Friday, August 31, 2007

Why reconciliation is so difficult

Open the link to this excellent NYT article and watch the video.

Shiite’s Tale: How Gulf With Sunnis Widened

Published: August 31, 2007

BAGHDAD, Aug. 30 — Shatha al-Musawi, a Shiite member of Parliament, first encountered the Sunni-Shiite divide on the day the Americans captured Saddam Hussein. Hearing the news with a close Sunni friend named Sahira, Ms. Musawi erupted like a child.

“I jumped, I shouted, I came directly to Sahira and I hugged her,” Ms. Musawi said. “I was crying, and I said, ‘Sahira, this is the moment we waited for.’ ”

At least it should have been: Mr. Hussein’s henchmen killed Ms. Musawi’s father when she was only 13; Sahira, too, was a victim, losing her closest uncle to the Hussein government.

But instead of celebrating, Sahira stood stiffly. A day later, Ms. Musawi said, Sahira’s eyes were red from crying. And before long, like so many Sunnis and Shiites here, the two stopped talking.

Sectarianism, the issue Ms. Musawi said she had wanted to avoid, has instead come to haunt her. She entered politics four years ago, flush with idealism, working closely with Sunnis on Iraq’s Constitution and a draft law that would compensate victims of Mr. Hussein.

Now, even for her, one of Parliament’s most independent figures, the urge to reconcile is being blacked out by distrust, disappointment and visceral anger.

Her disillusionment helps explain why the Iraqi government has missed most of the political benchmarks laid down by Congress, as the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report to be released in coming days.

And her reasons — for defending Shiite militias as a necessary response to Sunni Arab violence, for example — are personal. As with many of Iraq’s leaders, her life has been rubbed raw. After seeing Sunni neighbors kill Shiite friends, and after being pushed out of her own home by violence, Ms. Musawi has struggled to move beyond the pain and anger.

“Many Iraqis are still living in the past, and she too is affected with this predicament,” said Mohammed Mahmoud Ahmad, chairman of the victims compensation committee, where Ms. Musawi is a deputy. For Iraqis of all sects, old offenses linger for decades. And at the simple apartment in the Green Zone that she shares with her second husband (a Sunni Kurd), Ms. Musawi, 40, described a score of abuses.

Shatha al-Musawi, a Shiite member of Parliament, at a meeting in Baghdad last week with political colleagues.

She grew up in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, sharing a large comfortable house with six siblings, uncles, aunts and a brood of cousins.

Then one day in 1980 her father went to work and never came home. She later discovered he had been hit by a car belonging to a government official he had argued with.

Only 13, Ms. Musawi was devastated. One of her prized possessions is a photo album of faded pictures beneath sticky plastic, showing her father happy, with wavy long hair and a child in each arm.

“He was a poet, a great man,” she said. “I loved him and I was really very attached to him,” she said. “His loss made me unbalanced.”

Two years later, with the family living in a smaller house, the government struck again. On Aug. 15, 1982, the police arrested her relatives and threw them in prison because their names appeared on a list of “undesirables.”

Ms. Musawi said she ended up in a dirty cell with her relatives and other women and children. Over the next 38 days, she saw a woman give birth beside her; she heard children promising to kill Mr. Hussein. At one point, the police took Ms. Musawi’s mother away and threw ripped pieces of her son’s shirt on the floor to suggest (falsely) that he had been killed.

Captivity shook Ms. Musawi to the core. She did not want to leave when the police tried to release her because “I didn’t think life was a secure place,” she said.

Eventually, she said, she moved on through her faith and obtained a college degree after marriage, divorce and three daughters. When she and Sahira found out about Mr. Hussein’s capture, they were waiting for class at Baghdad University.

At the time, she was hopeful. “Mr. Bush promised Iraq would be a democratic and free country,” she said. “And we believed that.”

Then she laughed. It did not take long, she said, before Iraq started to fracture. In Ms. Musawi’s mixed neighborhood of Adel, Shiite mosques and religious schools closed by the Sunni-dominated government began to reopen immediately after Mr. Hussein’s fall.

Some Sunni Arabs, she said, felt threatened. Soon, Sunni customers at the tailor’s shop where she worked stopped visiting. Her own dinner guests, she acknowledged, were mostly Shiite.

Violence followed. In late 2003, Ms. Musawi said, she saw two cars of men abduct an official at a Shiite mosque near her home, tie him to a car and drag him through the streets. Some of the attackers were young men she had known as boys.

“Are you crazy?” she shouted. “Have you lost your mind?”


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