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Even though Saddam Hussein seized power and became president of Iraq in 1979, Sunni- majority Baath party to whom Saddam Hussein belonged had been in power since 1968 (Shuster, 2007). Sunni-affiliated Baath party remained in power for approximately thirty five years before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended its rule despite the fact that population wise, Shi’ites have always been the largest group in modern Iraq. Shi’ites make up about 60% of the total Iraqi population while Sunnis are merely a third of that at 20% (Todd, 2005). Until Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, Shi’ites at least enjoyed equality and freedom of religion despite unequal representation in the government but that changed after Ayatullah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Iran. Saddam Hussein feared a similar uprising in Iraq and got Iraq’s most popular ayatollah, Mohammad Bakr al-Sadr assassinated. Saddam followed through with a systematic segregation of Shi’ites by barring them from senior government and military positions (Ghosh, 2007).
After the defeat of Iraqi forces in the 1991 Gulf War, Shi’ites saw a chance to rise against Saddam Hussein but received no assistance or protection from the allied forces. This played to Saddam’s advantage who curbed the opposition through brutal force and killed more than 300,000 Shi’ites. After that, Shi’ites would never mount another opposition until the end of Saddam’s rule in 2003. After Saddam’s fall, relationships between the two sides turned out to be lot better than expected and many fears didn’t materialize for at least two years. Sunnis fought side by side with Muqtada Al-Sadr army against the Americans and Shi’ites supported Sunnis in the battle of Fallujah (Ghosh B. , 2007).
The first major differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites rose when Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 elections and Shi’ites swept to power. The assertive behavior of Shi’ite-led government gave rise to concerns among Sunnis that only grew serious upon heavy recruitment of Shi’ite militiamen into the police and the military. Shi’ite militiamen tried to settle old scores and the involvement of Al-Qaeda’s al-Zarqawi in Samarra’s events only added fuel to the fire (Ghosh B. , 2007). Soon thereafter, bodies of disappeared Sunnis started showing up in rivers and garbage dumps and many bore the signs of torture by Shi’ite majority police (Todd, 2005). Thus, Sunnis have become distrustful of Shi’ites and expect the worst after the leave of American forces and some among Shi’ites are bitter due to their oppressive past under Saddam Hussein’s rule and desire revenge.
One may not be pessimistic about the future of Shi’ite Sunni relations in Iraq if it were not for the fact that the conflict is turning into a geo-political conflict between major Middle East political powers. Sunni majority countries such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia view Shi’ites to be primarily loyal to Iran no matter where they are from and fear that Iran’s influence will grow in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Iraq. Thus, they may always remain skeptical of Shi’ite majority government in Iraq and provide support as well as exert influence on Iraqi Sunni groups. Sunni leaders, both inside and outside Iraq continue to cite the threat of Iran to score political points and at the same time, Iran is determined to be a major political power in the Middle East once again. Iran is already accused of supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine which speaks volume of its political ambitions in the region. Thus, whether an Iraq with a peaceful Shi’ite Sunni political coalition can become a reality depends upon the will of Iraqis to resist outside influence as well as the willingness of Sunni and Shi’ites political powers such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran etc. to not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs.