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Baghdad's Sunnis and Shiites Are Not Looking to Reconcile

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BAGHDAD — There’s an expectation here that there will be blood in the streets.

The U.S. Embassy on the Tigris River has been reinforced twice with extra troops. People here guess as to whether the explosion in violence will come in a day, a week or a month. But few think the violence won’t come.

Mistrust and anger between Sunnis and Shiites grows by the day. In a Shiite mosque, worshipers said that they want the Sunni areas where the ISIS militant group has established a foothold to be carpet-bombed.

“It should be like what the Russians did in Chechnya,” said one man.

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He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could borrow from Syrian President Bashar Assad and drop barrel bombs on Sunni extremists. The man, who described himself as a moderate, talked about turning Iraq into a Shiite-dominated state once and for all.

ISIS has directly threatened the United States, and several U.S. officials warn that the terrorist haven that ISIS has carved out here and in Syria is more dangerous than Afghanistan before 9/11.

That makes historical sense: This is a far more romantic and seductive place for a Muslim holy war than Afghanistan ever was.

A fighter who was with bin Laden at the time, and later spent years in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, told me he never liked Afghanistan. It was cold. It was remote. The people were inscrutable. They spoke Pashto, an exotic language unknown to the Arab recruits. Afghanistan was always a backwater in the Islamic world.

However, Afghanistan did offer Osama bin Laden a few advantages: He had a willing partner in his host, the Taliban, similarly minded fanatics who had recently come to power. Pakistan, also friendly territory, was just over the border.

Islamic fighters had also just fought and won, with considerable U.S. help, against the Soviet Union. The militants felt invincible. But Afghanistan never captured the imagination of the wider Muslim world. The country was always far away and hard to reach physically and culturally.

Iraq and Syria are far more historically and symbolically rich for jihad. These are the lands where the early battles of Islam unfolded.

Damascus was the seat of the Ummayad Caliphate in the 7th and 8th centuries. Iraq was home of the Abbasid Caliphate, a golden age when the Muslim world was at the forefront of math, science and medicine.

Sunnis and Shiites started their intractable civil war in Iraq and Syria. The region is Arabic-speaking. It is in the center of the Middle East. It’s close to Jerusalem, which ISIS militants say in propaganda they dream of taking over.

For many foreign fighters, the jihad in Iraq and Syria is a commuter war.

It’s hardly surprising that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi announced last weekend the start of a new caliphate. This region is, and always was, the land of the caliphs. And today it is taut with tension once again.

Iraqi Sunnis aren’t talking about reconciliation any more than Shiites are. Ibrahim al-Shammari, the spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, a militant group that fought U.S. troops, said even ISIS is preferable to Shiite domination.

He spoke via Skype from an undisclosed location that he said was in Iraq. His face was covered with a checked headscarf. Al-Shammari said Sunnis face an existential war of self-defense against the Shiite government that came to power after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

“We don’t support ISIS,” al-Shammari said. “We’re a group and they are a group, but when they (ISIS) fight against the Shiite forces, everyone rises up together.”