Feature: Iraq's sectarian split

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI Correspondent  |  Feb. 18, 2008 at 1:16 PM
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LITTLE BARAWANA, Iraq, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Despite the focus in the military surge and push against al-Qaida and its allies, the sectarian divide between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities remains a major concern and challenge for American soldiers.

The historical religious, political and economic fault line between the two groups that turned into a chasm after the fall of Saddam Hussein is not just confined to Baghdad and other major cities. Neither are remedies confined simply to the passing of reconciliation laws and establishing a more equitable demographic sharing of power and economic resources, although those actions are vital.

"The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources," Gen. David Petraeus, author of U.S. counter-insurgency strategy for Iraq, said in testimony before Congress last September. "This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more -- or less -- violently."

Under Saddam Hussein, the minority Sunnis dominated the government and benefited from his rule. Now the position of dominance has reversed.

At the core level, success or failure in reconciliation hinges on individuals in communities big and small trying to put aside distrust, grievances and blood-debts for the sake of peace and security.

The strategy, which features a "surge" in troops to push terrorists out of communities, community help in maintaining security and fostering new cooperation between locals and the Iraqi government, has bred a new type of U.S. soldier in Iraq -- a kinetic warrior who is also a diplomat, community relations worker, a dispute mediator, social service adviser and reconstruction facilitator.

In the Diyala River Valley village of Little Barawana one of those new soldiers recently surveyed his battlefield and then began to speak.

The days of "insurgents operating in Barawana are past," Lt. Col. Rod Coffey said to a gathering of Sunni and Shiite sheiks and leaders. "They (the terrorists) are now gone, but the people of both Barawanas suffered because of them.

"I ask you to help each other, not blame each other for the past.

"Together we can make sure the terrorists are gone and stay away," he said.

Coffey is commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which launched an offensive in early January against AQI in the "Bread Basket" area of the Diyala River Valley, about 70 miles northeast of Baghdad. Two years ago the region became a sanctuary for al-Qaida and its sometimes nationalist Sunni ally, Jaish Ansar al-Sunna.

His audience was 20 Shiite sheiks, mullahs and other officials from the village of Little Barawana and 20 of their Sunni counterparts from the neighboring village of Big Barawana, who sat on opposite sides of a concrete courtyard. The two groups had come together to sign a peace treaty at the urging of Coffey and officials in the provincial capital of Baqubah.

For two years the two villages of about 1,000 residents each had been at each other's throats. All roads and footpaths between the villages were blockaded, farmers with land exposed to the other side abandoned their farms. Shooting across the 300 meters of open -- but mined and booby-trapped -- ground separating the villages was regular.

The feud had started in 2006 when al-Qaida, whose members are nominally Sunni, blew up the Shiite Shrine of the Golden Mosque in the distant city of Samara, sparking sectarian violence nationwide. The Sunnis of Big Barawana, fearing attacks by Shiites, apparently saw AQI, which was moving into the area in force, as protection.

As in a classic John Ford Western, the protectors soon became the tyrants, a situation only ended by the U.S.-Iraqi offensive named Operation Raider Harvest.

Under terms of the agreement Coffey and Iraqi leaders presented in Little Barawana the two sides pledged to re-establish good relations; bar from their villages all terrorists, insurgents and anyone else who would harm the joint interests of the villages; and to report to the police or other security forces any arms or explosive caches.

They further agreed to exercise self-restraint in their dealings with each other -- especially in any incidents of shooting. All roads and pathways also would be reopened and efforts would be made to facilitate the return of villagers who fled their own homes.

The leaders, with help from the Baqubah Tribal Council, would meet regularly to thrash out problems, and U.S. and Iraqi authorities would monitor progress and act as mediators.

Coffey is hopeful for the Barawanas but also aware of special challenges. Little Barawana has some 21 Iraqi Police, nearly double allotted by the government, and many of the extras as suspected of being Shiite militia members.

After the signing of the agreement the Sunni and Shiite representatives began crossing the 25-foot physical divide at the school, kissing each other on the cheek and shaking hands. Soon animated conversations took place between old friends separated by blood-debts. But Coffey was grimfaced and spoke in hushed tones to the Tribal Council representative, a Shiite.

"I'm going to speak to the IP commander, but I want you to tell them also: 'I'm not fooling around. I will arrest them if I think they're trying to cause sectarian violence. That sort of thing will end as long as I'm commander here.'

"Some (of the Shiite IPs) are hotheads. You leaders have to get control of them or this agreement will unravel."

What sparked Coffey's ire was the way the Shiite IPs at the meeting interacted with the Sunni representatives -- grudgingly, with disdain if not outright hate in their eyes.

Earlier during the gathering a young Shiite, a friend of an IP who had somehow gained entry to the proceedings, was ejected after voicing hostile remarks towards the Sunni leaders.

"You don't understand the Iraqi system," an Iraqi who spoke English told a U.S. soldier who had thrown the intruder out. "If someone kills my brother -- say, a Baathist -- I will never forget that. And every time I see a Baathist, I'll think he's the one who did it."

Coffey, and soldiers up and down the chain of command in Iraq, understand it very well. When the Sunnis returned to Big Barawana, they did so riding in U.S. Stryker armored vehicles.

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