Dissent Of The Day III

A reader writes:

In your post "The Biggest Spin" you mention that we may be in "a lull before another hot phase of a civil war [between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq] that goes back centuries". While the current divide between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq is real, I think that stating that this conflict "goes back centuries" is misleading much in the way as Bill Clinton's characterising the 1990's conflicts in the Caucasus and Balkans as caused by "ancient hatreds".
Yes, Sunni and Shia factions have quarreled for centuries, especially in Iraq. The Shia Imam Husayn was himself killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680. And yes, southern Iraq has been an important center of Shiism since that time. However, many Iraqi Arabs are much more recent converts to Shiism, dating from the late Ottoman Period. Sunni and Shia traditions among Iraq's Arabs have much more to do with Iranian and Ottoman power politics and cultural influence than any deep-seated ancient hatreds. Shias have often identified firstly as Iraqi Arabs (even if Sunnis are slightly skeptical of their credentials), and have expressed their identity as such through a myriad of tribal loyalites and political ideologies, from Ba'athism to Communism to the parties that we see today. Furthermore, there is as much violent competition among Shia groups (such as the Badr brigades, Dawa, and the former SCIRI party) as between the Shia and Sunni. Imagining that the violence in Iraq centers on a society split primarily between Sunnis and Shia, locked in eternal combat, is just plain wrong. Worse, it's the kind of vision of Iraq that al-Qaeda espouses.
Iraq is a much more complicated place than that. Failing to realise this is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place.