all, much less the major one.
    What originally caused the split was disagreement over who should be the Caliph, but it’s evolved into major differences in beliefs and practices, such as the fundamental Shia belief in the “twelve imams”, who are considered infallible, and one of who is supposedly not dead but waiting somewhere until his return (near that shrine in Samarra, I guess). Sunnis have no basis for believing in them.
    It’s not true, though, that all of Muhammad’s (pbuh) descendants were wiped out. Many, if not all, of the “twelve imams” are descended from Muhammad’s (pbuh) daughter Fatimah and son Ali, and there are many people to this day who claim to be his descendants. When you see a Shia wearing a black turban, that’s what that signifies. Some of the ruling families in Muslim countries also claim descent from the Prophet (pbuh), like the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan (the Prophet was from the family Bani Hashem), and the Moroccan ruling family, too, I think. As well as many ordinary people.

  • ummabdulla

    “Muhammad’s (pbuh) daughter Fatimah and son Ali”
    Correction: That should be “son-in-law”, not “son”. He was also a cousin.

  • jt from BC

    A unique perspective and questions I’ve never heard commented on or asked in our MSM re sectarian conflict in Iraq. I don’t know if Robert has really lost it, but here is a 14 minute interview : ( scroll down )
    Robert Fisk shares his Middle East knowledge
    BROADCAST: 02/03/2006
    Are we being blindsided or somewhat sidelined on the nature of this conflict, or are his questions just too far out? I’m especially interested in any opinions particularly from this community.

  • tracy

    Here’s part 3 of the article about the Imam in Brooklyn:

  • ummabdulla

    I don’t know, JT. I have the greatest respect for Robert Fisk, who knows more about this than I’ll ever know. I certainly accept his argument that we’re not being told what’s really going on in Iraq.
    But he’s also said all along that Iraq was not sectarian (it’s “tribal” instead?) and that there wouldn’t be a civil war. He certainly has experience with this kind of civil war from all his time in Lebanon, so he should know… but he could be wrong in this case. I think he’s right, though, in saying that if the Sunnis and Shia were united, it would mean trouble for the Americans.
    Too bad he can’t actually get out there and find out what’s really happening and to tell us who’s doing what and why.

  • Thomas Michael Corcoran

    I’ve never set foot in Iraq, don’t agree with the way we bullied ourselves into the war, am appalled by the deaths on both sides, but am surprised the secular war has not hit a higher level yet.
    A friend of mine, a barber, Vietnam-Era Marine, Native of DC, and a patriot told me, “We should have left Saddam in charge. He kept the militia’s in check.”
    That may or may not be true. But it seems more sane than our current situation.

  • ummabdulla

    I think that a lot of Arabs said the same thing, even people that hated Saddam. They said that without him, or someone like him, there would be chaos… so far, they seem to be right.

  • jt from BC

    UMMABDULLA, your (it’s “tribal” instead?) send me scurrying around the net. I have read about 50 articles on this subject,
    1) a five minute glance indicates structure and some numbers at:
    2) From a center right Think Tank a most comprehensive if lengthy report;
    The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System
    Iraq Memo #18, July 8, 2003 (two extracts :
    “Under Saddam Hussein as president, and to a lesser extent even under his predecessor, President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (1968-1979), tribal chiefs were given weapons, lands, money, and great authority over their tribes. This has applied to Sunni, Shiite, and even some Kurdish tribes. In exchange, Shiite and Kurdish tribes (as well as Arab tribes close to the Kurdish zones) assisted the regime by monitoring the borders with Iran and preventing their own tribesmen from joining anti-Baath insurgents.
    “All this will be a difficult task, especially because the intricacies of Iraqi tribal society will be very foreign to most American and British officials—let alone troops. But with assistance from the Iraqis themselves, it should be possible for an interim authority to bring recalcitrant tribes to heel and convince agnostic tribes to support the kinder, gentler, and more equitable new Iraq”
    3) Many Iraqi tribes transcend the current sectarian Sunni/Shiite divide.
    “The tribes played a pivotal role in bringing about some form of normalcy shortly after the U.S. invasion, but the political factions who ruled the country and U.S. policies have plunged Iraq into turmoil.”\2006-03-04\209.htm
    I think it was the tribes that must have played the predominate role in “cooling” ? things down after the dome explosion.
    Thanks for your response and for sending me on a tribal journey, I grasp more fully now what Fisk means in referring to “its tribal”

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