My return to Baghdad, the epicentre of Islam’s growing divide

July 2, 2013

(Samia Nakhoul, now Reuters Middle East Editor, is seen in the back of a car after being wounded at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, April 8, 2003, in this image taken from video footage. A U.S. tank fired a shell at the hotel from which she was reporting. Picture taken April 8, 2003. REUTERS/Pool via Reuters TV )

The last time I left Baghdad I was on a stretcher.

It was April 11, 2003, four days after U.S. troops pushed into the Iraqi capital at the end of a lightning campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein. American forces had pounded Baghdad for weeks and as U.S. tanks raced into the city, I became a casualty alongside scores of Iraqis.

On the day Baghdad fell, I was waiting for an Iraqi surgeon to operate on me to remove shrapnel and bone fragments from my brain. He saved my life.

Soon after, as I was airlifted by U.S. Marines to a field hospital on the Kuwaiti border, I looked down at the American armoured columns fanned out across the city: the end to another troubled chapter in the history of the Middle East and the start of an even more unpredictable time.

Late last month, a decade after I was evacuated, I finally returned, not just to confront difficult memories, but also to seek a hint of the region’s future.

Iraq is broken, its society splintered. Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis have resumed the gruesome sectarian violence touched off by the invasion. The U.S. occupation, sold as a way to end Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, end the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and usher in peace and democracy, instead fuelled longstanding hatreds between the two rival branches of Islam – first in Iraq and now across the region.

Over the past few years, the religion’s Sunni majority and the Shi’ite minority have clashed in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Two weeks ago in Egypt hundreds of Sunnis fired up by hard-line preachers lynched a group of four Shi’ites, including a religious leader, before dragging their bodies through the streets. In Syria, what began as an uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a sectarian war, sucking in players from across the Middle East, whose borders were arbitrarily drawn by British and French colonial officials a century ago.

In retrospect, the invasion of Iraq proved a pivotal moment in the centuries-old balance of power between the two sects that emerged from a schism in Islam 1,300 years ago. Iraq is the first major Arab country to be run by Shi’ites in more than eight centuries. That has emboldened Iran, which is also run by Shi’ites (but is Persian), and startled Sunni leaders and populations.

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