Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The American Lens on Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite Relations

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

On Saturday, I woke up to a new day in Dearborn, an American city where the largest Iraqi community is based.

The chilly weather did not let me sleep as usual, forcing me to open my eyes at dawn to see through my bedroom window snow covering the street and pyramid-shaped rooftops of my neighbors’ houses. Everything was white, apart from a few footprints and big tire prints that looked like the ones left by a crazy driver.

It was the final day of a journalistic visit that I nervously began 10 days ago. I was previously worried that Dearborn-based Iraqis, who are mostly Shiite Arabs, might not welcome me as a Sunni Kurd.

The Arabs and Kurds share a long, bloody history that dates back to the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in early 1920s. This conflict continues until now, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad remain at loggerheads over oil-rich disputed territories in the north.

Since my trip coincided with a renewed wave of sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict, I was more worried about my Sunni identity than my Kurdish one. After Iraq’s Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant for a Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, the past 10 days saw two major attacks in Iraq’s south. Nearly 100 Shiite worshipers, including women and children, were killed. Some of the dead had cousins in Dearborn where funerals were held.

In the Detroit airport, I caught a ride with a Shiite driver. The first thing I asked him was whether the Shiite-Sunni problem existed among Iraqi-Americans.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Here, we live together, we marry each other and we celebrate together.”

His answer was like a happiness pill, giving me a feeling of confidence and bravery that I thought was realized by the driver.

Our first stop was at a restaurant where a Kurdish woman from Kirkuk was serving black tea and lentil soup to Shiite Arabs. Admittedly, I was very happy to see her. After speaking to her in Kurdish, I enjoyed my first Iraqi-style breakfast in the more than five months since I came to America.

At the restaurant, a television set was tuned to an Iraqi channel broadcasting news about Hashimi being given refuge in Kurdistan. The feeling I got here was not as good as the one I got from the driver. Just like the Iraqi Shiites, these middle-aged men were voicing concern about Hashimi and the Kurdish government.

“He’s a terrorist,” one guy said, referring to Hashimi.

The next person I met was Saeed Ghalib al-Yassiri, an Iraqi Shiite political activist who has been hosting a one-hour radio show for more than a decade. Aired live on Wednesday at 11:00 pm, it started as an opposition show against Saddam Hussein’s regime before the invasion and is now more dedicated to religious affairs.

Mr. Yassiri fled Iraq after the Shiite uprisings in southern Iraq were brutally quashed in 1991. First stayed in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia and was later given a refuge status in the United States, where his sole child, Mohammed, was born 9 years ago.

While a conservative and religious person, Mr. Yassiri didn’t exude any of the Shiite or Arab extremism that exist in many parts of Iraq. Instead, he invited me to his house every day, telling me how both the Shiites and Kurds were for decades victims of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator.

His son, Mohammed, goes to a religious school and prays five times a day. But he also knows much about America and speaks a fluent American English and Arabic. He has the latest version of Xbox, which we used to play soccer many times.

On the final day, each of us decided to choose our favorite soccer teams. I picked Argentina and lost two games to his team from America, a country that Mohammed says he never wants to leave permanently for Iraq.

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