From The Editor's Desk
Commentary By Howard Schwach
It is not often that you read a cartoon that hits the bull's-eye quite so well as last Sunday's "Doonesbury" cartoon by Gary Trudeau.
I can't reprint the cartoon, even to comment on it, but suffice it to say that an American soldier and his Iraqi counterpart are riding in a Humvee, going to raid an insurgent safe house.
The dialogue goes like this:
American soldier (AS): Okay, that's the safe house - the big, white building at the end of the street.
Iraqi Policeman (IP): I know the house. The owner is Sunni scum.
AP: Oh, yeah. Well, intel wants us to capture the guy alive.
IP: That will not be possible. I am sworn to vengeance.
AP: Why? What did he ever do to you?
IP: A member of his family killed a member of mine!
AP: What? When did that happen?
AP: What's the matter with you people?
And therein lies the tale. In Iraq, we are dealing with a war that goes back not five years, but more than six centuries.
And, that is no comic detail.
We are not dealing simply with problems of an insurgent group trying to take over a sovereign nation. We are dealing with three separate religious and ethnic groups who have been killing each other for several centuries and who were shoehorned into one nation not because they wanted to be together, but because the geopolitical leaders of the world thought that it would be a good idea.
That polyglot nation - made up of Sunnis, Shia and Kurd - was held together in modern times only by the manic, murderous rule of Saddam Hussein. Now, all bets are off.
Now, you're going to tell me that everything should be all right because they are all Muslims.
Like any other religion, there are Muslims and then there are Muslims, just as there are Christians and there are Christians.
The Prophet Mohammed founded the Islam religion in 622, but things went rapidly downhill after his death.
The Sunnis believe that the first four Caliphs - Mohammed's successors - rightfully took his place as Muslim leaders. They recognize the heirs of those Caliphs as the legitimate religious leaders. Those heirs ruled until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.
The Shia, on the other hand, believe that only the heirs of the fourth Caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. In 931, the Twelfth Imam disappeared, the seminal event in the history of Shiite Muslims.
There are other differences as well. One major difference deals with the Mahdi, "the rightly-guided one" whose role it is to bring a just global caliphate into being.
The Shiites believe that he has already been on Earth, and is hiding, but will return, while the Sunnis believe that he has yet to arrive on horseback to rescue the faithful.
The Sunnis number about 800 million. They believe in the oral traditions and interpretations of the Koran after Mohammed died and hold that they are the true followers of the faith. Until 1959, they refused to even recognize the Shiites as true Muslims.
The Shiites, who number about 100 million, are often more orthodox and militant.
Saudi Arabia has developed a third, extremely harsh, derivation of Islam called Wahhabism, which is the driving force behind most of today's terrorism.
How does the split break down in terms of nations and movements?
Al-Qaeda is Sunni, as are Fatah, Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
Hezbollah and the Mehdi Army Militia (MAM) are Shiite.
Iran, Lebanon, Oman, Yemen and Iraq are considered to be Shiite nations.
Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey are considered to be Sunni nations.
Then, we have the Kurds, who are Muslim, but not Arab.
Confused? Think about how they feel!
What this split means in real terms, not only in Iraq, but in other parts of the Middle East, can be seen in Lebanon.
For months, that nation has tottered on the brink of chaos. Hezbollah and its allies are demanding that the American-backed government submit to a new national government of unity that would put the nation under the control of the Shiite community.
Dozens of Muslims have been killed in the violence and hundreds more maimed and wounded.
During its fifteen-year Civil War, the battle was mostly between the nation's Christian minority and the Muslim majority.
Today, two decades later, the battle is between Shiites and Sunnis. That split draws daily on the power of two major sponsors of the war - Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.
Both of those ultra-powerful nations use their Lebanese brethren as surrogates in their own religious war.
The rift goes so deep and is so powerful that when Israel invaded Lebanon to war against Hezbollah, who had kidnapped some Israeli soldiers and were lobbing missiles into the Jewish nation, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan moved quickly to condemn the Shiite group.
The government of Lebanon is structured in such as way so that only a Sunni can be prime minister, only a Christian can be the President and only a Shiite can be the speaker of the Parliament. Talk about a religion-based government.
In any case, lots of American men and women are being killed and maimed to bring democracy to a nation that is not even a nation and does not want democracy, but rather a religious theocracy where the mullahs make and enforce the rules based on the Koran and Muslim beliefs.
Which beliefs - Sunni, Shiite, Kurd? The Kurds, who hold the northern third of the nation and most of the oil revenues, are already acting as if they are an independent nation, with their own flag and government. Perhaps that is the solution.
That is what our soldiers and marines are fighting and dying for. The question of which caliph trumps which other caliph as a Moslem leader. They should not be dying for such a foolish and abstract idea, especially since they have no dog in the hunt.
There will never be a true democracy in Iraq despite what the president and vice president spout each day. A nation that does not want a democratic society, that wants a Moslem theocracy (of their own secular type, of course) will never accept the democratic rule of somebody who belongs to another sect. That seems clear to everybody with the exception of our elected national leaders.
What should America do now, in the face of that truth?
Bush and his minions would say that the truth is a lie -- that America is winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, all of whom want a free and democratic government.
The facts show, however, that the Bush government is dilusional. There is no united Iraq. There are only factions based on religion more interested in destroying each other and proving that they are the "true believers" than in forging a stable government.
Iraq should be divided into three sovereign nations, one for Suni, one for Shia and the last for Kurds. Baghdad should be declared an open city, sort of like Berlin was in the days after World War II, a city with the sembelance of a unified government for the three independent nations.
Pull out our soldiers. Let the Iraqis settle their own religious war, a war that started centuries ago and is based not on nationalism or on ethnic divisions, but on religion.
You say that it might end in a bloodbath and a secular civil war? What do you think that you have now? As the gambler one famously said, "You got to know when to hold, know when to fold it, know when to walk away, know when to run."
It is time to run.