Rich Galen

Another fast-moving story overtook Our Nation's Capital this weekend as the Sunni insurgency that invaded and took control of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, last week and was marching on the capital of Baghdad.

The issue of Sunni/Shia (SHEE-uh) relations goes back to the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD. The extreme shorthand of the split between the two major branches of Islam stems from who was the true successor to Mohammed.

I have linked to a pretty good two-minute video by the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung that is from January, but tells the story very well. It is on the Secret Decoder Ring page.

Iraq, painted with a broad brush, has three major religions or sects that more-or-less control large swaths of the country: The Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds.

Kurds? They are of Iranian Sunni descent and live in the region of Iraq that borders Turkey and Iran. As we were told in every conversation with them during the Coalition Provisional Authority days, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the region without their own country.

Their part of Iraq, known as Kurdistan, has been among the most stable, if only because the political leadership decided it was more profitable to get along than to fight with each other, especially in light of the fact that Kurdistan has a significant percentage of Iraq's oil reserves.

Prior to World War I most of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, managed from Turkey. The Ottoman Empire made the bad choice of getting into World War I on the side of Germany and its allies, so following the "Great War" the European victors carved up the Middle East along tribal boundaries.

From the Tower Magazine:

Ottoman provinces became Arab kingdoms, while Christian and Jewish enclaves were carved out in Lebanon and Palestine. Syria, Libya, and Palestine were given names resurrected from Roman antiquity. Libya reappeared in 1934, when the Italians combined Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. The French mandate marked the first time "Syria" had been used as the name of a state, whereas "Palestine" was merely a Syrian appendage. Iraq had been a medieval province of the caliphate, whereas "Lebanon" referred to a mountain and "Jordan" to a river.

Trust me. Reading more, doesn't make it any clearer.

Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at