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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.

The 70,000 residents of Dakuk, one of Iraq’s oldest Turkmen settlements, feel particularly vulnerable. Unlike most Iraqi Turkmen, they are Shia rather than Sunni Muslms.

Jaffar says they have no problem with their Arab and Kurdish neighbors. He says bombings in the town have come from further afield.

Six months ago, the local police station was blown up. In 2007, an attack on a Shia mosque killed more than a dozen people. Nearby Tuz Kharmato, another Shia Turkmen city, has suffered more than seven attacks in the last six months.

“The terrorists come from Mosul and Diyala,” says Jaffar, referring to the mostly Sunni Arab city and province in north-central Iraq. “If there are problems they are coming from outside.”

Pictures of martyrs, all of them Shia, who were killed in the civil war between 2006 and 2008.
(Franco Pagetti/VII/GlobalPost)

At the main Husseiniya, the Shia place of worship, the photos of 19 victims of a car bombing in 2007 hang on the wall, seven of them from one family. Six months ago, six policemen were killed when the police station was bombed. The attacks were blamed on the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s front group. Shia places of worship and Iraqi security forces are its main targets.

Shia Muslims are believed to make up about 60 percent of the Iraqi population with Sunnis — both Arabs and Kurds — another 35 percent. There is a small Christian minority in Iraq as well. A disproportionate percentage of Iraqis who fled the country after 2003 and during the sectarian violence are Sunni or Christian, according to refugee officials. The exodus leaves Shia Iraqis making up even more of a percentage of the population in Iraq. 

As al-Qaeda and its allies re-emerge in Iraq, attacks against Shia are increasing. Officials say Sunni extremists are emboldened by the Syrian conflict just across the border, which threatens to spill across the region.

“This is what we have been warning,” said a senior Iraqi official. “That the Syrian crisis will end up in a sharp sectarian division in the region….The crisis is reaching us and the effects are getting here much sooner than we expected.”

The official, who asked to remain anonymous to be able to speak more candidly, said the fall of some Syrian towns along with border to opposition fighters was fueling a three-month-old protest movement in Iraq’s Sunni provinces.

He said Iraq’s Shia leaders fear that if Bashar al-Assad falls to Sunni-led forces, they could be next.

“The government is worried about the possibility of a Sunni -Shia confrontation because after Syria is done there are those within the Shia political elite in this country who think they will try to unseat the Shia government here.,” the official said. “That is why there is hyper-tension here. Everything is interpreted in these sectarian terms.”

The protests started in December in Fallujah and Ramadi with the arrest of Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Assawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges.  While not exclusively Sunni grievances, their demands reflect a belief by Sunni Arabs that they have suffered a decade of discrimination.

The protests now draw hundreds of thousands of men after Friday prayers in Sunni cities and neighborhoods. Their demands began with calling for reform of anti-terrorism laws that have jailed tens of thousands of Iraqis without charge and for laws aimed at punishing former Baath party loyalists. Even Iraqi officials acknowledge that both laws disproportionately affect Sunnis.

In recent weeks, the demands have changed to toppling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. And as the rhetoric becomes more sectarian, many of the Shia figures who originally backed their demands have pulled their support.

“There was a lot of sympathy from the Marjaiya (Shia religious scholars) and Muqtada Sadr and the southern provinces in the beginning but obviously once it turned sectarian, it would not get the sympathy that it got at the beginning,” said Maysoon Demaluji, a member of parliament from the mainly Sunni Iraqiya bloc.