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Dunsmore: Back To Iraq

The split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites took place in the 7th century, over who would succeed the prophet Mohammed. The Shias believed it should be Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. The Sunnis argued it should be a consensus choice of Mohammed’s close associates. The Sunnis won after much bloodshed and the conflict continues to this day.

With the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century when most Muslims fell under Turkish rule, the split existed but it was not paramount in that vast polyglot of cultures, religions and ethnicities that made up the Empire.

The Ottomans were big losers in WWI and at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1920, their empire was dismembered. This resulted in the creation of several, artificial states that bore little relationship to historic tribal and ethnic boundaries. Trans-Jordan, Greater Syria, and Iraq came into being - ruled by Arab kings and princes appointed by the British and French. They were dictators who did not tolerate destabilizing religious disputes.

That situation prevailed through World War II when the importance of oil had become a major factor in Middle East politics. During the Cold War, the U.S and the USSR each latched on to "client” states.

US clients were urged, above all, to maintain stability. Human rights and democracy were barely if ever mentioned. The oil must continue to flow. Israel must be safe.

Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when a pro western absolute monarchy was overthrown by an anti-western, authoritarian theocracy. Significantly, in a region long dominated by Sunni Muslims, major power Iran would be ruled by Shiites - the minority, downtrodden sect of Islam.

In 2003 the United States, oblivious to such sectarian divides, invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein - a Sunni but mostly secular dictator. The American presence empowered the majority Shiites in Iraq, now aligned with neighboring Shiites in Iran. They began to settle old sectarian scores - which Iraqi Sunnis violently resisted. In Iraq today, the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains unwilling to share power with Sunnis and Kurds which is the key reason for the immediate crisis.

In 2011 the Arab spring and the democratic movements that came with it, began to agitate for an end to autocratic rule in places such as Egypt, Libya and Syria. Those revolutions failed to produce democracies. But they blew off the secular lid which had long suppressed wide-spread religious conflict. The grand battle lines was drawn, with Iran leading the Shias and Saudi Arabia, the Sunnis.

If the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds of Iraq could agree to share power, Iraq could yet be saved and greater conflict averted. If not, Sunni extremists under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, may succeed in their quest to punish the Western “infidels” and their Muslim collaborators, while creating their own medieval Islamic state. That will pose a serious threat to the region, and quite possibly to America as well.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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