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'We Are One Hand' Sunnis, Shi'ites Uniting Against US in Iraq
The U.S. attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah has awakened a newly militant nationalism among Shiites now eager to fight occupation forces, based on Muslim religious identity and feelings of Arab nationalism.
News Feature, Annia Ciezaldo,
Pacific News Service, Apr 20, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq--Hussein Subhi, 22, just got back from Fallujah. Polite and soft-spoken, he is still awed at the memory of a 10-year-old boy with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a rocket launcher in the other, fighting an American tank.
"He was only 10," Subhi says, "but he was a man."
Subhi is from Hurriya, a Shiite slum with a sizeable Sunni minority. Mountains of rotting garbage choke the alleys where children play. Sewage still floods many streets, a testament to both Saddam-era neglect and the failures of the American-led reconstruction effort. Neighborhoods like this bore the brunt of Saddam Hussein's anti-Shiite policies. Yet people here are rallying to Fallujah, a city full of former members of Saddam's Mukhabarat and Republican Guard, both of which joined in the brutal suppression of Shiites under the Baath regime.
"They were counting on a Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq, but we are one hand," Subhi says. "We will be victorious, God willing."
The American attack on Fallujah has awakened a newly militant nationalism among Shiites, now eager to fight the U.S.-led occupation, based on Muslim religious identity and feelings of Arab nationalism.
"Don't underestimate nationalism," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "And don't exaggerate Shiite-Sunni differences, but remember that they are both Arabs. There is no religion called Shiism and no religion called Sunnism. They are both Muslims."
Subhi went with a convoy of 22 young men, driving six trucks and four cars full of donations. None had ever been to Fallujah -- ordinarily about an hour's drive away -- in their lives. Subhi wanted to join the Fallujans in fighting American forces.
Once-friendly Shiite neighborhoods here now blame the American-led occupation government for failing to bring back electricity, clean water and jobs. "From the beginning, we supported the liberation of Iraq by Americans," says an unemployed market porter from the Shiite slum of Sadr City who chose to give his name as Abu Ali, father of the Shiite martyr Ali. Ali was disappointed, then angry he could find no job in Iraq's new, Shiite-friendly government.
"Bremer, at the beginning, was a brother," says Ali, leaning against a sack of grain in Sadr City's Jamila Wholesale Market. "But now he is worse than Saddam. Saddam said about us that we are a mob. And Bremer said the same thing -- he said that we are criminals."
Ali was reacting to U.S. authorities' arrest warrant against Moqtada Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has been battling coalition forces ever since the U.S. Army padlocked his newspaper on March 28. Like many moderate Shiites, Ali is not a follower of Sadr, but he supports Sadr's opposition to American forces.
"The contacts between Moqtada Sadr and the Fallujah resistance are not as significant as the sympathy between the Shiites and the people of Fallujah," says Adnan al-Janabi, sheikh of the powerful Janabi tribe, which like many large Iraqi tribes contains both Shiite and Sunni members. "And if it moves beyond sympathy -- if the Americans continue to make more mistakes, for example if they attack Najaf -- probably they will create a real organization between the Shiites of Najaf and the Sunnis."
Sadr has capitalized on the nationalist feelings aroused by the attack on Fallujah. "America was fighting what it called the Sunni Triangle, so that it wouldn't receive help from its Shiite brothers in other areas," reads one flyer circulating in Shiite neighborhoods. "But Arab identity, and feelings of religious and nationalist responsibility, filled Sayyid Moqtada Sadr and his righteous fellow clerics to the core."
Nevertheless, in Shiite slums, it is Fallujah, more than Sadr himself, which is the rallying cry. "This is for Fallujah," says Ali Sa'addoun Abadi, picking up a packet of cotton pads from a pile heaped on the floor of his tiny storefront on busy Hurriya Street. "They are Iraqis -- there is no difference between Shiites and Sunnis. We are fighting the Americans."
According to Abadi, about 200 people donated a total of roughly 1 million Iraqi dinars -- about $700, in increments of about $3.50 each. "Donations from the people of Street 39 to the mujahideen," reads one packet of grubby bills in small denominations.
U.S. military commanders have claimed that some 700 Iraqis killed in Fallujah were Sunni "insurgents." Arab satellite channels have been beaming footage of dead and injured women and children since the conflict began.
Fallujah's refugees are pouring into Baghdad, bringing tales of carnage. "I saw it with my own eyes: they shelled all of Fallujah," says Subhi, collapsing into an armchair, exhausted after his return journey. He and other from his neighborhood brought about 400 refugees back with them. "Stores, houses -- they shelled indiscriminately."
After they distributed the donations, passing out medicine and food, Subhi and the other young men went to the mujahideen and asked if they could join the fight against American troops. The Fallujans turned them down. "They said we were their guests," says Subhi. "They told us they had enough fighters to achieve victory."
PNS contributor Annia Ciezadlo is a Beirut-based freelance writer who reports frequently from Iraq.