The structure of Iraq's politics during the Hussein years, when the minority Sunnis held power and the Shi`a were an oppressed majority, laid the foundation for what could have been a civil war once the regime was toppled. Yet this hasn't happened--and the reason is not necessarily encouraging. What has largely united Sunnis and Shi`a is the increasingly intense opposition to the U.S.-led occupation. In fact, most Iraqis believe the United States' major accomplishment since removing Hussein from power has been unifying Iraqis against what most of them believe is an unjust occupation.
Religion plays an important role in this situation, for three reasons: first, the more religious people are, the more likely they are to oppose the occupation, specifically on religious grounds. This is because radical Muslims are particularly influenced by the Medieval thinker Ibn Taymiyya, who wrote after the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols. He viewed Christians and Jews as allies of the Mongols and as threats to the security and purity of Islam. The latest radical view of Islam sees a new threat of occupation by outside forces.
Second, it is impossible to separate religion from nationalism in Iraq (or most other countries for that matter), which means that while many observers feared the Shi`a might opt for some kind of independent state with strong ties to Iran, the reality is that most Shi`a are also strong Iraqi nationalists.
Third, in the context of the intense violence and chaos plaguing the country for the last year, strongly (and usually conservatively) religious people remain among the few Iraqis willing to protest the occupation. And because most of the protesters are not just young, angry, religious and armed--but also men--the situation is distorting the real picture of Islam in Iraq. The protesters are shutting women out of the public sphere just when women's voices are needed most.
This situation was made clear on the first anniversary of the invasion of the country, when only a few thousand people, almost all men, Sunnis and Shi`a together, marched through the streets chanting anti-Jewish and anti-U.S. slogans. Everyone else was too scared to appear publicly. And when, for example, U.S. soldiers patrol the slums of Sadr City in Baghdad removing pictures of Moqtada' al-Sadr, for whose father this neighborhood was named, it provokes resentment and fuels religiously motivated violence against the coalition.
This shared opposition to the U.S.-led occupation has motivated Sunni-Shi`i solidarity, despite violence between the groups. For example, in a Baghdad hospital in March, a paralyzed, respirator-bound Sunni imam begged whoever would listen not to assume the person who shot him was Shi`i--and even if he was, to consider that person an agent of the United States rather than someone with religious motivations. Not far outside central Baghdad at the Mother of all Battles (Um al-Maarik) mosque, Sheikh Harith Suleiman al-Dhari, one of the most powerful Sunni religious figures in the country, told a group of journalists that the enemy was America, not the Shi`i population.
Yet there is another factor uniting Sunnis and Shi`a, in addition to the U.S. occupation: their shared antipathy toward the Kurds, specifically against the autonomy enjoyed in Kurdish regions and their close relations with the United States. This has produced an Arab-Kurdish split that is much more active than any Sunni-Shi`i conflicts. Indeed, most Arab religious leaders have for months been issuing dire warnings about their willingness to use significant violence to prevent the Kurds from winning too much independence in the "new Iraq."
But America is still the main enemy. Even in the moments after the Sunni suicide attack during the important Islamic holiday, Ashura, that killed dozens of Shi`a outside a mosque, its loudspeaker blared: "We blame the Americans, let's expel the Americans, let's unite to expel them from Iraq, let's unite as one religion."
Sheikh Hussein, of the Dulami tribe of western Iraq (prevalent in the town of Abu Ghraib, home of the notorious prison), is one of the most powerful Sunni sheikhs in the country. During a recent visit to his home, he recited an ancient poem as American helicopters flew low overhead, shaking his house to its foundations. The poem is about a woman sitting at home during the crusades, while the crusaders break into her house and take her to jail to rape her.