The Roots of the Sunni, Shiite Conflict

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Commentator Anisa Mehdi says the conflicts between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq are decades — not centuries — old.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Commentator Anisa Mehdi is Iraqi American. And she says the current sectarian violence is part of the legacy of Saddam Hussein.

ANISA MEHDI (Commentator): For my dad's generation being Sunni or Shia, it wasn't about politics. And it certainly spawns no violence. It meant celebrating some religious holidays differently.

My dad and his friends, many of whom are glad to be Americans now, grew up in a nation that had just changed hands from Ottoman to English. And the British had crowned a man from Mecca Arabia as the new Iraqi king. They were thinking about self-determination, not religion.

It wasn't until the civil war in Lebanon that I began hearing the terms Sunni and Shiite with any regularity. News coverage focused on the Christian-Muslim divide, and a Muslim-Muslim divide. But the war in Lebanon was really along the lines of privilege, not piety.

People who were better off had access to power, both political and electric. Their roads were paved. In the poorer neighborhoods that happened to be mostly Shiite, blackouts and potholes were a way of life. It was really a war for equal opportunity and rights under the law. With 20/20 hindsight, we see a similar story in Iraq. Saddam Hussein consolidated his power by setting people against each other, offering privilege and prosperity to the Sunnis and poverty and persecution to the Shiites. Here in America, the Sunni Shia divide is a non-starter.

Sure people may be aware of their backgrounds and traditions. There's an annual Shia convention. And in some mosques if you look closely, you'll see people praying side by side. Some with their hands folded across their bellies Sunni style, and some with their arms loose at their sides, Shia style. But there's no frostiness between them.

But in Iraq three years after Saddam Hussein was toppled, his sectarian legacy is like a poison that gets more toxic every day. It's fed and spread by terrorists from within and without. It's aggravated by the presence of foreign troops including our own American soldiers.

Sectarian hatred now threatens the unity of a people that in my dad's day were proud and eager to be just plain Iraqis. Today it looks like the poison of sectarianism has infected a nation. And if Iraq splinters, the winners will be the terrorists, whoever secures the oil fields, and the legacy of Saddam Hussein.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Anisa Mehdi is a documentary filmmaker based in Maplewood, New Jersey.

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