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There used to be very little sectarianism in Iraq

Chris Walker

Your Letters

February 24 2006

Iraq is a land replete with many wonders, not least of which is/was the al-Askari shrine in Samarra. Twenty years ago I was on my way to al-Hatra, a fifth-century Greek settlement (near Mosul), when I first saw the Golden Mosque in Samarra. We also climbed the famous tower with its perilously open-spiral staircase. This venerated shrine has now been detroyed, its flanking minarets still forlornly standing, thus only underlining the loss of the famous dome itself.

Samarra is a mainly Sunni town, repeat Sunni town, part of the famous "Sunni triangle", and thus, in our ignorance, an implausible site for one of the four most sacred centres of Shia pilgrimage in Iraq. Two of the 12 revered Shia imams are buried there, including the twelfth "hidden" imam. So, for more than 1000 years Sunnis have been the custodians of the resting place of the Shias' most sacred figure, who would return on the day of judgment to bring justice to the world. You'd have thought with all this so-called sectarianism, somebody would have damaged it before now.

With the help of Iraqi colleagues (and posing as a Yugoslavian Muslim) I managed to gain access to another sacred Shia place, Kadhimiya mosque in Baghdad, touching the great black catafalque at its centre. It too was recently attacked, together with sacred shrines in more exclusively Shia areas in Kerbala and Najaf, towns I visited in the course of my work. Inevitably, large numbers of Sunni mosques have now been damaged and imams killed.

Before "Shock and Awe" began we were bombarded with the mantra of: "Kurds to the north, Shia to the south and Sunni in the centre." On many occasions I tried to point out how dreadfully misleading this was since even the most cursory reading of Iraqi history (and geography) would have revealed a much more pluralised configuration of religions and tribes. In the years I spent there, in the 1980s, I was struck by how little sectarianism there was. Sunnis and Shia intermarried, as your editorial of Thursday perceptively pointed out. A Shia architect from Karada (Baghdad) had much more in common with a Sunni lawyer from Mansur (Baghdad) or a Christian shopkeeper from Mosul for that matter, than he had with a Shia farmer from Basra whose religion may have been one generation away from superstition.

Whether we like it or not, it was the reality of a strong state that brought about this secular framework and separate religious freedom Christians, especially, were well aware of the protection this provided and it is the collapse of that state that has unleashed the demons of sectarianism and the incubus of al Qaeda, the door to their access into Iraq made possible by Bush and Blair. Most Christians have gone.

Peter Galbraith, a senior US diplomat, tells of Bush asking in January 2003 for an explanation of Sunnis and Shia in Iraq since he did not know the difference, far less where they lived. Blair, meanwhile, was touring the world with a copy of the Koran in his pocket, as if that mattered. Small wonder then that a student's plagiarised 12-year-old thesis provided the basis for his judgment to go to war, in February 2003. To remind, war began in March 2003.
And when it was done well, sort of they protected the oil ministry but let the museums with their treasure houses of antiquities be sacked, antiquities which were richly symbolic of Iraqi civilisation, and indeed our own. Now it's Samarra. What next?

One might have thought that the ignoramuses, Bush and Blair, who are responsible for this might have paused for thought, expressed some humility, but hey, there they were yesterday (and today) pontificating on their War on Terror. When, indeed, will they ever learn?

Chris Walker,21/23 Main Street, West Kilbride.

:: Article nr. 20946 sent on 24-feb-2006 04:30 ECT


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