Iraq Pulse

Nonsectarian citizens isolated in Iraq

Article Summary
Amid increased sectarian tensions, those Iraqis who choose not to side with one sectarian group have found themselves targeted by many, including their own communities.

The sectarian conflict in Iraq has been developing in different directions, thus making it hard for those who do not want to be part of the battle to remain impartial. The recent Anbar operations have sparked sectarian enmity in a different and more intense way among Iraqis, and a complicated web of accumulated rancor between Iraqi sects, regions and tribes is emerging in the country. This situation is unprecedented in the history of Iraq. Various retaliatory feelings have blended with sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.

Followers of Iraqi affairs have quickly seen the worsening rift between Iraqis. The geographic, tribal and sectarian borders have become crystal clear. Geographically, many inhabitants of the southern part of Iraq have been using the term “westerners” (referring to those who live in the western part of the country) to refer to Sunnis cooperating with terrorism. Similarly, the word “southerners” is being used to talk about Shiites cooperating with Iraq’s archenemy, Iran. The kinship bonds of tribes composed of both Sunnis and Shiites have been broken, while other tribes that have an absolute Sunni or Shiite majority have isolated themselves. Sects are still playing a major role in the conflicts between parties.

A group of people that is not affiliated with these divisions stands out in the middle of this heated conflict and faces pressure and marginalization. The sounds of rifles, cannons and aggressive declarations are drowning out its voice. Some people in this non-affiliated group have completely disappeared, while others are besieged and threatened not only by their own social environment but by other social environments as well.

Iraq has turned into a battlefield, where conflict between major sectarian affiliations, specifically three main entities — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — has emerged. The rest have stayed out of the game. There are various groups of religious and racial minorities that do not consider themselves part of the mentioned triangle, but they can only find a way to be represented through one of the three sects. The Christians have united with the Kurds because they found a safer environment in Kurdistan. Yet, many of them, just like other minorities, are still searching for a haven abroad that represents, for them and for Iraq, immigration without return. 

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Many Sunnis and Shiites who do not identify with their traditional sect and feel that they are merely Iraqi citizens are, first and foremost, threatened by their own communities. People from the same sect have considered them traitors for not participating in the war. The Anbar incidents represent a clear example of how difficult the stance of non-affiliated people is.

Shiites who criticized these operations were expelled and ostracized by the Shiite community. Similarly, Sunnis who criticized Sunni armed groups were accused of betraying their region. Consequently, every side was issuing statements and chanting slogans based on the “friend or foe” principle.

In a speech on Dec. 23, 2013, announcing the launch of Anbar operations, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talked about religious revenge and recalled the old heritage of conflicts in the history of Islam. “The murderers of (the Shiite's third imam) Hussein ibn Ali are not gone yet; they are still here today. Hussein is still among us but in a different form, and what he represents is being targeted by those tyrants. The supporters of Yazid (the caliph who commanded the murder of Hussein) and the supporters of Hussein are violently and stubbornly clashing against each other again,” Maliki said. Iraqi activist and researcher Nibras Kazimi criticized, on his Facebook page, those in power who exploit religion to serve their interests. He wrote that sultans have often taken advantage of religious vendettas to attain power, and this phenomenon is still common today among Iraqi leaders. 

On Jan. 11, terrorists murdered four detained Iraqi soldiers, thus adding insult to injury. Tribal stories of vengeance spread to describe the murder of the soldiers, although there were no supporting documents. It was said that the Al Dalim tribe — the largest tribe in Anbar — detained the four soldiers, who were from a southern tribe, and killed them.

Under such circumstances, where religious and tribal vengeance prevail, wise initiatives were not welcomed. Instead, the public considered those who launched the initiatives to be weak and treacherous. Shortly after Supreme Islamic Council leader Ammar Hakim launched an initiative to solve the Anbar crisis, the Iraqi government rejected it under the pretext that initiatives should only be taken after achieving victory and reaching military settlement. Iraq has witnessed the emergence of radical groups criticizing non-military initiatives and placing terrorists and Anbar inhabitants on the same level. One of these groups released a statement on Jan. 13 saying, “To Mr. Ammar Hakim and Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr, to our Anbar and our parliament, What does Mr. Hakim have to say about the killing of four innocent men, and what does Mr. Sadr have to say about the killing of men who are dear to Iraq? Do they know that Anbar has offered us the murder of four innocent men as a gift? Are they aware that the murder of four heroes from our army came in response to the statements and initiatives they gave to Anbar’s citizens?”

It is bizarre that the concept of tribal vengeance has even prevailed among Iraqi intellectuals, whose Facebook pages are filled with posts based on tribal values. Their posts focused on the virtues of southern tribes as opposed to the vices of the western tribes, or portrayed Shiites as victims and Sunnis as slayers.

Under such critical circumstances, there is no space left for non-affiliated people from both sects to express their opinions and civil identity, which rejects exclusive sectarian and tribal affiliations. Iraqi activist and reporter Ali Inoma wrote on his Facebook page, “Anbar inhabitants do not belong to one bloc, and most of us are not represented by extremists. Our minds are filled with thoughts of love, peace and coexistence. Yet, what is written and said about us reflects only bad news.” Moreover, Iraqi reporter Omar al-Shaher stopped issuing his daily reports about the situation in Anbar, which he used to film directly from the region. This was due to the aggressive verbal battles Shaher’s readers had through their comments on his Facebook page. Shaher said, “I wish these people would take their tensions elsewhere and let us grieve in peace.”

Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has failed to put into place a national consensus program that represents a unique Iraqi identity. Non-affiliated people have been put outside the political and social framework in Iraq because they are trying to find a humanitarian identity — one that distinguishes them from the narrow conflicting sectarian and tribal identities in the country. 

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Found in: tribal politics, sunni-shiite conflict, sectarian violence, sectarian conflict in iraq, nouri al-maliki, iraqi-syrian border, iraq, anbar province

Ali Mamouri is Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse Editor and a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.

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