Uniting Iraq's Disparate Cultures a Challenge, Experts Say

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Sunni and Shiite Muslims

The rift between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims is primarily one of divergent religious viewpoints, which has its beginnings with the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Regional and cultural differences also exist, but Harm De Blij noted that the two lived rather harmoniously in Iraq until the rise of Baath Party power.

"What exacerbated this [difference] was a secular political movement—the Sunni Baath party. If there is one thing Shiites are not, they're not secular. As shown by the example of the Iranian revolution, religion is very central in their lives, and that's not the way Sunnis looked at it," De Blij said.

Saddam Hussein's sometimes brutal treatment of Shiites during his long reign has left a potentially deep rift between the groups—with many Shiites persecuted though they were numerically in the majority. "It's one of the tragedies of Iraq," De Blij said, "that because of that animosity a division was created that hadn't really been there before. At the time Iraq acquired its first and second constitution it was actually a fairly multicultural and accommodating society, but the ascent of the Baath Party and the rise of Saddam Hussein led to a vicious dictatorship of a Sunni minority quite unlike the historical character of Iraq."

Salving these longstanding wounds won't be easy, as mistrust and animosity have grown over the years. Western officials at work in Iraq must recognize and account for such distinctions at all levels.

"Local ayatollahs toting side arms with posses of loyal followers carrying AKs and knives will make theses tribal and cultural differences an inescapable consideration in the attempts to transition to some form of democracy and representative government," said Reams.

A priority of any new Iraq government is balancing recognition and representation of the nation's distinct cultural entities with a central, national government that can rule for the good of all. How much regional autonomy is too much? How to get all groups fairly represented under the same tent? They are tough questions, but they should be at the forefront of rebuilding a nation that was from the beginning an amalgamation of disparate groups.

"The talking heads we see on TV have maps but they only seem to show tanks, planes, roads, and forts," said De Blij. "I dont see many of them talking about the cultural, social geography of Iraq—and I hope somebody somewhere is looking at it that way."

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
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Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

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