Sunni vs Shia: the real bloody battle for Baghdad

A teenage boy was arrested recently for the attempted rape of a girl his own age in a school in west Baghdad. He admitted he had chosen the particular girl as his victim "because I knew she was a Sunni and nobody would protect her". The boy was mistaken in his belief that he was beyond the law, mainly because the girl's uncle was a senior officer in the army. But his words explain why Iraq's Sunni minority feel so vulnerable since they lost power to the Shia majority when Saddam Hussein was overthrown five years ago.

Reconciliation between Sunni and Shia, seen by the US as essential for political progress in Iraq, is not happening. The difficulty in introducing measures to conciliate members of the old regime is illustrated by the way in which a new law, originally designed to ease the path of former Baath party members into government jobs will, in practice, intensify the purge against them.

The framers of the law wanted Baathists to be able to get their jobs back in the Iraqi military, security services and elsewhere. But the Iraqi parliament has a Shia majority, and the legislation signed into law last Sunday will make it more difficult for the former Baathists to work for the government.

Under the terms of the law, Ahmad Chalabi, the chairman of de-Baathification commission, said 7,000 senior Iraqi security personnel will be fired. "The law flatly mandates that all people who were in security such as the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, general security or military intelligence must go." The new measure will effectively strip the Iraqi army, security and intelligence organisations of their senior officers.

Mr Chalabi believes it has been unfairly pilloried as a wholesale attack on anybody connected to the old regime. "The Baath party had 1,200,000 members of whom only 38,000 were subject to de-Baathification," he says. "Of these, 15,600 applied for exemptions [allowing them to take government jobs] and only 300 were turned down."

The provisions of the new law are not the only difficulties facing Baathists or Sunni who work for the government or want to. It is often physically dangerous for them to work in ministries, such as the oil ministry, in overwhelmingly Shia parts of the capital.

Some ministries, such as the Health Ministry, were controlled for long by the party of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The ministry's guards were all Mehdi Army militia from Sadr City and Sunni believed the cellars of the ministry had been converted to torture chambers.

A reason why there is such intense competition to control the government in Baghdad is that it is a giant patronage machine funded by oil revenues. The state has four million employees or people on pensions, Mr Chalabi says, about twice the number employed by the government under Saddam Hussein. Aside from government jobs, there are very few employment opportunities in Iraq.

Discrimination against Sunni is not just confined to ministries. Since the savage battles between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad in 2006 Sunni have often been unable to go to work. One Sunni maintenance engineer in the non-functioning railway station was told by Shia militiamen to leave or be killed. A friendly Sunni co-worker collected his salary for several months until the militiamen told him to stop or be killed himself.

There was always going to be friction between Sunni and Shia in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But what turned sectarian tension into a bloodbath were the massive al-Qa'ida suicide bombs, often a ton of explosive in a vehicle, detonated in crowded Shia markets and religious gatherings. Though the Shia were patient for two years, they struck back massively after the destruction of the Shia shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006.

It is the outcome of this battle for Baghdad which still determines the political landscape of Iraq and makes reconciliation between the communities so difficult. The struggle for the capital was won by the Shia, who now control at least three-quarters of it.

Pressured by al-Qa'ida and the Shia, many anti-US Sunni guerrillas switched sides, seeking US protection, but they intend to renew the battle for Baghdad whenever they think they can win it.

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