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Need to Know: The Sunnis, the Shiites and Their Conflict

So, Iraq. It's admittedly complicated. You hear the news, you hear about the Sunnis and the Shiites and you know there's internal conflict in the country, but you're not sure how, who, and why? Let's shake it out.

First, the Sunnis and the Shiites both practice Islam, the religion founded by Mohammed in the seventh century. They're just two branches of the Muslim religion. Here's where they differ:


The Sunnis: The Sunnis have a broader belief of who Mohammed intended to become religious heirs. They believe that heirs of the first four caliphs, (or political successors of the prophet Mohammed) should be recognized. US forces are currently working with non-extremist Sunni groups in Iraq. Interestingly, Osama bin Laden is a Sunni Muslim, as are 90 percent of the Muslim world. In Iraq, only 35 percent of the population is Sunni. To find out about the Shiites and the conflict, please, read more.

The Shiites: Their narrower view of legitimate religious leaders, means that they only recognize heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali. Since they experienced the disappearance of a religious leader, the Twelfth Imam in 931, the Shiites believe they have suffered. Until the ascendancy of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 the Shiites didn't believe they were living under the authority of a legitimate religious figure.

Here's one more difference: For Shiites, the Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one” who they think will bring a global Muslim caliphate into being, has already come and will return from hiding. For Sunnis, he has yet to arrive.

Why all the fighting? In addition to the above difference in belief, the Shiites have closer ties with Iran which is also Shiite. The Shiites also control the areas of Iraq that include the oilfields. Also, the Shiites were an oppressed majority under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. George H. W. Bush, after the first Gulf War, encouraged the Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis, provoking violence. When Saddam Hussein was removed, a power vacuum was created and is one of the main causes of the struggle taking place today.

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