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Is Iraq Coming Apart?

Will the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites drive Iraq into civil war—and take the rest of the Middle East with it?

By Sabrina Tavernise in Baghdad

Anmar Abed Khalaf is a 24-year-old university student in Baghdad who wanted to marry his girlfriend. But despite several attempts, he has been rejected by her family because he is a Shiite and she is a Sunni. Abed Khalaf, who lives in a Baghdad neighborhood that has been tormented by sectarian assassinations for more than a year, says he feels more resignation than anger over the rejection.

"I do not blame her father or her mother," he says. "It is because of the situation."

Of all the changes that have swept Iraqi society since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago, one of the most critical is the heightening of tensions between Iraq's two main Muslim sects: Sunni (SOO-nee) and Shiite (SHEE-ite). Since Iraq was created in 1920, the government had been controlled by the Sunni minority, who make up just 20 percent of the population. Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the government ruthlessly repressed Shiites—killing as many as 100,000, for example, when they rose up against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. These injustices caused sectarian tensions that were kept in check by the authoritarian nature and brutality of Saddam's regime.

But since Saddam was removed from power in April 2003, the lawless environment and the growing insurgency have encouraged these tensions to surface. They are increasingly evident in the day-to-day lives of Iraqis—like Abed Khalaf's inability to marry his Sunni girlfriend—and in the bombings and executions killing thousands of Iraqis, which appear on the news back in the U.S. every night.

Three Groups

One such incident, the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, set off waves of violent reprisals that have killed hundreds of Iraqis in recent weeks. The violence has gotten so bad that many believe Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war.

Iraq's population of 26 million is divided into three main groups: About 60 percent are Shiite Arabs, about 20 percent are Sunni Arabs, and 17 percent are Kurds. (The Kurds, who are concentrated in northern Iraq, are also Sunni Muslims, but they belong to a different ethnic group. Their region, which has been much less affected by the violence, is the most stable part of Iraq today.)

The split between Sunnis and Shiites dates to the seventh century when, according to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad died, and there was a dispute over who would take over as Islam's leader. The two groups share the basic tenets of Islamic belief. However, over the centuries, Shiites and Sunnis developed distinctly different social, political, and religious practices. The two sects have often viewed each other with suspicion, which has sometimes escalated into violence, such as in the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and '80s.

'Something Has Changed'

In Iraq today, these distinctions are becoming more and more important. The vast majority of the 12 million voters in Iraq's December elections cast ballots along sectarian and ethnic lines. Meanwhile, social life has withdrawn from restaurants and caf├ęs, where different groups mingled, to homes, largely for reasons of safety.

The effects on Iraqis' personal lives are profound. Mixed marriages are more carefully considered. "For a parent, the first question now is going to be: Sunni or Shiite?" says Shatha al-Quraishi, an Iraqi lawyer who specializes in family law. "People are starting to talk about it. I can feel it. I can touch that something has changed."

'No Mixed Family'

Sectarian tensions in private lives are far from universal: Iraqis of different sects have mixed for decades and still do. But anecdotal evidence from interviews with lawyers, court clerks, and social workers suggests that fault lines that have always existed are now becoming more distinct. An analysis provided by one family court in central Baghdad shows that mixed marriages were rare to begin with, making up 3 to 5 percent of all unions in late 2002. But by late 2005 they had virtually stopped.

"For the coming 10 years you can record the biggest changes in the Iraqi community," says Ansam Abayachi, an Iraqi social researcher. "The Sunnis will be on one side, the Shia (Shiites) on the other, and there is no mixed family."

After being in control so long, many Sunnis resent their lost power. Feelings have been further inflamed by the systematic killings of Shiites by suicide bombers and assassinations of Sunnis by Shiites, some of them tied to the new Shiite-led government. The violence has driven many families to seek safety by migrating to areas where their religious group predominates, thus reinforcing the sectarian divide. Children come home asking if they are Sunni or Shiite.

In addition to reports of Sunnis no longer allowing their children to marry Shiites and vice versa, one mixed couple even received a series of threatening phone calls demanding that they divorce or be killed.

But most cases are more subtle. A counselor at the Center for Psychological Health in Iraq says one of her patients, a Sunni woman, recently received a marriage proposal from a Shiite. One of the woman's aunts forbade the union, saying she would refuse to greet a man she knew to be Shiite.

"We used to dismiss such stances," says Abayachi. "They were old-fashioned. They were not civilized. They were just holding to a tradition that was meaningless.''

So why is this so important? If these tensions aren't resolved, they could drag Iraq into a civil war—some believe Iraq is already in the midst of one. And that has profound consequences for the 133,000 American troops currently stationed in Iraq, and for the rest of the Middle East. If Iraq breaks into three different pieces—the Kurdish north, the Shiite south, and the Sunni midsection—the result could be disastrous for Iraq's neighbors and for American interests. Experts believe the Sunni region could become a safe haven for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

Broad Consequences

"A civil war in Iraq would be a kind of earthquake affecting the whole Middle East," says Terje Roed-Larsen, the special United Nations envoy for Lebanon. "It would deepen existing cleavages and create new cleavages in a part of the world that is already extremely fragile and extremely dangerous. I'm not predicting this will happen, but it is a plausible worst-case scenario."

In addition to Iraq, eight Middle Eastern countries—Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—have sizable populations of Shiites living side by side with Sunnis, and there is concern in many of them that a split in Iraq could lead to conflict at home.

For Iraqis, the conflicts—many of them deeply personal—have already begun. Fatin Abdel Sattar is a Sunni Muslim from Baghdad who has seen the sectarian tensions divide her own family. Her teenage son has stopped using his Sunni name in Shiite areas of the city. And her sister's marriage fell apart as her Shiite husband turned his anger over old wounds on his Sunni spouse.

"It was like an eruption of a volcano, hidden inside for all those years," Abdel Sattar says of her former brother-in-law. "Those who were oppressed before, they have a weakness inside themselves. They live with this history. They can't get rid of this feeling."