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Iraq's Sunni-Shia split thrives Add to ...

Baghdad - "How do you like the checkpoints?" asked the retired Iraqi diplomat as we drove together across part of Baghdad and stopped for the umpteenth time for a seemingly meaningless inspection.

"These people are so stupid," he said, motioning toward the soldiers.

"They don't know what they're looking for. They don't even know their orders."

The 60-something former official, was tall, about 185 cm, and cultured in his appearance. He wore a small neat mustache and, otherwise, was clean shaven. His clothes, though casual, were well made and carefully pressed. He somehow kept his expensive brown shoes shining even in this, a city of dust, debris and detritus.

He was the kind of man to whom guards and doormen naturally gravitated.

He exuded importance and they wanted to shake his hand, almost kiss his ring.

The diplomat, who had served in South and Southeast Asia, had retired to Damascus when things became particularly violent here in 2006. He returned to visit his married daughter who still was at university here.

He is a Sunni, a member of the class of Iraqis who had fought with the Turks against the British in the First World War, who rose up against the British administration here in the 1920s, and later were selected by those same British to be the new country's ruling class, just as their ancestors had been chosen by the Ottomans.

The soldiers to whom the diplomat referred so disparagingly were Shiites; as were many of the serving class who rushed to greet him or hold his door open.

Mostly from the South of the country, the Shiites constitute a majority in Iraq. Indeed, their branch of Islam was founded here 13 centuries ago, when descendents of the Prophet Mohammed were martyred. The faith later spread east to Iran and other countries.

As the former diplomat and I walked the final 200 meters or so to the walled home where he was staying, he told me he had heard that there was a conspiracy being planned by the leaders of the Shia community to convulse the country in a new civil war. "They work for Iran," he said.

"You Westerners are always lecturing us about democracy, as if it's some magic cure," he chided me.

"Well look what it's brought us: hundreds of political parties and rampant corruption."

"The politicians lie to the people just to get elected, especially Hakim," he said, referring to Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the country's largest Shia religious party.

"God help us," he said. "What this country needs is another dictator.

That's the only way to keep those people in line."

He bade me goodnight, and carefully locked his iron garden door behind him.

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