The sectarian violence that has swept across Iraq
following last month's terrorist bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara is yet
another example of the tragic consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation
of Iraq. Until the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation, Iraq had maintained a
long-standing history of secularism and a strong national identity among its
Arab population despite its sectarian differences.
Not only has the United States failed to bring a functional democracy to Iraq,
neither U.S. forces nor the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in Baghdad have been
able to provide the Iraqi people with basic security. This has led many ordinary
citizens to turn to extremist sectarian groups for protection, further undermining
the Bush administration's insistence that American forces must remain in Iraq
in order to prevent a civil war.
Top analysts in the CIA and State Department, as well as large numbers of Middle
East experts, warned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could result in a violent
ethnic and sectarian conflict. Even some of the war's intellectual architects
acknowledged as much: In a 1997 paper, prior to becoming major figures in the
Bush foreign policy team, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith predicted
that a post-Saddam Iraq would likely be "ripped apart" by sectarianism
and other cleavages but called on the United States to "expedite"
such a collapse anyway.
As a result, the tendency in the United States to blame "sectarian conflict"
and "long-simmering hatreds" for the Sunni-Shi'ite violence in Iraq
is, in effect, blaming the victim.
Fostering Fragmentation and Conflict
One of the long-standing goals of such neoconservative
intellectuals has been to see the Middle East broken up into smaller ethnic
or sectarian mini-states, which would include not only large stateless nationalities
like the Kurds, but Maronite Christians, Druze, Arab Shi'ites, and others. Such
a policy comes not out of respect for the right of self-determination – indeed,
the neocons have been steadfast opponents of the Palestinians' desire for statehood,
even alongside a secure Israel – but out of an imperial quest for divide-and-rule.
The division of the Middle East has long been seen as a means of countering
the threat of pan-Arab nationalism and, more recently, pan-Islamist movements.
Given the mosaic of ethnicities and sects in the Middle East, with various groupings
having mixed together within both urban and rural settings for many generations,
the establishment of such ethnic or sectarian mini-states would almost certainly
result in forced population transfers, ethnic cleansing, and other human suffering.
The risk of Iraq breaking up into a Sunni Kurdish state, a Sunni Arab state,
and a Shi'ite Arab state is now very real. And, given the intermixing of these
populations in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and scores of other cities, the potential
exists for the most violent breakup of a country since the partition of India
60 years ago. Recent weeks have shown ominous signs of what may be yet to come
on a massive scale, as scores of Shi'ite families were forced to flee what were
once mixed neighborhoods in and around Baghdad.
Even barring a formal breakup of the country, the prospects of a stable unified
country look bleak. As the Los Angeles Times reported on Feb. 26, "The
outlines of a future Iraq are emerging: a nation where power is scattered among
clerics turned warlords; control over schools, hospitals, railroads, and roads
is divided along sectarian lines; graft and corruption subvert good governance;
and foreign powers exert influence only over a weak central government."
Much of Iraq's current divisions can be traced to the decision of U.S. occupation
authorities immediately following the conquest to abolish the Iraqi army and
purge the government bureaucracy – both bastions of secularism – thereby creating
a vacuum that was soon filled by sectarian parties and militias. In addition,
the U.S. occupation authorities – in an apparent effort of divide-and-rule –
encouraged sectarianism by dividing up authority based not on technical skills
or ideological affiliation but ethnic and religious identity. As with Lebanon,
however, such efforts have actually exacerbated divisions, with virtually every
political question debated not on its merits, but on which group it potentially
benefits or harms. This has led to great instability, with political parties,
parliamentary blocs, and government ministries breaking down along sectarian
Even army divisions are separated, with parts of western Baghdad being patrolled
by army units dominated by Sunnis while eastern Baghdad is being patrolled by
Shi'ite-dominated units. Without unifying national institutions, the breakup
of the country remains a real possibility.
Theologically, there are fewer differences between
Sunnis and Shi'ites than there are between Catholics and Protestants. In small
Iraqi towns of mixed populations with only one mosque, Sunnis and Shi'ites worship
together. Intermarriage is not uncommon. This harmony is now threatening to
Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the Sunni Muslims, have a clear hierarchy. (Ayatollahs,
for example, are essentially the equivalent of Catholic cardinals.) As a result,
the already existing clerical-based social structures in the Shi'ite community
were among the few organizations to survive Saddam's totalitarian regime and
were therefore more easily capable of organizing themselves politically when
U.S. forces overthrew the government in Baghdad in 2003. Sunni and secular groupings,
then, found themselves at a relative disadvantage when they suddenly found themselves
free to organize.
As a result, the United States initially insisted on indefinite rule by Iraqis
picked directly or indirectly by Washington. However, when hundreds of thousands
of Shi'ites took to the streets in January 2004 demanding the right to choose
their country's leaders, the Bush administration reluctantly agreed to hold
direct elections. Having been dominated by Sunnis under the Ba'athists, the
Hashemites, and the Ottomans, the Shi'ite majority was eager to rule. Not surprisingly,
elections have brought Shi'ite religious parties to power which have since marginalized
other groups and imposed their repressive and misogynist version of Islamic
law in parts of Iraq where they dominate, particularly in the south of the country.
Sunni opposition to Shi'ite dominance does not just stem from resentment at
losing their privileged position in Iraqi political life under the former dictatorship.
Indeed, Saddam Hussein suppressed his fellow Sunni Arabs along with Sunni Kurds
and Shi'ite Arabs.
What U.S. officials have failed to recognize is that Iraq's Sunni Arab minority,
regardless of its feelings about Saddam Hussein's regime, has long identified
with Arab nationalism. Not surprisingly, the armed resistance that emerged following
Saddam's removal from power three years ago by U.S. forces has come largely
from the Sunni Arab community. The insurgency has also targeted the U.S.-backed
Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government, which came to power as a result of the U.S.
invasion and which many see as being puppets of the U.S. occupation. They also
fear that the Iraqi government may identify more with their fellow Shi'ites
of Iran than with other Arabs. More radical Sunni chauvinists, many of whom
are foreign Salafi extremists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have engaged in widespread
terrorist attacks again Shi'ite civilians and their holy places.
Despite its dependence on the United States and ties to Iran, however, the
Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government has its own agenda. Culturally and linguistically,
Iraq's Shi'ites are every bit as Arab as the Sunnis. Yet while the vast majority
of the country's Shi'ite Arab majority has no desire to be pawns of either Iran
or the United States, the response by the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government
and Shi'ite militias has done little to lessen Sunni fears and hostility. Seeing
their government faced with a growing insurgency and their community falling
victim to terrorist violence, the Shi'ites have responded with aggressive counter-insurgency
and counter-terrorist operations against the Sunni community. Human rights abuses
by Shi'ites against the Sunni minority have increased dramatically, polarizing
the country still further.
Even before the latest upsurge in sectarian violence, the Baghdad morgue was
reporting that dozens of bodies of Sunni men with gunshot wounds to the back
of the head would arrive at the same time every week, including scores of corpses
with wrists bound by police handcuffs.
John Pace, the outgoing head of the United Nations'
human rights monitoring group in Iraq, has reported that hundreds of Sunnis
are being subjected to summary execution and death from torture every month
by Iraqi government death squads, primarily controlled by the Ministry of the
High-ranking American officers have reported that radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's
Mahdi Army maintains a strong presence in the regular police force, including
up to 90 percent of the 35,000 officers currently working in the northeastern
part of Baghdad. In addition, the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade dominates police
commando units. A police unit known as the Punishment Committee goes after civilians
believed to be flouting Islamic laws or the authority of Shi'ite militia leaders,
The Shi'ite government of Iran, long cited for its human rights abuses by both
the Bush administration and reputable human rights organizations, has actively
supported Shi'ite militias within the Iraqi government and security forces. (Despite
this, the Bush administration and its supporters – including many prominent Democrats – have
been putting forth the ludicrous theory that Iran is actually supporting the
anti-Shi'ite and anti-American Sunni insurgency.) Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan
Jabr was trained by Iran's infamous Revolutionary Guards and later served as
a leader of the Badr Brigade, the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq.
Americans have also trained Interior Ministry police and commandoes, though
– unlike some notorious cases in recent Latin American history – there is little
evidence to suggest that U.S. trainers have actively encouraged death squad
activity. Still, there is little question that actions by U.S. occupation troops
over the past three years – such as the torture of detainees, the hair-trigger
response at checkpoints, the liberal use of force in heavily populated civilian
neighborhoods, and the targeted assassinations of suspected insurgent leaders
– have contributed to the climate of impunity exhibited by forces of the Iraqi
Mr. Pace has also observed how U.S. troops are making things worse by rounding
up large numbers of innocent young Sunni men and detaining them for months.
Noting how such "military intervention causes serious human rights and
humanitarian problems to large numbers of innocent civilians," he lamented
at the fact that many of these detainees, in reaction to their maltreatment,
later joined Sunni terrorist groups following their release.
Despite last month's terrorist bombing of the Shi'ite shrine and the tragic
killings that followed, however, there were also impressive signs of unity.
In cities throughout Iraq, Sunnis and Shi'ites mobilized to protect each other's
mosques and neighborhoods.
Even the young firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr emphasized to his followers,
"It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine … but rather the occupation
[forces] and Ba'athists." He called on his followers not to attack Sunni
mosques and ordered his Mahdi Army to "protect both Shia and Sunni shrines."
He went on to say, "My message to the Iraqi people is to stand united and
bonded, and not to fall into the Western trap. The West is trying to divide
the Iraqi people." In a later interview, Sadr claimed, "We say that
the occupiers are responsible for such crisis [Golden Mosque bombing] … there
is only one enemy. The occupier."
Similarly, Sunnis were quick to express their solidarity with Shias in a series
of demonstrations in Samara and elsewhere. Anti-American signs and slogans permeated
these marches. Indeed, there is a widespread belief that it was the United States,
not fellow Muslims or Iraqis, that bears responsibility for the tragedy. Even
Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi claimed the United States was responsible
for the bombing of the Golden Mosque, "especially since occupation forces
did not comply with curfew orders imposed by the Iraqi government." He
added, "Evidence indicates that the occupation may be trying to undermine
and weaken the Iraqi government."
Though charges of a U.S. conspiracy are presumably groundless, it does underscore
the growing opposition by both communities to the ongoing U.S. military presence
in their country and how the United States has little credibility left with
either community as a mediator, peacekeeper, overseer, or anything else.
And it underscores the urgency for the United States to withdraw from Iraq
as soon as possible.