Iraq is on the brink of civil war – so why does it let its police wear religious symbols?

Unlike so many of the other video nasties that come out of Iraq, the piece of amateur footage above does at least have a happy ending.  Despite being attacked by a pick-axe-wielding mob, the hapless British security guard who is the target of their wrath does manage to get away with his head more or less intact . For my money, though, it tells us a lot about what is wrong with Iraq as it currently is, and why it continues to teeter on the brink of sectarian civil war.

For those of you who, like me, missed this video when it first surfaced on YouTube back in November, the story is as follows. The man getting the beating is a security guard working down at the Rumaila oilfields in Basra, where several British security firms have contracts to keep foreign oil workers safe. His crime had been to ask his Iraqi staff to remove some flags commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, a Shia icon, from the security firm’s vehicles, saying it wasn’t company policy to display religious symbols.

What might have seemed a perfectly reasonable stance back in Britain was less so in Basra. Word quickly spread that he had insulted the Shia religion, and before long, he was confronted with an angry mob that attacked his vehicle and left him bloodied and battered.

Having had a vaguely similar experience myself once at the hands of a Basra mob, I can imagine how terrifying this must have been. The official response was also worrying: I’m told that the Iraqi police all but “melted away” rather than trying to stop the mob, resulting in foreign staff in the area having to be kept under lockdown in case matters escalated. Things did eventually calm down, but only after the personal intervention of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the British ambassador, Simon Collis, who went down to Basra to soothe things over. Mr Maliki later also called for the security guard to be deported.

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What it also shows, though, is that even questioning the presence of religious iconography is now a perilous thing to do in once-secular Iraq. True enough, in the south, which is largely Shia anyway, the presence of the Imam Hussein on a private security vehicle is unlikely to upset many people. It’s a bit like seeing a picture of the Pope or the Virgin Mary on a Brazilian cabbie’s dashboard in Brazil.

But it’s a different story up in the religiously mixed north, where Sunnis make up one third of the population. Here, Iraqis had a sectarian war between 2006 and 2007, which killed an estimated 30,000 people, so there is a certain sensitivity about symbols that identify with one religious faith or the other. As such, you might expect the govermment to be wary of allowing such symbols in certain sections of the public sphere – on buildings or vehicles used by the security services, for example.

Instead, pictures of the Imam Hussein can be seen everywhere, be it on the back window of police cars, on army checkpoints and on the walls of police stations. It’s the equivalent, roughly speaking, of the Police Service of Northern Ireland driving around Belfast with pictures of the Virgin Mary in their squad cars.

Yet Iraq’s Shia-dominated government makes no apparent effort to stop it, despite the fact that much of the rekindling of sectarian tensions has been driven by a sense among Sunnis that the Shia-dominated security forces are a sectarian force. As we have seen in recent weeks, that has helped al-Qaeda regain a foothold, and led to a resurgence in car bomb attacks that has pushed the death toll back up to around 1,000 a month.

Lest one be too hasty to pin the blame purely on the Iraqi government, it should be pointed out that Shia iconography first started appearing on security vehicles in the early days of the Western occupation.  A firmer stance then – recognising that in a multi-faith country, the forces of law and order should be seen to be neutral – might have saved more than just the beating of a British security guard.

More by Colin Freeman

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