Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Ancient Struggle of Arabs & Persians

The following article appeared today in the Orlando Sentinel. It is interesting from a cultural point of view because it points out how much we DON’T know about the people of Iraq and Iran. Centuries-old religious and ethnic divisions continue to breed hatred, mistrust and murder.

Our soldiers are doing a magnificent job as they try to help the Iraqis bridge their differences, but there is only so much the Coalition can do.

In the end, only the Iraqis themselves will be able to solve this problem:

Orlando Sentinel (May 16, 2007): Post-Saddam Iraq embraces ancient Persian heritage

By Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times

Najaf, Iraq – Persian script flows across the walls of Najaf’s seminaries.

Shiite religious scholars in the ancient city’s turquoise-tiled edifices pore over texts illustrated with Persian calligraphy in scenes that evoke Mesopotamia’s history.

For centuries, Najaf has been a key shrine city and center of worship for many of Iraq’s people. But for centuries, Iraq’s Ottoman and Arab rulers rarely considered Najaf part of their own history. It was considered an outpost of the enemy: Iran.

They were right, for the most part. Historically and culturally, Najaf has long been under Persia’s sway.

But so has much of Iraq.

The reading of the Quran in this country differs from the rest of the Muslim world: The rhythm and cadence of Sunnis are unique to Iraq, and the Shiites’ are unique to Iran. Persian dishes such as pomegranate stew are a standard part of Mesopotamian fare. Iraq’s capital carries a Persian name, Baghdad.

The sectarian nature of the war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq reflects a centuries-old battle between Persia and the Arab world.

It is a point often misunderstood by U.S. policymakers and ground commanders, who perceive the re-emergence of Persian influence among Iraq’s newly powerful Shiite majority as proof of meddling by the regime in Tehran.

Rising Persian influence is a sign of Iraq’s ascendance, not Iran’s.

“Iraq has been part of the Persian sphere of influence for more than 400 years,” said Karar Dastour, an Iraqi Shiite intellectual who lives in southern Tehran and travels to Iraq. “But governments have always tried to crush anything that had the scent of Shiism or Iran. They were never accepted.”

Violent Sunni Arab rejection of Iraq’s Persian roots plays out daily on the streets of the capital with bombings.

In their Internet postings, Sunni Arab insurgents, many of them officers during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, describe their attacks on Shiites as settling accounts with “Safavids,” a reference to the 16th- century dynasty that embraced Shiite Islam as the official religion of Persia. Shiite Safavids and Sunni Ottomans fought for decades in a conflict that infused sectarianism into what had been a centuries-old ethnic and political conflict between Arabs and Persians.

“There has always been conflict between Arabs and Iranians, and they always tried to involve Iraq,” Humam Hammoudi, an Iraqi Shiite politician and cleric who lived in Tehran during Saddam Hussein’s rule, said in an interview last year. “Both have wanted to use Iraq as the trench for their battles.”

Iraq’s 20th-century leaders tried to graft a Sunni-dominated Arab identity onto a country that was majority Shiite. Even during the relatively benign years before Saddam’s rise in the late 1960s, Shiites visiting Sunni Arab towns feared for their lives.

Saddam’s downfall after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 ended the enforced separation between Iran and Iraq, much to the frustration and rage of Iraq’s long-dominant Sunni Arabs.

Persian cultural influences, long suppressed, have re-emerged in the past four years.

* * * *

It is important to remember that the majority of Iraqis are not radicals, whether they are Shiite, Sunni or Kurd. In fact, there are quite a few Sunnis who are married to Shiites.

For the most part, Iraqis are gentle people who want to live normal lives in peace. They want safe homes for their families, a decent way to make a living and a chance to raise their children in happiness.

That kind of sounds like us, doesn’t it?

SFC Chuck Grist

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