Sectarian cleansing in Basra; Zarqawi wants more

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has decared a state of emergency in Basra, where battles are raging both between Shi’ite and Sunni militias, as well as among rival Shi’ite militias. Nearly 140, mostly Sunnis but also Shi’ites and members of the security forces, were killed in Basra in May. (Boston Globe, June 1) The vying Shi’ite factions include not only the Sadr and Badr militias, but the regionally powerful Fadilah movement. (CSM, June 2) Fadilah is apparently a schism from Moktada al-Sadr’s mainline Sadr movement. It is led by Najaf-based Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi, and appears to be even more hardline. (Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Sept. 24, 2005) Amid widespread attacks and forced expulsions, the proportion of Sunnis in Basra has declined from 40% to 15% since the fall of Saddam, according to the official Sunni Endowment in Southern Iraq. (Al-Jazeera, June 1)

Meanwhile, in his latest communique, al-Zarqawi openly states his intention to spread the sectarian war throughout the Islamic world. We especially love his claim that Hezbollah is a secret pawn of Israel. From AP, June 2:

CAIRO – The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq railed against Shi’ite Muslims in a four-hour-long audiotape harangue posted on the Web on Friday, saying that militias are raping women and killing Sunnis and that the community must ignore calls for reconciliation and fight.

He also accused the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah of working to protect Israel from Lebanon-based Palestinian guerrillas.

The tape by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appeared aimed at sabotaging the Iraqi government’s efforts to finish off a unity government – but was also intended to go beyond Iraq’s borders and enflame already rising Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Arab world.

“There’s a civil war going on in Iraq, but it will not become truly fierce until it’s exported outside Iraq. This tape is trying to do just that,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi political commentator.

Al-Zarqawi’s Sunni insurgent followers have carried out some of the bloodiest suicide bombings in Iraq’s conflict and have frequently targeted Shi’ite civilians and mosques in an attempt to spark civil war. In his statements, the Jordanian-born militant often vilifies Shiites as infidels.

But Friday’s tape was an unprecedented screed that over four hours chronicled what al-Zarqawi said was the Shi’ites’ campaign throughout history to destroy Islam and help foreign invaders of Muslim lands.

“Sunnis, wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shi’ite snakes,” al-Zarqawi said. “Forget about those advocating the end of sectariansim and calling for national unity.”

He pointed to two Shi’ite militias with links to parties in the current Shiite-dominated Iraqi government accused by Sunnis in Iraq of running death squads in a wave of sectarian violence the past months.

“They kill men and arrest women, put them in prison and rape them and steal everything from the houses of the Sunnis,” he said.

A written statement said Friday’s audiotape was made two months ago. The tape’s authenticity could not be independently confirmed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said al-Zarqawi expressed “a futile brutality, depraved mentally and morally.”

“I believe the Iraqi people won’t listen to such miserable words,” he told a press conference in Baghdad. “Reconciliation is the hope for all Iraqis, and all Iraqis welcome it.”

Al-Maliki has put together a government of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds that U.S. and Iraqi officials hope will be able to ease spiraling sectarian violence in the country. But al-Maliki has struggled to get the parties to agree on key security posts that would lead any effort to bring stability – the interior and defense ministries.

He said Thursday he intends to announce names for the posts even without an agreement between his government partners in an attempt to force a resolution to the continuing differences.

Al-Zarqawi appeared to be aiming at a wider audience, seeking to rally Sunni radicals by tapping into mistrust of Shi’ites and non-Arab Shi’ite Iran.

He denounced Shi’ites across the Middle East, saying they were “the same as Jews, with secret meetings” loyal to a “mother country” – Israel for the Jews, Iran for the Shi’ites.

He called the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah the “enemy of Sunnis” and accused it of working to protect Israel from Lebanon-based Palestinian guerrillas.

Hezbollah gained widespread popularity among both Sunnis and Shi’ites for its fight against Israel. But its support at home has waned amid resentment by anti-Syrian Lebanese for its alliance with Damascus and Tehran.

The head of south Lebanon’s Shi’ite religious scholars, Sheik Afif al-Naboulsi, said the militant leader was seeking to “incite sectarian sentiments” and “name himself the leader of the Sunnis.”

The conflict in Iraq has reopened the long dormant fault lines between the two communities across the Arab world, where Sunnis form the vast majority.

Sunni-led governments have shown increasing fear of restiveness among their Shi’ite populations. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak enraged Shi’ites earlier this year when he said they were more loyal to Iran than their own countries, and Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned of a “Shiite crescent” of power.

It was al-Zarqawi’s first message since an April 29 that seemed directly aimed at creating a hero’s image of himself in the eyes of extremists after a wave of criticism over Muslim civilian deaths in some of his attacks – particularly a triple hotel bombing in Amman in November that killed 63 people.

The video was the first to show his face and had dramatic images of him firing a machine gun in the desert and consulting with mujahedeen leaders, apparently to emphasize his control.

See our last post on Iraq.