Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The deranged sons of Salt

'Salt is an ancient Jordanian town, a short twenty minutes drive north of Amman. Salt was a trading center, once the most important settlement between the Jordan River and the desert lands to the east. In the Ottoman period, it was the capital of the Balqa region, which covered roughly the same territory as modern Jordan. It is a picturesque little town, with narrow streets and charming houses that have tall arched windows in the style of the late Ottoman period. During its heyday, Salt was a cosmopolitan, tolerant place where Muslims and Christians lived together in peace.


This town of many churches showed a different face in March 2005. During that month there was a much-publicized wake for a native son of Salt, Raed Mansour al-Banna, who had died on February 28 hundreds of miles to the south [sic, should be to the east], in the Iraqi city of Hilla, some sixty miles south of Baghdad. Raed was the suicide bomber who killed 125 Shias and wounded another 150 in one of the worst suicide bombings in postwar Iraq. His bomb had killed new recruits who were lined up waiting to join the Iraqi security forces. The government building that Raed targeted was next to an open-air market, so his bomb killed many women and children as well. Even by the standards of the gruesome violence that various "irreconcilables" were using to stop progress in post-Saddam Iraq, the massacre in Hilla was a brutal and shocking act of terror.


Salt, however, seemed to feel proud of its son. Many of the town's young men had done much as Raed had, going over the border during the previous two years in order to gather behind their countryman, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as their amir (commander [or literally 'prince']) and fight for him against the Americans and Shias. Raed's family held a three-day wake for him. Those who attended "celebrated" what they called his "martyrdom," as Jordanian newspapers reported. The Shias whom Raed had murdered drew no sympathy at the wake. For Raed to have been a martyr, those Shias by definition must have been infidels whose murder was justified. The tale of Hilla and Salt is emblematic of how Iraq has been changing the hearts and minds of some Sunnis in the region, and of the bloodletting that will define the boundaries between the two."  


The celebration in Salt brought retribution in Baghdad. Enraged by reports of the wake, a Shia mob attacked the Jordanian embassy on March 20. Iraq and Jordan exchanged strong words and withdrew their respective diplomats. Jordan, which had been Iraq's gateway to the world during the years of wars and sanctions, was now estranged from its neighbor. Sectarian tensions were driving old allies apart, replacing filial bonds of Arab identity and long-standing ties of commerce with deep suspicions. For Iraq's Shias, Jordan was the country of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the haven for Ba'thist exiles. For many in Jordan, Iraq was fast becoming a Shia country friendlier to Iran than to its Arab neighbors. Iraq would, however, be only a beginning.'
--Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival

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