Shiites in Iraq Show Restraint as Sunnis Keep Attacking
BAGHDAD — Shiite clerics and politicians have been successfully urging their followers not to retaliate against a fierce campaign of sectarian bombings, in which Shiites have accounted for most of the 566 Iraqis killed since American troops pulled out of Iraq’s cities on June 30.
“Let them kill us,” said Sheik Khudair al-Allawi, the imam of a mosque bombed recently. “It’s a waste of their time. The sectarian card is an old card and no one is going to play it anymore. We know what they want, and we’ll just be patient. But they will all go to hell.”
The patience of the Shiites today is in extraordinary contrast to Iraq’s recent past. With a demographic majority of 60 percent and control of the government, power is theirs for the first time in a thousand years. Going back to sectarian war is, as both Sunni extremists and Shiite victims know, the one way they could lose all that, especially if they were to drag their Sunni Arab neighbors into a messy regional conflict.
It is a far cry from 2006, when a bomb set off at the sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra killed no one, but ignited a fury at the sacrilege that set off two years of sectarian warfare.
This year the equally important shrine of Kadhimiya in Baghdad, the tomb of two revered Shiite imams, was attacked by suicide bombers twice, in January and April. More than a hundred people were killed, but there was no retaliation.
Bombing Shiite mosques has become so common that Sunni extremists have been forced to look elsewhere to provoke outrage — much as they did in 2005, when Shiites similarly showed patience when attacked. They have attacked groups of Shiite refugees waiting for food rations, children gathering for handouts of candy, lines of unemployed men hoping for a day’s work, school buses, religious pilgrimages, weddings, marketplaces and hospitals in Shiite areas and even the funerals of their victims from the day before.
Iraq’s Shiites, counseled by their political and religious leaders and habituated to suffering by centuries as the region’s underclass, have refused to rise to the bait — for now. Instead, they have made a virtue of forbearance and have convinced their followers that they win by not responding with violence. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has brought once violent Shiite militiamen into the fold, while the Shiites’ spiritual leader, Grand AyatollahAli al-Sistani, has forbidden any sort of violent reprisals.
“I wouldn’t look for this to become a repeat of 2006,” said the American ambassador to Iraq, Christopher R. Hill. “It’s very different.”
No longer are there tit-for-tat bombings of Sunni mosques after Shiite mosques are hit.
Now, even some of the most violent of Shiite extremists of past years are clamoring to join the political process. Last week, the Maliki government announced that Asa’ib al-Haq, one of the so-called special groups that continued to fight after other Shiites had stopped in 2008, now had renounced violence against Iraqis.
To some extent, the recent attacks against Shiites were expected, as many Iraqis braced for a general increase in violence after the American military withdrawal from towns and cities on June 30. On Monday, several bombs went off around Baghdad, and two huge truck bombs destroyed an entire village of Shiites from the Shabak minority near Mosul, in the north.
Ten days earlier, five mosques were bombed during Friday Prayer in poor areas around Baghdad, where followers of the anti-American cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, are numerous. In the bloodiest attack, at the Shoroufi mosque in the Shaab area, a car bomb hit an outdoor prayer area, killing 41 of Mr. Sadr’s followers.
More mosque bombings followed during Friday Prayer last week, and on Tuesday night, at least eight people were killed in twin bombings at a cafe and a mosque in the predominantly Shiite Al Amin area of the capital.
Sheik Allawi, the imam at Al Shoroufi, recounted the lesson another preacher gave a week after the bombing there. “He reminded them of Imam Hussein and drew a connection between his suffering and the Shoroufi bombing,” he said. “Blood will spill on the ground until the Mahdi shows up.”
Shiite Islam is all about patience and the long view, waiting for the hidden 12th imam, the Mahdi, to return and redeem the faith’s followers. And it is also about enduring suffering, as illustrated by the annual and always passionate commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the seventh-century Shiite saint, when many flagellate themselves in bloody displays of regret.
Anger after such bombings is common, but now it is more likely to be directed against failures by Iraqi security forces, not against Sunnis.
In 2006, people had little confidence in the security forces to protect them, so they turned to the militias instead. “The Iraqi Army is not the one people worried about three years ago,” said Ambassador Hill. “They were considered part of the problem a few years ago; now it’s an army that is broadly understood not to be engaged in sectarian violence.”
Militias got a bad name during that period, even among the people they were supposed to protect. Many were blamed for extorting money from their neighborhoods and carrying out kidnappings for profit. “The time of the militias is over and they will not come back,” said Sheik Abdullah al-Shimary, leader of the Shiite Al Shimer tribe in Diyala. “There are security forces now, and they are the ones who have the responsibility to control our areas.”
Another important factor is the influence the Shiite clerical leadership has over its followers, with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and other members of the howza, the top religious leadership, condemning any sort of violent reprisals.
“Sayid Moktada al-Sadr has told us in his instructions that we have to follow the orders of the howza,” said Sheik Jalil al-Sarkhey, the deputy head of the Sadr office in Sadr City, the huge Shiite slum in Baghdad. “We are all agreed; there will be no spilling of Iraqi blood.”
Another important difference has been the rejection by Sunni politicians of attacks on the Shiites, which was rarely heard in 2006. “The Sunnis openly and clearly are condemning these attacks,” said Ghassan al-Atiyyah, a political analyst who directs the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development. “And they’re all emphasizing that this is trying to stir up sectarian violence.”
Majid al-Asadi, a cleric in Najaf, said, “We will not react against these efforts to ignite sectarian conflict because that is exactly what our enemies want and not what our Iraqi people want.”
Still, some Shiite leaders warn that their patience will not be infinite. “As human beings, every person has his limits,” Sheik Sarkhey said. “So we ask God to protect us from any sectarian war.”