Beyond the innumerable expressions of defiance at the loss to the insurgents of Fallujah, some expressions of pessimism have crept into jihadist forums – always a useful barometer of mujahideen morale. The fall of the city is of great significance “since it was considered the citadel of the Sunnis who were counting on its persistence as a military force to support their political policy and guarantee them against marginalization,” as one thoughtful contributor to the alsakifah.org forum put it. However, he went on to note what he felt was the more ominous development, “the beginning of the empowerment of the Shiites.”
The search for scapegoats has received a boost, and it is taking the form of exacerbated sectarian tension. The leader of the Salafi Movement in Iraq, Sheikh Mahdi As-Sumaida’i, in a November 11 interview to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, (https://www.alhayat.com), openly accused Shiite forces of “seeking and inciting the option of war against Fallujah and other Sunni areas”, and called upon the Shiite ‘ulema (scholars) and hawza (Central authority) to issue a fatwa banning the participation of Shiite soldiers in the fighting.
The fact that there were Shiite Iraqis at all in the ranks of the National Guard fighting in collaboration with the coalition forces has been a point of considerable tension. On November 19 Mufakkirat al-Islam (https://www.islammemo.cc/news) reported with outrage the sight of the black flags of the Shi’a Hawza in Fallujah, and the presence of National Guard bearing “an image of what the Shiites call ‘Imam Ali’ and ‘Imam al-Husayn’ (the two major religious figures in Shi‘i Islam). Some of the pictures bear the inscription, “With the blessings of our Master Ali we are entering Fallujah!” There followed reports of “massacres of unarmed civilians … the mutilation of corpses” and the conclusion that the Shiite soldiers were “motivated by sectarian hatred fed by declarations and fatwas from the religious figures of the Shi’a Hawza at Najaf.” The reported ‘silence’ of the supreme Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali as-Sistani, on events in Fallujah have fed Sunni convictions of a conspiracy against the community, a sentiment shared by nationalist authors outside the country. On November 22 Osama Saraya commented in the Cairo daily al-Ahram (https://www.ahram.org.eg): “The suspicious silence and double standards of the [Iraqi Shiite] religious marja’iyyahs … have raised many doubts” which led him to deduce that “the U.S. occupation is now trying to plant the seeds of sedition between the Arabs and the Iranians who have immigrated to Iraq under Shiite pretenses.”
Adding fuel to this are the planned elections. The influential Sunni Muslim Clerics Association ordered a boycott of the vote but the most menacing opposition was voiced by the extremist Jaysh Ansar al-Sunnah. On November 18 the group posted on the jihadist Al-Ma’sada forum (https://www.alm2sda.net) its objections to the concept of democracy and warned against “attending election centers, since they constitute places of Infidelity against Almighty God. And we warn everyone that allows himself to be seduced into putting himself up as a candidate for these elections, that by so doing he wishes to be an apostate infidel … We declare to all that the mujahideen will be attacking the election centers forcefully.”
Conversely, the overwhelming support from the Shi’a communities for the elections highlights the developing gulf between the communities. The major Shi’a parties (including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Da’awa, and even representatives of the renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr) denounced efforts to delay the vote from its January 30 date. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani actually issued a fatwa saying that it was the religious duty of the Shia community to participate. For weeks al-Sistani has been the subject of unflattering comment on the jihadi forums, but this position pushed Sunni sentiment over the edge, exemplified by the posting on a Saudi-based extremist website, Muntadiat al-Qimma, quoted in detail by the Shiite web news magazine Shabkat Karbala lil-Anba (https://www.karbalanews.net). It apparently called for the assassination of al-Sistani and accompanied the call with a portrait of the Shiite leader on which were superimposed the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. The extremist author then openly declared the Shiites “more worthy of death than the Crusaders” and quoted, as justification, a Hadith by which the Prophet Muhammad is to have said: “There shall come a people called ‘al-Rafida’ [deserters; often used as a derogatory term for Shiites]; if you meet them, kill them for they are polytheists”.
The most graphic manifestation of this position is what Iraqis term the ‘Muthallath al-Mawt’ the ‘Triangle of Death’, an area lying between Baghdad and the Shi’a centers to the south, and bounded by the cities of Yusufiyyah to the northwest, Iskandariyya to the south and Mahmudiyya to the east. Here, alongside Americans and members of the Iraqi security services, Shiites as such, especially since the end of Ramadan, are finding themselves targeted for killing. The karbalanews.net site ran a feature outlining the dangers of the zone, noting the inscription on walls at the entrance to the most perilous town in the Triangle, Latifiyyah: “Be a Sunni and then you won’t have to fear the Opels” (referring to the make of cars used in the bombings). Across the city, the report continues, notices have appeared saying that the rebels are offering bounties of between one to two thousand dollars for the killing of police and members of the National Guard. Other accounts speak of one thousand dollars for the death of Shiites, pure and simple. The hatred appears to have become visceral. Ad hoc checkpoints weed out Shiite travellers, “some forced to utter blasphemies against [Shi’a patriarch] Imam Ali, on pain of death”, under threat from those obeying an extremist doctrine that, “If you kill a Shiite you will go to heaven”. According to the UN-funded ReliefWeb organization, about 500 Shiite families have fled the Latifiyyah area.
A Shiite response is also taking shape. Originally intended as a protection force for visitors to the holy city of Najaf, a unit called Kata’ib al-Ghadb (‘Brigades of Anger’) now vows to defend Shiites from any group they consider to constitute a threat. The spokesman for the Brigades, Dheya al-Mahdi, has openly demanded that prominent Sunni clerics, both in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, issue an edict calling off the Sunni extremists. Otherwise, he warned, the Brigades are to start hunting down Sunni insurgent fighters.
Although the motivation and authorship of the targeting has not been fully established, the killings on November 22-23 of two leading Sunni clerics — both members of the Sunni Arab Association of Muslim Scholars which has taken the lead in inciting resistance to the elections — appear to encapsulate the next stage of the struggle for Iraq.