Iraq Bomb Attack: Why Is Civil War Possible?

A bomb attack destroying the golden-domed mosque al-Askari in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in Iraq, has highlighted the sectarian strife between different communities within Iraq.

Religions and Factions

Sunni: Minority in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis were top dogs. Since his overthrow, they've feared retaliation from Shiites. Sunnis are often accused of participating in the insurgency.

Shia or Shiite: Used interchangeably. Shiites make up the majority of Iraqis, about 60 percent of the population. The main Shiite coalition is called the United Iraqi Alliance. It has long been feared that attacks on Shiite religious sites would incite reprisals. The alliance is made up of mainstream Shiite Islamic religious parties that make up the Iraqi interim government, liberal secularists, some independent Sunni representatives and representatives of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Kurds: Originally from Iran, the 40 million Kurds live in the mountainous area of southwest Asia that includes parts of Iraq, Turkey and Iran as well as smaller sections of Syria and Armenia. They make up the world's largest stateless ethnic group.

Kurds would like an autonomous Kurdish region within an Iraqi federal republic. One popular constitutional arrangement advanced by some Kurds calls for eight years within a federal Iraq, followed by an option of independence. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, along with smaller parties formed the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan as an umbrella group during the 2005 National Assembly election.

Baath: The Ba'athists ruled Iraq from February 1963 until 2003. The original Ba'ath party functioned as a pan-Arab party with branches in different Arab countries. In 1966 the party split in two, one branch based in Syria and the other in Iraq. After the de facto deposition of Saddam's Ba'athist regime during the Iraq War, the Iraqi Ba'ath Party was banned in June 2003.

Who's Who? and What's What?

Imam: In Arabic, imam means "leader."

The ruler of a country might be called the imam but the term generally refers to a person leading Muslim congregational prayers (not necessarily a cleric).

Shiites believe that the imam is a leader who must be followed, since Allah, or God, appoints the imam. Shiites may also choose an imam whose interpretation of the Koran they wish to follow.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: Born in Iran and considered the Shiite's supreme leader. After the bomb attack, al-Sistani appeared on television and underlined how serious this attack was, but he reiterated that Shiites restrain themselves from taking revenge. He has consistently urged Iraqi Shiites not to respond in kind to attacks from Sunnis and to vote in the various elections. This insistence on nonviolence earned him a nomination for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Sistani dispenses millions of dollars to pay for religious education of would-be scholars across the Muslim world. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sistani has played an increasingly political role there. On the eve of the 2003 invasion, he told Iraqis not to resist the occupation forces.

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