Religion Issue In Baghdad – The Rise of Sectarian Violence

Baghdad was the capital of Iraq composed of diverse ethnic groups, including Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurd dispersed throughout the city. Sunni and Shia are the majority groups. The tension between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam was stems back in centuries and almost to the founding of Islam itself. The two sects fought with each other who would lead the faith of Islamic following the death of Mohammed.

Before the US invasion in 2003, Iraq was governed by Saddam Hussein from 1979 to 2003. Under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was ruled by the majority of Sunni population and subordinate to the Shia minority. Shia had never enjoyed political control of Iraq.  Yet behind these antagonisms developed a strong tolerance and coexistence at the individual level in the society in Baghdad. Before 2003 in Baghdad, Sunnis and Shia lived together side by side in mixed neighborhoods and intersect marriage was common[1], no one cared if a neighborhood was majority Sunni or Shia. Loyalty to Saddam Hussein was more important than religious identity. Writing in August 2003, the Iraqi blogger-Riverbend describes the high levels of tolerance and coexistence in Baghdad before 2003: “We get along with each other-Sunnis and Shia, Muslims and Christians and Jews… We intermarry, we mix and mingle, and we live. We build our churches and mosques in the same areas, our children go to the same schools… it was never an issue.”[2]

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after US invasion in 2003, the peaceful coexistence in Baghdad began to change. The nature of violent conflict evolved from an insurgency against the interim U.S.-supported government into a sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias, as majority rule trigger the Shia politicians who exacted revenge got decades of oppression. The violence reached the epic proportions by the summer of 2006 to 2007. According to Iraq body count, 3182 civilians were killed in July 2006 and over 2000 civilian casualties were reported each month through August 2007.[3] Within this period, the city was separated into distinct homogeneous neighborhoods based on their sectarian identity[4].

Figure 1 Documented civilian deaths from violence between 2006 and 2007

This devolution from apparent tolerance and coexistence turns to all-out ethnic civil war happened very suddenly after the invasion of U.S. “The roots of sectarian conflict aren’t that deep in Iraq,” mentioned by Fanar Haddad, a scholar of Iraqi history, “Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms.”[5] Years of discrimination and repression by the rule of Saddam had not solidified the religious hatred, but having the structured political and economic interests in a way that put Sunnis and Shia into conflict.

[1] “Iraq: $2000 for Shiite-Sunni Couples Who Marry,” by Bushra Juhi and Deb Riechmann, The Assocaited Press, August 5, 2009

[2] Riverbend, “We’ve Only just began,” August,2003 <Blog>

[3] “Iraq Body Count Database,” Iraq Body Count, <https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/>

[4] “Baghdad: Mapping the violence,” BBC News Online

[5] “The real roots of Iraq’s Sunni-Shia conflict” by Zack Beauchamp, Vox 20th June 2014 <https://www.vox.com/2014/6/20/5827046/who-are-sunnis-who-are-shias>

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