Plays Well With Others...
A little background on the news from Iraq:
1: the Shia.
The most prestigious person in the Shia community today is Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He is the highest ranking cleric and has been a major moderating force. He even forced the Americans to make the legislative council responsible for writing the constitution to be elected, rather than appointed. He also mediated an end to the anti-US Shia uprising early after the invasion. He opposes an Islamic government.
The other major Shi'ite is Muqtada al-Sadr. He has been portrayed as more radical because he lead those early revolts, he has kept a militia (the Mahdi army) and wants some form of Islamic government. On the other hand, he has reached out to the major sunni leaders in order to create a united Iraqi front. He is outranked by Sistani (the Shia have a clerical heirarchy) and thus will defer to him sometimes, but the two have their differences and Sadr may not be so easily convinced to stop retaliating this time (if he even has the power to do so, the mob may be tough to control). He is very popular due to the fact that his family stayed in Iraq under Saddam Husayn, and many prominent members of his family were killed (martyred) by Husayn.
2: The Sunnis.
There are several points of view among the sunni community.
a)Most leaders have urged peaceful cooperation with the Shia as the best way to ensure their rights. They want to make alliances with Shia factions in order to protect themselves in parlaiment. This is not to say that relations are always smooth, but they are slowly coming to grips with the fact that they must adapt to the political reality (a shia plurality) to survive.
b)the Islamist insurgents. They are split on how to deal with the shia. Some say,(paraphrased) "lets unite with the shi'a in jihad vs. the Americans", (the NYTimes Magazine for Feb. 19 mentions some who think that).
The more radical (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group) disagree. To them, the Shi'a are a bastardizing of Islam to such an extent that they are virtually unbelievers. Especially they hate the Shia practice of venerating the 12 Imams (certain descendant of the Prophet Muhammad treated sort of like saints). They think its idolatry. The mosque they blew up yesterday was a shrine to one of the Imams. An alliance with them would be un-Islamic.
The Zarqawi-ites have three goals. First, they want to prevent Shia domination. Second, they want to make life in Iraq even more difficult for the US. Third, they hope that prolonged anger towards the US presence in Iraq (and the retaliation of the Shia) will gain them more recruits within Iraq and outside.
we'd all better hope this cycle of retaliations ends soon, because it could spiral out of control very easily. The longer it goes on the tougher it will be for sunni and Shia leaders to stop it. If it does explode, it will be a huge propoganda victory for Zarqawi and the radical insurgents. The Shi'ites have been attacked several times before, and usually they have remained calm and worked through the politcal process, knowing that they had numbers on their side in an election. They may have been hit one too many times now, and in too sacred a spot.
I hope this helps. It is difficult to sort through the crap on the news.
Forgot to add. On "What side do we choose". There is not much we can do. My hunch is we will try to go after the radical insurgents (again). At the same time we will behind the scenes try to get Sistani to convince Sadr to keep the shia from retaliating. If he doesnt listen, we may have to go after some of the Mahdi army as well (again). we will try to be "fair" but no one in Iraq will see it that way.
In any case, it is a no-win situation for the US if this goes on much longer. the shia will say, "since the US is still here, this has happened to us". And the Sunnis will say, "see, the US wants the Shia to win, thats why they want democracy, they are against Islam". Even those who were happy in Iraq to see Saddam Husayn go will admit that 3 years later, the US cannot provide them with the security they need to survive.
And dont forget the Kurds. They would love to be more autonomous, maybe even independant, and a civil war between the sunni and Shia arabs might be just the excuse they want. This would cause much instability in the region, especially to our ally Turkey, which has a big Kurdish population that has been oppressed for the past century.
What's even more troubling is the "democracy" initiative inthe Mid East. Every country there is an ethnic and religious mosaic, like Iraq. The places that have tried democracy have not been pillars of success: Lebanon(civil war from 1975-90), Iran (nukes), Palestine (corrupt PLO, now Hamas), Algeria (civil war since 1990), Turkey is ok, but it had 3 military coups between 1960-80 (and is very oppressive towards its kurds), and now Iraq (potential civil war). If Iraq fails to be a democracy, it will set back the cause of democracy in the Mid East for decades (remember how Bush promised us that a free Iraq help democracy in the ME?).
Then again, maybe Bush hopes the rapture wll come and he wont have to deal with all of this...