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Story Publication logo December 29, 2008

Syria Sees No Sectarian Strife Among Iraqis

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An exodus of more than 2 million Iraqis is reshaping the Middle East -- with ominous implications...


SAIDA ZAINAB, Syria - As a Sunni Muslim married to a Shia, Hamid Al Dulayme was threatened by both sides in Baghdad. When militia members broke into his house in 2005, he fled Iraq.

In Syria, he says, he has left sectarian conflict behind.

"The best thing here is there is no problem between different groups," Dulayme says.

When Iraqis began pouring into Syria two and a half years ago, authorities here feared that they would bring their country's sectarian divide with them.

"That, in fact, has not happened," says Laurens Jolles, the representative here of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The reasons, he says, are several.

"If you ask people, they say, 'Well, we want to get away from that.'

"But also, they tend to live in a certain degree of separation. You go to Saida Zainab, it will be not exclusively but mainly Shias. You go to Jaramana, it's a lot of Christians and some Sunnis. They tend to stay within their own communities."

Jolles says authorities in this largely Sunni country ruled by members of the Shia-related Alawite sect also deserve credit.

"It's been very clearly the policy of the Syrian government not to encourage any sectarian problems by favoring one group over another," he says. "And by being very perceptive of what's happening."

Iraqis here say they are fatigued by the divide. Aid workers have learned it is rude to ask an Iraqi whether he is Shia or Sunni; apparently there is some sensitivity about a conflict that Iraqis say didn't exist before the U.S. occupation.

In truth, Iraq was never a paradise of intersectarian harmony. While Shia held positions in the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, they also were singled out periodically for abuse by his security forces. But at the popular level, Iraqis say, there was nothing to compare with the violence that has raged between sectarian militants during the last 2½ years.

Sebti Jouma operates the register at Faleh Abu Al-Anbar Restaurant in Saida Zainab. On the wall behind him is a bright painting of the Saida Zainab Mosque, the Shia shrine that drawn Iraqis to this town. The television shows a sermon by Al Qazwini, a popular Shia imam.

Still, Jouma says, "There is no difference between Shia and Sunni. Here we are all one heart. In Iraq only is where there are problems."

Dalia Jawad, a Sunni woman, echoes his comments.

"There is no conflict between Shia and Sunni here," she says at the U.N. refugee registration center in the Damascus suburb of Douma. "I have Shia friends. It is like Iraq before the war."

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