Iraq's history still divides children of mesopotamia

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The myth of a unified Iraqi identity may have finally been laid to rest this month. More clearly than any other measurement since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, preliminary results from the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections show Iraq as three lands with three distinct identities, divided by faith, goals, region, history and symbols.

Though Iraqis often speak lovingly of golden ages when they were one big happy family, Iraq has been a shaky proposition since its 1920s founding. Rather than a shared history, the paths of Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds diverged from the beginning of the nation's inception as a product of British colonialism.

Sunnis collaborated with the British, who supported the Sunni Arab monarchists. Shiite insurrectionists heeded the calls of their clergy and fought a jihad, or holy war, against the British, who crushed them and reaffirmed their second-class status. Kurdish nationalists unsuccessfully sought independence, first by diplomatic channels, later by the gun.

Iraq's post-World War II order was no less divisive. Sunni Arab nationalists forced their pan-Arab ideology on the diverse country after Britain's departure. Hussein's Sunni-run government magnified discrimination to the point of mass killings, with Shiites and Kurds punished not so much for who they were but for refusing to accept the Baath Party's version of Iraqi identity.

Nonetheless, Hussein's au- thoritarianism was the glue that held Iraq together for decades. Now that he is out of power, the nation's troubled identity has again been cast into flux.

Does the nation continue to bow before the philosophy of Arab nationalism, or that of Shiite mysticism? Is Iraq's national hero Hussein or the 7th century Shiite caliph Imam Ali? Or, for that matter, is it the late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani?

"What does it mean to be an Iraqi?" wonders Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician. "We didn't have something to be proud of, a development or an advance. The only thing we have in common is oppression."

A further erosion of Iraqi identity could pave the way for a partitioning of the country, with unpredictable results.

Kurds, already soured on the idea of Iraq, could bolt the union, taking the oil-rich city of Kirkuk with them and realizing the worst fears of Turkey and Iran, each with sizable and restless Kurdish minorities. Shiites, too, unified by their religious iconography, have begun seriously talking about setting up a nine-province, oil-rich southern region. That would leave an angry and resentful Sunni Arab center and west of the country determined to continue staging an insurgency that could inflame passions throughout the Middle East.

Many Sunni Arab nationalists and former Baath Party adherents blame Iran and the United States for interfering in Iraq's internal affairs and whipping up sectarian and ethnic passions. The U.S., they say, started the troubles by doling out seats on the initial post-invasion Iraqi Governing Council according to ethnicity and sect rather than who was best qualified.

Iran, they say, has flooded the country with religious imagery and propaganda, bolstering the fierce sectarianism of the country's Shiite majority in order to achieve its own ends.

Regardless of the cause, the very idea of Iraq may be slowly fading, politicians and common Iraqis acknowledge, often sadly. Even the Iraqi flag seems to appear only in the posters of politicians bankrolled by U.S.-funded aid organizations. Government buildings such as the ministries of education and health are often festooned with posters of bearded and turbaned Shiite clerics instead of the red, white and black flag of Iraq.

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