*Iraqi guerrillas mounted three separate attacks in Iraq on Wednesday, killing two US troops and wounding 10. Two of the attacks were launched in Mosul and are therefore likely to be attempts at payback for the killing there the day before of Uday and Qusay. Another of the attacks was launched near Ramadi in the Sunni triangle. Guerrillas also killed one Red Crescent aid worker and wounded another (in Baghdad?). Such attacks on aid workers in some senses are even more politically salient than attacks on US forces, since only a lot of work by many aid workers can hope to put Iraq back on its feet and so drain support from the guerrillas. A similar problem of lack of security for aid workers has set back Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
*This piece of mine just appeared in the Daily Star:
Will Sunnis fight Shiites in Iraq?
The Daily Star, 7/22/03
Some 15,000 angry Iraqi Sunnis marched in Basra Friday and several thousand more rallied at the Umm al-Qura Mosque in west Baghdad. Another 10,000 [demonstrators] came out in Najaf Saturday, when Shiite protests spread to Baghdad and Basra. These rallies signaled both the growing strength of Muslim fundamentalism and a troubling potential for a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq. Either way, they form a black cloud on the horizon of the American project in Iraq. In Basra, Sunni prayer leaders called for rallies Friday against the threat that Shiites loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would seize Sunni mosques in the city.
In Baghdad, disgruntled Sunni clerics said it was shameful for the American-appointed governing council to declare April 9 the day of Baghdad’s fall, which Sunnis regard as the beginning of a foreign occupation a national holiday. They alleged that the apportioning of seats in the council by religious affiliation was an American attempt to divide and rule. In their Friday demonstrations, the Sunnis insisted that the new governing council did not reflect “the Iraqi reality.” They claimed that Sunnis were a majority in Iraq and should not be a minority in the governing council. (Actually, Shiites are estimated by social scientists to comprise 60-65 percent of the Iraqi population). At the Umm al-Qura Mosque, the Sunnis held up placards asserting the governing council had been appointed by dictators. Chillingly, some chanted: “O Baghdad, revolutionary. Let (American civil administrator Paul) Bremer’s fate be that of Nuri.” The reference was to Nuri al-Said, the conservative pro-British prime minister who was torn apart by revolutionary mobs during the republican coup of 1958.
Sadr’s followers staged their own demonstration in Basra Friday, demanding that the governing council be expanded with the addition of elected delegates. Sadr, 30, gave his Friday prayer sermon to thousands at his family’s mosque in Kufa. He called for non-violent non-cooperation with the US civil administration and what he referred to as the “illegitimate” governing council, calling them infidels. He then demanded the establishment of an alternative shadow government for Iraq, in cooperation with other Islamic forces, insisting on an alternative convention to draft a constitution in accordance with Islamic law.
He also announced the formation of a so-called “army of the Mahdi,” a formal militia of Shiites loyal to him. The Sadr movement already has an informal paramilitary force, which controls many east Baghdad neighborhoods. American jeeps were parked close to Sadr’s house Saturday shortly before noon. His people took the move as a sign that US troops intended to arrest him for his Friday remarks. The coalition authorities denied such an intention. Later that day, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited Najaf, and the outbreak of the Sadr movement’s demonstrations may have forced him to leave early. An estimated 10,000 Sadr followers marched from the shrine of Imam Ali, their holiest site, to the US military headquarters, chanting: “Long live Sadr. America and the council are infidels. Muqtada, go ahead; we are your soldiers of liberation.”
The protests spread to Baghdad and Basra, where adherents demanded that the US release their leader. In fact, Sadr was never taken into custody and sent out letters to protesters asking them to go home. This weekend of religious demonstrations was barely covered by the Western media, but it was significant. It brought to the fore the plight of Sunnis in the south, many of whom are being targeted for reprisals by militant Shiites. If large-scale Sunni-Shiite disturbances were to break out in Iraq, it would complicate the US task enormously.
The rhetoric of the radical mosque preachers of both branches of Islam pointed to another possibility, however, namely that groups seeking an Islamic state will join together across sectarian lines to challenge the Americans and the governing council. Such cooperation is not unheard of in Iraq, where an estimated 10 percent of the radical Shiite Al-Daawah Party was Sunni in the 1970s. Whether Sunni and Shiite radicals fight one another or forge a political alliance, they pose a significant long-term threat to US plans for the country. Their weapon of choice large urban demonstrations is very difficult for an occupying army to fight. The possibility that Wolfowitz had to be whisked out of Najaf in the midst of his victory lap there symbolizes the uncertainties the US faces in Iraq.
Juan Cole is professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His web address is www.juancole.com. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star