Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Shia among Sunnis

The BBC reports that earlier today Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki made a surprise visit to Ramadi, a town on the river Euphrates fifty miles west of Baghdad, infamous today as a hotbed of Sunni insurgency.

The visit echoes a similar effort in 1921 to introduce Iraq's new king, Feisal, to the two most loyal tribes of the upper Euphrates, which had been an epicentre of the uprising a year before. Gertrude Bell described the meeting at Ramadi in July 1921 in a letter to her father.

"I washed and changed - we were grey with dust - and drove down to the Euphrates bank where Ali Sulaiman [the chief of the Dulaim, a local tribe] had pitched a huge tent of ten poles - ie about 200 ft long - with a dais at the upper end {covered} roofed with tent cloth and walled with fresh green boughs. Outside were drawn up the camel riders of the Dulaim, their horsemen and their standard carried by a negro mounted on a gigantic white camel; inside the tribesmen lined the tent 5 or 6 deep from the dais to the very end. Feisal sat on the high diwan with Fahad [leader of the other major local tribe, the Aniza] on his right while Major Yetts and I brought up people to sit on his left - those we thought he ought to speak to. He was supremely happy - a great tribesman amongst famous tribes and, as I couldn't help feeling, a great Sunni among Sunnis. The truth is I'm becoming a Sunni myself; you know where you are with them, they are staunch and they are guided, according to their lights, by reason; whereas with the Shi'ahs, however well intentioned they may be, at any moment some ignorant fanatic of an 'alim [an expert on Islam] may tell them that by the order of God and himself they are to think differently."

Just like Feisal, Mr Maliki went to Ramadi to seek recognition and reconciliation. Unlike Feisal, however, he is a Shia. It remains to be seen whether his attempt to reconcile Iraq's now bitterly divided population can succeed.

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