Shiite-Sunni Tensions Driving Conflict
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Over the past month in Iraq, insurgents have killed more than 600 Iraqis and some 70 Americans. Now Iraq's government is promising a crackdown. And it is rejecting allegations that members of the government's own security forces are to blame for some of the murders. Meantime, Iraqis in both the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority are each convinced that they are being targeted by the other camp, and they say the government is doing nothing about it. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad.
PETER KENYON reporting:
The stories from Sunni families have a common theme. In the dead of night, armed men dressed in the uniform of Iraqi security forces break into houses and take a family member away. Later, the corpse is found, sometimes showing signs of torture. In many cases, family members blame Shiite units of the security forces. The government says all cases are under investigation, but few if any suspects have been identified.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: At a Sunni mosque in Baghdad today, worshipers said they were still waiting for action on the murders. One 57-year-old Sunni man who didn't give his name says by now everyone knows that the Badr Brigade, the militia liked with a key Shiite party in the new Iraqi government, has been killing Sunnis.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) We are not accusing all the Shiites, no, only the Badr forces. They are always loyal to (unintelligible) which supports them. And they are the ones who are trying to make this division among the people.
KENYON: At a news conference yesterday, Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun Duleimi addressed the torture and killing of one Sunni cleric, Hassan al-Naimi, saying the killers would be punished even if they turn out to be from the government.
Mr. SAADOUN DULEIMI (Iraqi Defense Minister): (Through Translator) Justice shall take its course whether he was a soldier or a policeman, whether in the Ministry of Defense or Interior.
KENYON: Duleimi also defended the sometimes harsh tactics of the security forces, although he added that they have been warned that they can't achieve security at the price of human dignity.
Mr. DULEIMI: (Through Translator) We want to earn the people's trust because without that, we cannot establish security. If some police or army man takes a bad action, please remember he is working 17 or 18 hours a day under constant threat. He imagines every car is a car bomb.
KENYON: Although Iraq's Shiite majority is amassing power in the new government, the complaints of sectarian violence are equally loud from the Shiite community, especially in the holy city of Najaf. This is where many Shiite families fled when Shiite killings escalated in towns such as Salman Pak and Madain in the so-called triangle of death just south of Baghdad. In April, tensions skyrocketed due to explosive reports that more than 50 bodies of Shiites from Madain had been fished out of the Tigris River. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani promised details would soon be released. More than five weeks later, the government remains silent, leaving rumors and anger to spread unchecked.
In a rented house in Najaf, Shiite cleric Abu Isra al-Madaini(ph) says to understand the situation in Madain, one has to recall that for years part of the town, a green, leafy patch of orchards along the Tigris, was essentially the private playground of high-ranking officials in the Saddam Hussein regime. Shiites and Sunnis without ties to the regime lived modestly elsewhere in town. But the sheik says after the US invasion two years ago, that all changed.
Sheik ABU ISRA AL-MADAINI (Shiite Cleric): (Through Translator) The big shots were deprived of all their privileges, and they had to leave town. The Shiites and the Sunnis sat together, and we told them that Saddam was bad and this town is for Sunnis and Shiites together.
KENYON: Last fall when the US-led offensive drove the insurgents out of Fallujah, he says many of them came to Madain, and the local police force evaporated. He says a turning point came with the assassination of the Madain representative of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric.
Mr. AL-MADAINI: (Through Translator) The situation changed all of a sudden: assassinations, kidnappings and killings. Things escalated. The road to Madain was a road of death. Before I left Madain four months ago, one of my cousins was killed and the other was kidnapped.
KENYON: A Najaf tribal leader, Sheik Duwan Matribe(ph), says many Shiites believe to this day that they're being singled out for assassination by Sunnis no matter what the government says.
Sheik DUWAN MATRIBE (Najaf Tribal Leader): (Through Translator) They are being targeted because they are Shiites. If we ask ourselves why are they being forced to flee Madain or Luldefia(ph) or Tikrit, it's because they are Shiites. We want it to end, and the government would do well to bring the Iraqis together.
KENYON: There are signs that both communities and the government are all looking to defuse the situation. Last weekend, many Sunni organizations joined together in a political alliance, and on Wednesday the Shiite-dominated committee charged with drafting a constitution offered some 20 seats to Sunnis. But officials say the Sunni-Shiite tensions are still dangerously close to the surface, and while the government clearly has a lot on its plate these days, it would do well to get to the bottom of these alleged sectarian killings as quickly as possible. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.
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