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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

Sunni and Shia divided in Iraq, the land of Cain and Abel

How the US invasion of Iraq unleashed a chain reaction of sectarian violence.

DAKUK, Iraq — In the rugged landscape of northern Iraq where biblical tradition holds that Cain killed Abel, the ancient fault lines of sectarian and ethnic conflict are laid bare.

There is no map that points to where the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve’s first-born son killing his brother might have taken place. The Bible says only that it lays ‘East of Eden.’ But 13th century historian Yacout al-Hamawi places it in the shadow of the Hamreen Mountains near this ancient town that would have been on the road from Babylon to Nineveh.

Today, in this same troubled land, the divisions that have wracked the region for centuries are coming to the surface. On the tenth anniversary of the US-led war in Iraq, the struggle for power is playing out not just in the halls of government and parliament but in the car-bomb factories and bank accounts that fuel sectarian attacks.

Some believe the seeds of the popular movements across the Arab world that have toppled dictatorial regimes were sown with the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. In Iraq, the demise of his iron-fisted dictatorship blew the lid off of suppressed sectarian conflict and opened the door to regional extremists.

In a country known for its relative religious tolerance, one of the biggest forces at play has become an ideology in which a tiny number of Sunni Muslims believe it is a religious duty to kill Shia Muslims. Those attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq are again increasing. Some believe the al-Qaeda front group is hijacking a growing protest movement by Sunni Iraqis who believe they have been displaced by the Shia’s historic rise to power.

In a culture in which neighbors refer to each other as brothers, the parables of Cain and Abel are still being played out in this ancient land of prophets.

Dozens of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophets — major and minor — are believed to have been born and have died here. In Islam the split between Shia and Sunni over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad was irrevocably deepened on the battlefield in Karbala with the killing of Imam Hussein.

In modern Iraq, sectarian divisions were cemented over by a socialist, pan-Arab Baath party.  But it was the Shia, a minority in the region but a majority in Iraq, whose religion was suppressed. Saddam Hussein, who saw any competing allegiances as a threat to his power, banned public commemorations of Shia rituals and imprisoned and assassinated hundreds of clerics and deported thousands of Iraqi Shia.

With the fall of his regime, the tension came bubbling up to the surface, not just in Iraq but in a wary and hostile region. With the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arab leaders who headed almost every country in the Middle East looked to Iraq and the specter of a swath of Shia-dominated territory with its roots in Iran.

“For the first time in the history of the region, the strongest dictator was removed from power,” said Iraqi historian Saad Eskander. “It changed the balance on many levels. One, the Shia-Sunni balance became an imbalance — for the first time Shia come to power by the virtue of a foreign invasion.”

Eskander believes the shock of Saddam Hussein being toppled is what allowed people in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries to imagine for the first time a life without dictatorship.

Dakuk was built on the ruins of a major city on the road from Babylon to Nineveh. It was leveled by an earthquake in antiquity and settled by Turkmen during the waves of Turkic migration starting more than 1,000 years ago.

The Turkmen, Iraq’s third-biggest ethnic group after Arabs and Kurds, are embroiled in a struggle for land and power in hundreds of miles of territory claimed by the Kurdish-controlled north and the central government. Just south of Kirkuk, the city was part of the region Saddam Hussein tried to Arabize, forcing Kurds and Turkmen to either list their identity as Arab or give up their homes.

“We don’t want to be part of the Kurdish territories. We either want to be independent or belong to the central government,” said Ali Jaffar, head of the local branch of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. He says they would be swallowed up by the more powerful Kurds.