[OUTLOOK]Avoiding a Sunni-Shiite alliance

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[OUTLOOK]Avoiding a Sunni-Shiite alliance

As the bloody clashes between the Shiites, the largest Muslim community in Iraq, and the coalition forces become more violent, all of Iraq runs the risk of being turned into a battlefield. Before April 9, the first anniversary of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, there were warnings that the Shiite militiamen would attempt to launch simultaneous all-out attacks against the coalition troops nationwide.
The Shiites, who had taken a friendly attitude toward the American forces, suddenly became anti-American resistance forces. They also revealed their intention to create a united front with the Sunnis, who had been opposed to the American occupation for the past year. Therefore, the situation in Iraq is totally in a fog. If the Sunnis and Shiites, which had had hostile relations, cooperate to form anti-American resistance forces, the U. S. strategy in Iraq will fall into confusion.
Muslim forces in Iraq are largely divided into three groups. One is the Sunnis, who took the initiative under the Saddam Hussein regime; another is the moderate Shiites, who are cooperating with the allied forces, including the U.S. troops; and the third is the radical Shiites, who see the U.S. troops as occupation forces.
During the reign of Saddam Hussein, who favored the Sunnis, the moderate and radical Shiites actively cooperated with each other to oppose the regime. But, after his fall, they have been engage in a conflict to seize power. The anti-American resistance of the radical Shiites is led by Moqtada al-Sadr.
Mr. Sadr has been unhappy with Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the moderate Shiites who had adhered to a passive position under Saddam Hussein’s rule. Mr. Sadr’s followers demanded that he be approved as the “marja,” or cleric of the highest rank among the Shiites, immediately after the removal of Saddam Hussein. In this process, the discords between the moderate Shiites led by Mr. al-Sistani and the radical Shiites reached their peak.
Moreover, since the radical Shiite leader declared jihad, or holy war, to drive out American forces, which viewed him as a dangerous figure, the situation in Iraq could plunge into a civil war sooner or later. Mr. Sadr had already announced that he was ready to die to expel the U.S. troops and that “all Iraqi people should keep their rights by all means.”
After Mr. Sadr declared holy war against the United States, the Mahdi militia, which has led the fighting, has attacked the coalition forces, including the U. S. troops, in the major Shiite cities, adopting “hit and run” guerrilla warfare. Armed with rifles and heavy weapons plundered from arsenals during the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Mahdi army is leading the resistance.
It is questionable whether the United States can easily settle the situation even if it says that it will dispatch additional troops to Iraq to do so. Although the U.S. troops possess state-of-the-art weapons, the Mahdi army is armed with religious zeal and is not afraid of death. So, the militia is more likely to overcome any advanced weapons.
The United States should first of all attempt to negotiate in order to prevent Mr. Sadr from approaching and cooperating with the Sunnis. If the radical Shiites, who use guerrilla tactics, cooperate with the Sunnis, the United States would hardly be able to escape the quagmire. The United States should carry out a negotiating strategy by highlighting the fact that the Mahdi army had maintained friendly relations with the American-led local commanders after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government.
Because there are many lower-class people among the radical Shiites who suffered from economic difficulties under Saddam Hussein’s rule, they are dissatisfied with reality and easily led to fighting. Also, when outsiders, American troops, did not acknowledge those who were friendly at an earlier period, they thought it was a blow to their pride.
They still have the tradition of thinking that hurt pride means lost honor, and that this is a disgrace to them and they are already like dead men. It is their custom to risk their lives to take revenge on those who bring disgrace to their honor. This is why they can carry out suicide bombings, in which humans are turned into bombs. A person whose honor is injured is already a dead man, even if he is alive. The United States should know that radical Shiite Muslims can conduct suicide bombing attacks at any time. This tradition applies indiscriminately to both natives and foreigners.
This is why the United States should avoid its superimposing attitude and pursue an efficient negotiating strategy according to the interest of different religious groups, while emphasizing its war on terrorism. And this is what Korea, with its impending troop dispatch, should also keep in mind.

* The writer is a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Dae-sung
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