Two divides have always beset Iraq’s body-politic and society--the religious-sectarian and the ethnic-national. Of these, the former (the Shi'ite-Sunni divide) is indisputably the more potent. This is because while the Kurds, the largest non-Arab minority and the main factor in the ethnic-national divide, live mostly in cities and villages of their own, the Shi’ites comprise over 60 percent of the country’s Arab Muslims, and are to be found in all major Iraqi cities and towns, especially in the south.
Under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th regime the Kurds and the Shi’ites were both harshly treated, and lack of involvement on the part of the US enabled the Ba’th military to massacre tens of thousands of Shi’ite rebels and demonstrators. The role the Shi’ites now play in the religious-political arena in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s downfall has been decisive. With the introduction of parliamentary elections and majority rule, Shi’ite ascendancy is posing mortal danger to Sunni supremacy, which continued unabated throughout the past 84 years. This is because the immediate result of this new development has been a parliament and government dominated by a Shi’ite majority. The practical implications of such a development can determine the future of Iraq as a single sovereign entity.
The future of the State of Iraq, the status of Iraq’s Shi’ites, and the result of the undercurrent strife between the three religious leaders are shrouded in uncertainty. Like the final shape of post-Saddam Iraq itself, it depends wholly on the form the new regime takes, and the measure of democracy that can be introduced in a society so revved by religious, ethnic, cultural, and political divisions. And while there is certainly more than one good reason for this, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the religious-sectarian divide — the Shi’ite-Sunni split —continues to be at the core of the problem.
A satisfactory solution to this age-old problem—and accordingly for any prospect for durable stability in the country—seems extremely difficult to envisage. Anything even remotely satisfactory to the Shi’ites would anger the Sunnis; any measures that would pacify the Kurds of the north are certain to anger their immediate Arab neighbors, most of whom, it is worth noting here, had been settled there by Saddam Hussein following his campaign of persecution and partial genocide against the Kurds. Calls made recently by the US Senate, among others, for Iraq to be divided into three federal regions in a power-sharing agreement—Kurdish in the north, Shi'ite in the south, and Sunni in the center—have been rejected by both the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, with the Iraqi prime minister branding the proposal "a catastrophe."