By Carles Grau Sivera
Baghdad, Mar 19 (EFE).- After the United States-led invasion of Iraq overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, tensions between the country’s two main religious factions rapidly escalated and plunged Iraq into a brutal civil war that the country is still trying to recover from.
During Hussein’s rule, “there was no freedom,” Mohamed al-Haydari, a prominent Shia scholar, tells Efe.
“Therefore, no one could express an opinion that was different from the state’s. That is why there were no differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites,” says al-Haydari, whose branch if Islam, the majority group in Iraq, was banned from practicing rituals during Hussein’s Sunni dictatorship.
Al-Haydari believes there are “no differences between Sunnis and Shiites,” recalling that even members of these two factions used to marry each other before tensions turned deadly.
In 2007, a car bomb attack on the famous Shia al-Khilani mosque left some 78 people dead and more than 100 injured.
The US administration that ruled Iraq following the invasion dismantled institutions linked to the Hussein regime, including the army and security forces, leaving hundreds of thousands of once-privileged Sunnis unemployed and ostracized.
The new regime put exiled Shia leaders at the helm, placing the once dominant Sunni community suddenly as the underdogs and thereby creating the perfect breeding ground for an armed insurgency. The new chaotic climate was also highjacked by the al-Qaeda terrorist organization which launched many attacks at the time killing thousands of Iraqis.
“No, the Americans did not liberate Iraq. They occupied it. They kept quiet about some practices. They allowed the murders, the explosions everywhere… Is this called liberation? It is destruction,” al-Haydari adds.
Following the chaos caused by the invasion, several neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey carried out “military operations against the Shiites,” al-Haydari claims.
This resulted in sectarian strife that between 2006 and 2008 devastated a country still recuperating from the heavy blow dealt by the US invasion.
“Yes, there are differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites in terms of ideology, but that difference does not justify that we fight each other,” says Hussein al-Barzanji, the spokesman for the Council of Sunni Ulema of Iraq, says.
At Abi al-Hassanin mosque, on the outskirts of Baghdad, he explains that “there has not been sectarianism in Baghdad in the last two years,” which he hopes is not “temporary.”
“We were left with a wound. In Saddam’s time, Sunnis and Shiites were in the same boat, but after the occupation and everything that happened, a Sunni would not accept being in the same class as a Shiite and vice versa,” he adds.
Al-Barzanji acknowledges that during the sectarian war, Sunnis were stigmatized due to the al-Qaeda attacks, but the cleric says that they too were victims of its terrorist acts.
This, according to al-Barzanji, pushed a large part of the community to seek refuge in northern Iraq away from the capital.
Many Iraqi political parties also promoted sectarianism to win votes, he continues.
Although Iraq’s religious leaders say the times of sectarianism have ended, Baghdad is still divided between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, one of the scars of 20 years of conflict.
“Now, for two years, the coexistence between Sunnis and Shiites is similar to what it was during Saddam’s time,” he says. EFE