Iraq conflict is a battle for identity

Times Staff Writer

Persian script laces and flows across the walls of Najaf’s seminaries.

Shiite Muslim religious scholars in the ancient city’s turquoise-tiled edifices bury their noses in Koranic texts illustrated with Persian calligraphy, in scenes that evoke Mesopotamia’s rich history.

For centuries, Najaf has been a key shrine city and center of worship for much of Iraq’s people. But for centuries, Iraq’s Ottoman and Arab rulers rarely considered Najaf part of their own history. It was always considered a troublesome outpost of the enemy: Iran.

They were right, for the most part. Historically and culturally, Najaf has long been under Persia’s sway.


But so has much of Iraq.

The reading of the Koran in this country differs from the rest of the Muslim world: The rhythm and cadence of Sunnis are unique to Iraq and the Shiites’ are unique to Iran. Persian dishes such as fesenjan, a pomegranate stew, are a standard part of Mesopotamian fare. Even this nation’s capital carries a Persian name, Baghdad.

The sectarian nature of the war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq reflects a centuries-old battle between Persia and the Arab world.

It is a point often misunderstood by U.S. policymakers and ground commanders, who perceive the reemergence of Persian influence among Iraq’s newly powerful Shiite Muslim majority as proof of meddling by the regime in Tehran.

Rising Persian influence is a sign of Iraq’s ascendance, not Iran’s.

“Iraq has been part of the Persian sphere of influence for more than 400 years,” said Karar Dastour, an Iraqi Shiite intellectual who lives in southern Tehran and travels to Iraq. “But governments have always tried to crush anything that had the scent of Shiism or Iran. They were never accepted.”

Violent Sunni Arab rejection of Iraq’s Persian roots plays out daily on the streets of the capital. In February, three bombs went off in the Shorja market in central Baghdad, killing more than 70 people. It was the fifth time the place, whose name means “salty well” in Persian, was struck in less than a year. Shiite Muslims were the intended targets, but so too was a landmark established long ago by Iranian merchants.

When saboteurs blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra last year, an attack widely viewed as the accelerant of the current civil war, they destroyed the handiwork of Iranian artisans.


In their Internet postings, Sunni Arab insurgents, many of them officers during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, describe their attacks on Shiites as settling accounts with “Safavids,” a reference to the 16th century dynasty that embraced Shiite Islam as the official religion of Persia. Shiite Safavids and Sunni Ottomans fought for decades in a conflict that infused sectarianism into what had been a centuries-old ethnic and political conflict between Arabs and Persians.

“There has always been conflict between the Arabs and Iranians, and they always tried to involve Iraq,” Sheik Humam Hamoodi, an Iraqi Shiite politician and cleric who lived in Tehran during Saddam Hussein’s rule, said in an interview last year. “Both have wanted to use Iraq as the trench for their battles.”

Ignoring the protests of many Shiites, the British forces who forged modern-day Iraq after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire placed a Sunni Arab tribal leader at the country’s helm. They dismissed the quarrelsome Shiite clerics as Iranian-backed interlopers in their plans to create an Iraq dominated by Sunni Arabs.

Minority rule

Iraq’s 20th century leaders tried to graft a Sunni-dominated Arab identity onto a country that was majority Shiite. Even during the relatively benign years before Hussein’s rise in the late 1960s, Shiites visiting Sunni Arab towns such as Tikrit and Fallouja feared for their lives. Pilgrims visiting Samarra, which housed the famous Shiite shrine destroyed by Sunni insurgents last year, rushed to make it back to Baghdad by sundown.

The battle over Iraq’s identity accelerated under Hussein, who brutally suppressed what he saw as the non-Arab elements of his country’s character. Hussein equated Persians to “flies,” invaded Iran and subsequently killed tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, dubbing them Iranian collaborators.

Hussein banned ceremonies of Ashura, the annual festival-like holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, revered by Shiites as a saint. He ordered the desecration of Shiite shrines and the silencing and execution of the sect’s clerics, many of them of Persian descent or married into Persian families. Offices and banks were ordered to stay open on Nowruz, the Persian New Year that falls on the first day of spring and is celebrated by Iraqi Kurds as well as Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans.


“There was a sectarian dimension and there was an ethnic dimension to his hatred,” said Musayeb Naimi, editor of Al-Wifaq, a Tehran-based Arabic-language newspaper. Hussein’s downfall after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 ended the enforced separation between Iran and Iraq, much to the frustration and rage of Iraq’s long-dominant Sunni Arabs. Industrially incapacitated, Iraq must import electricity, foodstuffs, appliances and automobiles from Iran and other neighboring countries such as Turkey and Syria.

Persian cultural influences, long suppressed, have reemerged in the last four years. After Hussein’s ouster, Iranian and Iraqi Shiites embraced during mass commemorations of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, rites once banned under Baath Party rule.

Those rites have now become symbols of Shiite power. Sunni insurgents repeatedly attacked the pilgrims headed to Karbala last month, killing more than 200.

Persian has become common on the streets of Najaf and Karbala, as well as in Baghdad’s Convention Center, where the Iraqi parliament convenes. Colorful posters of imams Ali and Hussein, of the kind found in pious Iranian enclaves, appear more frequently in Iraqi markets and homes.

Young Iraqi women have begun wearing the same Grace Kelly-style head scarves and short overcoats favored by Iranians.

Motorcycles, popular among youths in Iran but banned during Hussein’s rule, traverse Baghdad streets, as do the heroin and opium that have become a habit for young Iranians.


Unease among Sunnis

To many Sunni Arabs, all those have been disturbing signs of a Persian ascendancy.

Brought up on a diet of Arab nationalist propaganda, Sunni Iraqis see their country’s drift into the Persian sphere of influence as foreign. At first Sunni insurgents attacked mostly U.S. troops, whom they saw as an occupation force. But as the Shiite-dominated government took hold in early 2005, the attacks took a sharply sectarian turn. Seconds before his execution, Hussein cursed both the Americans who overthrew him and the “Persians” who shouted populist Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s name as he stood on the gallows.

A bitter Jan. 2 television debate about Hussein’s legacy on the satellite channel Al Jazeera underscored the ethnic underpinnings of Sunni Arab rage against Iraq’s new Shiite order.

The debate pitted Mishaan Jaburi, a Sunni Arab politician, against Sadeq Moussawi, a Shiite journalist and supporter of the current government.

During the debate, which was posted on the Internet and rapidly became famous here, Jaburi waved sheets of white paper at Moussawi, screaming, “These are your documents! You are an Iranian citizen .... You are Persian.”

“Your father killed Kurds,” Moussawi snapped back.

“You are Iranian,” Jaburi reiterated. “These documents show that [you] applied for Iraqi citizenship in May 2004.”

Moussawi didn’t bother denying the accusation. “We will settle accounts with all of you,” he said instead.


Yet many of Iraq’s Persian-influenced citizens are neither loyal to nor fond of the government in Tehran. Many Shiites fought on Iraq’s side in the war against Iran. And most Iraqis who sought shelter in Iran during Hussein’s rule experienced hardship and bigotry. But culturally and politically, they cleave toward Iran instead of Washington’s preferred proxy powers -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Iraqi Shiites have some leaders, including the cleric Sadr, who are Arab nationalists. In the last year, however, many of them have strayed from the Arab world, angered that Arab countries have shunned Iraq’s newly crystallizing Shiite identity.

Persians and Shiism have become so intertwined that opposition to Tehran’s policies across the region has taken on a Sunni character. Ethnic Baluchi separatists in southeastern Iran fight under the banner of a Sunni Muslim group linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. And in a growing number of cases, Iran’s Shiite Arab separatists have converted to Sunni Islam.

Even as Sunnis fight Shiites, accusing them of being Iranians, Shiites have begun to whisper about the identity of Iraq’s Sunnis.

“The Sunnis of Iraq aren’t really Arabs,” one Iraqi Shiite diplomat said recently. “They’re Turks.”


Daragahi, The Times’ former Baghdad Bureau chief, first traveled to Iraq in September 2002. Times staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondents Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.