Sunni death cult is pushing Iraq towards civil war

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

Published: 01 October 2005


A fundamentalist Islamic sect that slaughters Iraq's majority Shia community as heretics is pushing the country ever closer to civil war.

Car bombs targeting Shias have killed 110 people, 25 of them children, in the past five days. The latest, yesterday, was in Hillah, south of Baghdad: 12 were killed and 47 wounded.

Angry residents of Balad, a Shia town north of the capital, were blaming "foreign fighters" as doctors in the local hospital posted lists of the 98 dead and 119 wounded on the wall. "What have these Jordanians and Palestinians and Saudis got to do with us? Shame on them!" shouted Abu Waleed, a hotel owner in Balad, after three bombs exploded.

The suicide bombing campaign is now more than ever directed at killing Shia civilians in as large numbers as possible when they gather to seek jobs or throng open-air food markets. The campaign is intensifying as the Shia-Kurdish government strengthens its grip on government in Baghdad ending the age-long Sunni dominance.

For the so-called "neo-Salafi" movement civil war is a central aim, not a by-product of their bombing campaign. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says: "What makes the most extreme Sunni insurgents, who are largely neo-Salafi, different is that many see a civil war as an end in itself."

The Salafi, a long-established puritanical Sunni trend in Islam, have no tolerance for alternative interpretations. The "neo-Salafi" are different less in ideology than in their commitment to violent struggle and their cult of death.

In a report on this development, New Patterns in the Iraqi Insurgency: The War for a Civil War in Iraq Mr Cordesman says: "They see those who do not fit into their definition of piety as apostates. To some, particularly the group led by [Abu Musab] Zarqawi, all other Islamic sects like Shias and even other Sunnis, are effectively non-believers."

Most of the insurgents are by the admission of the US military Iraqi Sunni nationalists fighting to end the occupation. The neo-Salafi differ because they see this as only part of their struggle to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Iraq.

Such militants existed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and even attacked hair-dressing salons in Sunni cities such as Fallujah. But they were only able to get a real foothold after the US invasion because for the first time they were operating in a sympathetic environment as fighters against the occupation. The neo-Salafi may be only 5-10 per cent of insurgent forces. But their suicide bombing attracts vast publicity and their attacks on Shias are pushing the country towards civil war. They use an extraordinary degree of violence, are careless of civilian casualties even among Sunnis and welcome martyrdom. Their links to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf means that they are well financed.

The foreign volunteers are used as cannon-fodder and supply most of the suicide bombs. Most volunteers come from Saudi Arabia. The exact role of Zarqawi is uncertain because he claims all attacks. The US has been happy to promote him as bogeyman and all-purpose demonic enemy. He renamed his group al-Qa'ida in Iraq in October 2004 but appears never to have met Osama bin Laden.

Despite the impact of the foreign suicide bombers, the number of foreign fighters in Iraq is low, about 3,000 out of 30,000 insurgents in total. The US military said this summer that 90 per cent of the resistance is Iraqi and Sunni.

Mr Cordesman believes that "Zarqawi does not dominate the neo-Salafi and Sunni extremist insurgency in Iraq, but he has become its symbol". At times his statements are directed against Shias as whole; at others he distinguishes between the pro-government Shia and Kurdish parties and those that are more nationalist, such Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. Whatever the rhetoric, car bombs and suicide attacks are directed at killing as many Shia civilians as possible.

The neo-Salafi groups, believing they are fighting in God's cause, will never negotiate and have no interest in seeking compromise. Their ferocity makes them difficult to uproot. In Fallujah last year they told 11 imams of mosques whom they considered hostile that they would kill their children in front of them if they did not stop preaching.