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The Detroit News
Inside Saddam's Iraq
Ethnic, religious and tribal tensions slice through society
Saddam's ruling Sunnis outnumbered by Shi'ites, hated by Kurds
By Cameron McWhirter / The Detroit News
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
An Iraqi soldier, holding an AK-47 assault weapon, stands guard outside the United Nations building in Baghdad as protesters carry signs saying "Death to America."
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
An Iraqi man waves the peace sign from the back of a truck in Baghdad the morning after Saddam was re-elected to serve another term.
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BAGHDAD -- In a sprawling, grimy section of west Baghdad known as Saddam City, where piles of rotting refuse can be as tall as a house, a crowd of young men from the Shi'ite Islamic sect staged a noisy display for two American journalists, brandishing swords and guns.
"Saddam is our leader, we don't need another," they shouted angrily in histrionics prepared by the Ministry of Information.
Told of the event later, an observer of Iraqi politics scoffed. "The Shi'ites lie," the person said. "They want to kill Saddam."
Across town, Kassem Farag Aba, 59, a leader of several hundred Kurds who left their homeland in the north to live in Baghdad, straightened his imposing 6-foot-5-inch-tall frame, adjusted his traditional Kurdish headdress and pointed his finger up in the air. "Kurds, all Arabs and Christians, we are all under the tent of his excellency Saddam Hussein. We have no divisions, we are all Iraqis," he said.
Later, it was learned Aba had fled his mountainous home for sweltering Baghdad because Kurdish rebel forces, which now control most of northern Iraq, considered him a puppet of Saddam and had threatened to kill him.
Despite clumsy efforts to portray Iraq as a united country, bitter ethnic, religious and tribal divisions percolate below the surface. Saddam's 23-year effort to suppress those splits with a witch's brew of force and propaganda has done little to erase divisions that have plagued Iraq's stability since its inception in 1920. Political grudges have been piling up here like tinder for decades.
Iraqi propaganda pushes the metaphor that the country is shaped like a heart and beats as one. In truth, that heart is carved into several chunks.
The largest chunk is made up of the Shi'ites, who form the lower classes of Iraqi society, especially in Baghdad, where millions inhabit the slums of Saddam City. Shi'ites comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 23 million people and about half of the estimated 4 million who live in Baghdad.
Saddam City's filthy boulevards run for miles and are filled with grimy children picking through trash, tired old men pulling mangy horses and crowds of angry, thin men either not working or performing menial tasks for a pittance. Others spend hours trying to repair ancient rusting cars using parts harvested from defunct vehicles.
While small shops on the main streets of Saddam City display obligatory pro-Saddam posters, the signs are much less prominent than in the middle-class areas of the city dominated by the Sunni Islamic minority, of which Saddam is a member.
Hostility in Saddam City is palpable. Westerners, even when accompanied by government officials, can be pushed and shoved by young men shouting obscenities.
Shi'ites have rebelled against various Iraqi governments, but all the bloody insurrections have been defeated. Saddam keeps a wary eye on the Shi'ites -- and with good reason. Shi'ites have tried to kill him, unsuccessfully rebelled against his regime after the end of the Gulf War and severely wounded his son Uday. During the Iran-Iraq war, he repressed Shi'ite political movements in fear they would join their fellow Shi'ites across the border.
Today, the Shi'ites are the great unknown factor in Iraq's future. While they certainly have no love of Saddam, it is unclear whether they will rise up in rebellion after what happened in 1991.
The Kurds also have no love for Saddam, or any Iraqi government for that matter. They make up the largest ethnic minority in Iraq, at about 20 percent, equal to the ruling Sunnis. But like the majority Shi'ites, they have never held power and usually inhabit the lower classes.
Saddam has battled Kurdish rebels for almost his entire reign, with varying success. Saddam has fought the Kurds so fiercely in part because Kurdish independence would threaten his crucial oil supply, based around the city of Mosul, which is close to Kurdish areas.
Kurdish political factions also have fought among themselves for power. In the mid-1990s, two Kurdish groups -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- fought each other across northern Iraq. The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1998 and divided up the area into a semiautonomous zone within Iraq.
All this tension leaves the ruling Sunnis anxious about a post-Saddam Iraq. Since the British handed over power to them at Iraq's creation, the Sunni elite has held sway -- despite numerous bloody coups and rebellions.
While Saddam has allowed Shi'ites and others into his government, he and his top leadership are all Sunni. Most come from his immediate family or friends from his home town of Tikrit.
Most of Iraq's Christian community, as well as many of Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite intellectuals, have fled for Europe and the United States in the last two decades.
Those remaining spend much of their time trying to figure out ways to secure visas. They want to leave not so much because of Saddam's repressive regime, but for fear of what will follow.
In the meantime, those remaining tentatively support the regime as a check on ethnic and religious violence that many feel invariably will rip the country apart.
Almost everyone in Baghdad who can afford to now has a weapon of some kind stowed in their house. While many claim the weapons will be used against American troops, the weapons are just as likely to be used against fellow Iraqis when the power struggle comes and the ancient hatreds resurface.
They cite an old Iraqi Arab adage: If you get revenge against someone who wronged you in 40 years, that's too soon. In other words: Never let go of a grudge.
Recently, a middle-aged Assyrian Iraqi woman opened her purse in front of two journalists, then took out a military issue Colt automatic pistol to check the chamber.
"I live alone," she said, then joked: "Who knows, maybe someday an American will try to come in my house."
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
A boisterous crowd of Iraqi men. some waving swords, shout their support for Saddam on Election Day.
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