Sunni, Shiite Feuds Could Lead to Iraq Civil War

Phillip Reeves, reporting from Baghdad, speaks with Alex Chadwick about how religious tensions, tribal feuds and violence between Sunni and Shiite factions of Islam threaten to lead to civil war in Iraq.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, we talk to a retiring British bullfighter. First, this. The best thing I heard on "Morning Edition" today, probably the best thing all week, was NPR's Philip Reeves' gripping account from Baghdad on the increasing sectarian violence; Sunni and Shiite Muslims there seeing each other as traditional enemies and talking about it. If you missed the report, you can get it online at npr.org. You'll hear Phil describe the visceral tension of life in Baghdad. The feeling can be difficult to make real and apparent for any reporter anywhere without the right voice, but Phil found one.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Samir is 26. He's a sophisticated metropolitan. His best friend is Shiite. The other day his cousin was murdered.

SAMIR: He was walking back to his home after they finished the night prayers. He was shot with his brother. He died; his brother was badly injured--eight bullets, two in his neck, two in his chest, two in his leg.

REEVES: Samir says the injured man was rushed to the nearest hospital. It was in a Shiite neighborhood, and he believes this was a sectarian attack by Shia against Sunnis. He thought about picking up a gun and setting out on a personal mission of vengeance. He came close to doing so.

SAMIR: Very close. Only one reason is I am more married and I'm waiting myself. If I was not married, I was to do it, believe me.

CHADWICK: Samir, a Sunni interpreter in Baghdad interviewed by Phil Reeves for his report today. We called Phil to get more about this.

Phil, how did this piece come about?

REEVES: Well, what I was trying to describe really is this very ominous mood that has taken hold of Baghdad at the moment. We persistently hear stories of leaflets being passed around neighborhoods threatening Sunnis and telling them to leave because--from Shia or vice versa. So there is this sort of undercurrent, this pulse, which is very sinister and alarming.

CHADWICK: When I called you earlier to ask you to come on the show and talk more about this, you described some of Samir's background and what he was like.

REEVES: Yes, I've actually known Samir for some time. I've known him for at least 18 months. And when I first met him, he really was a buoyant young man, bright-eyed, eager, looking forward to the future. And we've seen him--I've seen him change from that into this hard-eyed, brooding man. It's an alarming thing to witness.

CHADWICK: You used the term `civil war' in your "Morning Edition" report. Civil war?

REEVES: Well, you know, it's interesting. A year and a half ago if you talked about the possibility of Iraq descending into civil war, you would attract sort of skeptical glances, especially from those who supported the invasion of Iraq. Now it really is a central issue in the debate about where this country is going, and it is an issue that Iraqis talk about, too. One of the things that Samir said to us, which was very disturbing really to hear, was that he felt that the atmosphere now was so poisoned that some Iraqis actually believe that they have to have some kind of bloodletting. Of course, people hope it doesn't happen, but they are talking about it now in a way that they didn't before.

CHADWICK: This is something that you say you find in Baghdad, but given the peculiarities of Iraq, maybe this is not going on in the rest of the country.

REEVES: That's actually a point that Samir himself made to us. He's from Anbar province, which is predominantly Sunni. He doesn't believe that the conflict between the Shia and the Sunni will happen in areas which are predominantly Sunni or predominantly Shia--for example, the south, which is Shia. He thinks that Baghdad will be the caldron in which this conflict will worsen markedly. You know, we hear about it from our own Iraqi colleagues from time to time, and they all speak about this. In fact, one came into work today and called the morgue in Baghdad, which he does every day because we're trying to keep a check on the level of killings that are going on in this city, only to be told by the official that he always talks to that one of the people who were brought in dead today was a cousin of his.

CHADWICK: A daily check-in kind of call and the morgue says, `By the way, we have your cousin's body.'

REEVES: Yes, exactly. Now this may be crime, pure crime. You know, I don't know the circumstances. It's too early, Alex. But, you know, that's the sort of thing that can happen to people in Baghdad at this stage, after two and a half years. I don't know anyone who I work with who hasn't been personally touched by the conflicts that are going on in Baghdad, whether it's being involved and caught up in an explosion or whether it's having a relative who's been killed, and by that, I mean not only the insurgency but also the outbreak of crime and also the sectarianism in the city. This is so large, and it's getting very close to people.

CHADWICK: NPR's Philip Reeves in Baghdad. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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