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Communal tensions high in Iraq six months after Baghdad fell by Deborah Pasmantier BAGHDAD, Oct 7 (AFP) - Six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, tensions and resentments, bottled beneath the surface for years, have risen to the surface sorely testing relations among Iraq's multiple ethnic groups. Faced with anarchy and lawlessness, many Iraqis have sought solace in their communal and ethnic identities. "A tide of religious and ethnic sentiments was reborn by the war. Everyone now calls himself a Kurd or Arab, Shiite or Sunni and sticks to his side. Everyone feels the tension, the smallest incident could make things degenerate," said Butros Haddad, a priest at Our Lady of the Rosary in Baghdad. The mood is in stark contrast to the era of Saddam Hussein when ethnic identities were kept on a tight leash and the dictator brooked no dissent. But since the US troops invaded Iraq in late March, old grievances among Iraqi ethnic groups have found a second life. "We sensed Arabs harboured a dislike toward the Kurds who enjoyed relative autonomy and experienced less harshly the embargo (over the last decade). The Shiite, traumatised by the repression of the 1991 rebellion, were against the Sunni. The Sunnis were against the Shiites, whom they considered as traitors. The war's aftermath has largely brought these divisions to the forefront," a Western diplomat said. The formation of Iraq's 25-member Governing Council, with a Shiite majority and proportional seating by ethnic groups has only stoked ethnic divisions. The balance on the Governing Council, made up of religious and ethnic groups, as well as the continuing marginalisation of Sunni Arabs, once the dominant group in Iraq, could pave the way for a sectarian conflict, according to the International Crisis Group think tank. Of the Governing Council, 14 members are Shiite, five are Kurds and four Sunnis. The proportion is based on Iraq's general population numbers, with Shiites representing 65 percent of the population, the Sunni Arabs representing roughly 15 percent and the Kurds another 15 percent. "The Kurds want to obtain the most autonomy possible, the Shiite want to be recognised officially, the Sunnis feel dispossessed and rejected," the diplomat said. Although the coalition admits to friction among the ethnic groups, the US-led coalition believes Iraq's ethnic groups are working out their differences despite the doomsday scenarios bandied about. "Iraqis have proven they can live together," said coalition spokesman Charles Heatley. The members of the US-sponsored Governing Council have made official pronouncements against communal violence and have spoken of Iraqi unity. However on the street, the realities are far more complicated. After a car bomb in Najaf killed Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, many Shiites blamed the Sunni community indirectly for the death, pointing the finger at Sunni fundamentalists and the partisans of Saddam. For its part, the Sunni Committee of the Ulema has accused the Shiites of seizing Sunni mosques in Shiite holy cities. "Emptying Najaf and Karbala of the Sunni presence is very serious and resembles ethnic cleansing and signals the Balkanisation of Iraq," said Sunni Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Kubaissi. Tensions are also smoldering in the north between Arabs and Kurds. In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Kurds have returned home, throwing out Arabs who grabbed their property under the old regime's programme of Arabisation. For its part, the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has flexed its muscles, conducting raids in cities outside of Kurdistan, such as Mosul, in the name of erasing the Baath party. Despite avoiding ethnic violence in Kirkuk when Baghdad fell, the situation is still unstable. "It could explode at any moment," said Lieutenant-Colonel Randy George, deputy US commander in Kirkuk. _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email email@example.com All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk