Patrick CockburnEditor’s Note: This column originally appeared in The Independent.

Iraq’s three main communities each responded differently to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of 2003. Their responses deepened the divisions between them.

The Sunni, about 20 per cent of Iraq’s 27 million population and the dominant community for hundreds of years, supported armed resistance to the US from the beginning. The Shia, 60 per cent of Iraqis, did not resist the occupation so long as they could take power through elections as they believe they deserved to do as a majority. This attitude to the US may now be changing. Only the Kurds, also 20 per cent of Iraqis, fully back the US presence.

Ethnic and sectarian animosities in Iraq were always deeper than most Iraqis admitted but divisions have turned into chasms. There are fewer and fewer mixed neighbourhoods in Baghdad. The Shia, probably three-quarters of the capital’s population, are pushing back the Sunni into the south-west corner. Some 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes, becoming refugees either inside or outside the country according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

The Sunni have never really accepted the Shia predominance, claiming that they are Iranian puppets. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the largest bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, warned this week that Baghdad was in danger of falling into the hands of the “Persians” and “Safawis”, the Iranian dynasty that adopted Shi’ism.

The smaller minorities in Iraq have been among the worst affected communities because they do not have militias. Christians are deemed to be both vulnerable and rich and are therefore preyed on by kidnappers. Many have fled the country and are probably better able to leave than Muslims because of their connections abroad.

Some of the oldest communities in the world are disappearing. Christians who remain are often asked to pay a special tax to insurgents or convert to Islam.

The Mandean community in Baghdad was once famous for its soothsayers, goldsmiths and jewellers but their presumed wealth again made them a favourite target of criminals.

The size of minorities is often not known because most exaggerate their numbers. The Turkoman are mostly concentrated in or around Kirkuk but are also dominant in the city of Tal Afar west of Mosul. Turkey has made their cause its own but a bomb in a Shia Turkoman village south of Kirkuk killed 210 people and wounded 400 on 7 July. They may have been targeted by al-Qa’ida because they were Shia rather than because they were Turkoman.

Nineveh province, the capital of which is Mosul, is a mosaic of communities. There are 350,000 Yazidis with a religion which draws on Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, Judaism, early Christianity and Islam. There are also Shabaks who speak a variant of Kurdish and live mostly to the east of Mosul city. The Kurdish authorities would like to see both these groups voting as Kurds to join the Kurdistan Regional Government in a referendum to be held by the end of the year.

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