The New York Times has a remarkable video feature up today, please go and at least read the accompanying story even if you don’t/can’t watch the video (which includes some very graphic footage). It’s the story of Ali Hussein Kadhim, a Shiʿa and former Iraqi soldier who amazingly survived an IS massacre in Tikrit in June. The story of his journey, from waiting in line to be executed, to a nighttime crossing of the Tigris River, to sanctuary in Erbil, to finally returning to his family in Diwaniyah, is absolutely incredible and moving, but it’s also a window into just how difficult it’s going to be for a united or even confederated Iraqi nation to emerge from everything that’s happened. IS’s brutality toward those Shiʿa who have fallen into its grasp has awakened the same fears that Iraq’s Shiʿa community felt under Saddam, fears that then manifested as resentment against the Arab Sunni community once Saddam was toppled and the Shiʿa took control of the national government:
The conquests of ISIS have reawakened a sense among Iraq’s Shiite majority that they are facing a threat to their very existence from Sunnis — and nothing highlights this in as dramatic a fashion as images of industrial-scale killings of Shiites in Mr. Hussein’s hometown, with the participation of the dead dictator’s tribesmen.
In recent days the images and stories emerging from this massacre have begun receiving wide play on Iraqi state television, whose programming has also long included shows detailing the abuses of Mr. Hussein.
Many here wonder how long the Shiites will restrain themselves from taking widespread revenge against Sunnis, and plunging the country into the sort of neighbor-killing-neighbor conflict of a few years ago.
As the article notes, Nouri al-Maliki deserves all the blame that’s leveled at him for the fact that there wasn’t even a minimal effort put into some kind of national reconciliation process that could have eased the sectarian tensions that flared up so badly once Saddam had been overthrown. The US warrants a good deal of blame as well, not so much for getting rid of Saddam as for totally botching the reconstruction effort, particularly the chance to set up the kind of federal system that could have eased both Shiʿa and Arab Sunni concerns. The issue now is, if there was no will to examine and deal with Iraq’s painful history under Saddam, when most Sunnis could have rightfully blamed the dictator for the sectarian abuses that happened under his reign, how much harder is it going to be to reconcile what’s happened over the past several months, when Sunni tribes (or parts of them, anyway) are openly collaborating in some of the worst of IS’s abuses? And how much longer can this situation continue before Shiʿa militias start committing their own abuses against Sunni communities?
The task is almost insurmountable, but Kadhim’s story does offer some hope; after he crossed the Tigris the only thing that kept him from being recaptured by IS was the kindness of the Sunni villagers on the opposite bank. A Sunni family took him in, sheltered him, fed him, and helped him eventually make his way to Erbil. It’s the communal, humanitarian instinct of ordinary Iraqis that will salvage an Iraqi nation, if one can be salvaged at all, but the government in Baghdad needs to figure out how to tap into that instinct to build a sense of nationhood.