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Long path to Iraq's sectarian split
by BBC (reposted)
Sunday Feb 26th, 2006 1:06 PM
For more 1,000 years, Iraq has served as a battleground for many of the events that have defined the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In more recent decades, the political and economic dominance of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and their persecution of the country's Shia majority have only served to stoke sectarian tensions.

The US-led invasion in 2003, in which the nominally secular Baath government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown, finally gave Iraq's Shias an opportunity to seek redress and end the imbalance of power.

Though sectarian tension has undoubtedly been a major catalyst of the violence that has plagued Iraq since the invasion, many argue that blaming sectarianism alone overstates the case.


Sunnis and Shias differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. It is the largest and oldest division in the history of Islam.

But the origins of the split lie in a dispute over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community when he died in 632.

One group of Muslims elected Abu Bakr as the next caliph (leader) of the community, but another group believed the prophet's son-in-law, Ali, was the rightful successor.

Though Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, his legitimacy was disputed and he was murdered in 661.

The Shiat Ali ("Party of Ali") refused to recognise the legitimacy of his chief opponent and successor, Muawiya.

Ali's sons Hassan and Hussein continued to oppose Muawiya's successor and fighting between the two sides resulted. Hassan was poisoned in 669 and Hussein was killed in battle near Karbala in 680.

Ali, Hassan and Hussein became the first of the 12 imams who Shia Muslims believe are the divinely-appointed leaders of the Muslim community.

The leadership by imams continued until 878, when the 12th Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, is said to have disappeared from a cave below a mosque in Samarra.

Not accepting that he died, Shias still await his return more than 1,100 years later. The Hidden Imam's arrival will, they believe, reverse their fortunes and herald the reign of divine justice.

Sunnis, as they became known, reject the principle of leadership by imams, and instead believe in the primacy of the Sunna - what the Prophet Muhammad said, did, agreed to or condemned.

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Sunnis are the majority sect in the Muslim world, but Shias today form as much as 60% of Iraq's population, whereas Sunnis make up 35%, split between ethnic Arabs and Kurds.

This demographic dominance has not, however, been translated into economic and political power. Instead, Sunni Arabs have traditionally formed Iraq's elite.