Religion front and center in Iraq

WASHINGTON -- Christians are being targeted in Iraq. It's not because they are one of the dominant groups vying to run the country. They aren't. Their clerics also are not part of Iraq's religious elite, although Christianity has deep roots in that country.
As the New York Times reported recently, since the Bush administration launched the invasion of Iraq 31/2 years ago, church bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and threats have become a daily part of Christian life. And the persecution of Christians began even before Pope Benedict XVI called attention to the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who had some unkind things to say about Islam. Many churches in Baghdad have been forced to cancel services, the Times reports, and some have not met since.
Why? Because religion is moving front and center in Iraq, and to be a Christian in that Islamic nation has become dangerous.
But it's equally risky to be a Shiite living among Sunnis or a Sunni residing in a province dominated by Shiites. These days, if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, religion can get you kidnapped, tortured and beheaded.
If that isn't enough, toss into this cauldron Americans in military uniform, many in the flower of their youth. Most have no idea why religious extremists are tearing each other apart. Trained to fight wars and combat terrorism, American troops have instead been engaged in sweeps through Baghdad's slums in an effort to uproot religiously chauvinistic death squads hellbent on destroying each other. For rendering that service to the Iraqi people (who should be doing the job themselves), America has been paying a high price in blood and treasure, and with little apparent success.
Instead of the violence being reduced, sectarian bloodshed and attacks in Baghdad have shot up 22 percent in the past three weeks. American military fatalities are occurring at the highest rate in more than a year, reports The Post. And toward what end?
Look at the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq taking shape.
In the eyes of the Bush administration and its foreign policy allies in Washington, Iraqi reconstruction and the march toward democracy are just a matter of time. All that's needed is for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi armed forces to quell the sectarian violence. Put together the right alliances and the problem is solved, they believe. They see the answer to Iraq's problems in political terms.
But there are other aspects of Iraq that bother those of us who aren't as smart as the brilliant Washington thinkers who got us where we are today.
Prewar talk
Some of us can't forget the prewar talk about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's partnership with al-Qaida, and how wrong the foreign policy elite were about that.
Then there was the rosy post-Saddam world portrayed by the Bush administration, in which Iraqis, liberated from the grip of fear and imbued with a deep and abiding respect for human rights and freedom, would be busy building a better future for themselves.
Now let's return to the Christians.
From Tuesday's New York Times: "Conditions have been especially bleak for Christians in Basra, the southern city that is dominated by radical Shiite militias. Christian women there often wear Muslim head scarves to avoid harassment from religious zealots trying to impose a strict Islamic dress code." An Iraqi woman who attends the country's only Anglican church told the Times that she wears a head scarf anytime she goes outside her neighborhood. "I am afraid of being attacked," she said.
A priest was beheaded last week. A bomb blast at a Baghdad church killed two worshipers recently. From this mayhem, however, the Bush administration averts its gaze.
But the truth has been present all along for those who would dare to see it.
Within months of the U.S. invasion in 2003, The Post's Anthony Shadid and Rajiv Chandrasekaran were reporting on religious fissures in Iraq. The deepening divisions among Iraq's principal religious and ethnic groups were a regular theme in their writing.
But the White House and its cheerleaders would have had us think otherwise -- that the source of trouble was solely foreign infiltrators and remnants of Saddam's Baathist Party.
There is a new Iraq emerging before our eyes.
It is an Iraq that torments Christians, that indulges in unrelenting sectarian bloodbaths, that cheers for Hezbollah.
King is deputy editorial-page editor and a columnist at The Post.

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