Keith David Watenpaugh: The coming civil war in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Keith David Watenpaugh is an author and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Distinguished Fellow in Democracy and Diversity at the Tanner Humanities Institute, University of Utah. In July he will join the faculty of the University of California, Davis, as associate professor of Modern Islamic Studies.]

The coming civil war in Iraq Keith David Watenpaugh Salt Lake Tribune When I was in Baghdad just a few weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was witness to the ugly sight of unrestrained looting. Gangs of men with crowbars and pick-up trucks had stripped bare state buildings, Baath Party headquarters and even university libraries and classrooms.

But in the midst of the mayhem, neighborhood Sunni mosques, ornate Sufi mausolea, blue- tiled Shiite shrines and Armenian churches with their conical domes remained untouched.

Even the vulgar mega-mosques that Saddam had started to build in a vain hope to append to his regime some measure of Islamic legitimacy were left alone.

These sacred spaces remained off-limits in the way secular ones did not because they were living symbols at the moral center of the Iraqi national community - a place that the corrupt and brutal Baathist state could never legitimately fill.

While Iraq has begun to recover from the looting, it will not be able to pull back from the brink of civil war following the destruction of much of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. While this is not the first attack on a religious site in Iraq, it will certainly prove to be the most consequential as it confirms the loss of that common moral center.

The attack, blamed on Sunni insurgents, destroyed an Ottoman-era golden dome and much of the rest of the complex, which is, in fact, a shrine to two 9th century descendents of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hadi al-Askari and his son Hassan. And though the other shrines in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala are much more important to Shiites worldwide, this mosque in Samarra, as well as the grand al-Qadhimayn mosque in northern Baghdad, sit at the very center of the Iraqi Arab Shiite identity.

To Iraq's Shiites they are national symbols and religious emblems, playing much the same role the Cathedral of Notre Dame does for France's Catholics.

In part, this is because of the living nature these places have had in the lives of Iraq's Shiites.

At these shrines, Islamic high culture mixes fluidly with folkways and local traditions. They are not somber spaces of silent solemnity, but rather where on warm nights families gather together, bring picnics and set out blankets and children play raucously in the presence of the baraka - the blessings - conveyed by being near the imams interred inside. During the centuries of Sunni dominance of what became Iraq, they were places where Shiites could practice their faith in the way they saw fit, educate their children and experience a modicum of safety and repose.

But with this attack, senior leaders in the Shiite establishment, in particular Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will find it more difficult if not impossible to disband their militias or restrain their followers and political allies calling for Sunni blood. The more they ignore those calls the more irrelevant they will become to the politics of Iraq.

The subterranean conflict that pits uniformed Shiite death squads against Sunni insurgents with civilians in the middle will now come into the open.

The virulent sectarianism that this attack represents and the vicious reprisals that have already begun - Sunni mosques have been burned and at the time of this writing 138 people have been killed, including seven American soldiers - will mark 2/22, 2006, as the day the Iraqi Civil War began.

The descent into sectarianism, for which the Iraqis and the U.S. both bear a great deal of responsibility, was avoidable and is the most shameful legacy of our presence in Iraq.

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