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Caught in the Crossfire

Mike Whitney


March 1, 2006

The events of the last week have created considerable uncertainty among Iraq-watchers about what is actually taking place on the ground. It is increasingly difficult to know who is generating the violence and why. Particularly puzzling, is trying to identify the motives behind the destruction of the Golden Dome Mosque and the massive reprisals which occurred with such astonishing speed that they seemed to be pre-arranged.

Were they? Were the "grisly attacks and other sectarian violence unleashed by last week’s bombing"…"which killed more than 1,300 Iraqis" (Washington Post) merely a spontaneous reaction to the destruction of the Askariya Mosque, or were they part of a broader strategy to incite civil war?

And why were so many of those who were killed …"shot, knifed, garroted or suffocated by plastic bags over their heads". (Washington Post) Many others were killed gangland-style with hands bound behind their backs and a gunshot wound to the head.

Is this the method of killing that we would normally expect from rampaging mobs, or is it more like a deliberate campaign of terror designed to spread fear throughout the community.

In Max Fuller’s seminal article, "For Iraq, 'The Salvador-Option, becomes Reality", Fuller points out that the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s death squads were, in fact, trained by agents from the CIA who had honed their skills in Vietnam and El Salvador. (Recently even the New York Times has admitted that these groups received American training) Fuller sees the same pattern appearing in Iraq as in other American-backed counterinsurgency operations. He says:

"In Iraq the war comes in two phases. The first phase is complete: the destruction of the existing state, which did not comply with the interests of British and American capital. The second phase consists of building a new state tied to those interests and smashing every dissenting sector of society."

Fuller’s observations are consistent with what we already know about the deliberate destruction of Iraqi institutions, infrastructure, trade unions, peasant organizations and academics. The Iraqi state is being systematically decimated to pave the way for the new order.

Fuller states: "Behind every imperialist counter-insurgency war…lurks the reality of exploitation and class war, and, as successive imperialist powers have shown, the bottom line in combating the hopes and dreams of ordinary people is to resort to spreading terror through the application of extreme violence. In Iraq, the Salvador Option may mean returning home to find your entire family seated at a table with their own severed heads served to them and a bowl of blood for relish."

So, how does Fuller’s theory square with the reality of this week’s violence in Iraq?

Well, for one thing, Iraqi-born novelist, Haifa Zangana, confirms that there is "a systematic assassination-campaign" directed at academics and human rights activists which is designed to "destroy intellectual life in Iraq". Hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals have been killed without prompting even one investigation by occupation authorities.

Does that sound intentional?

We also have on record the observations of Construction Minister Jassem Mohammed Jaafar who investigated the site of the bombed-out Askariya Mosque and acknowledged that it "was the work of specialists…..Holes were dug into the mausoleum’s four main pillars and packed with explosives. Then charges were connected together and linked to another charge placed just under the dome. The wires were then linked to a detonator which was triggered at a distance."

Who benefits from such a vicious attack on one of the main icons of Islamic identity?

Some observers are suggesting that Muqtada al-Sadr, the defiant adversary of the US occupation, may have been behind the bombing so that his "black-clad" Mahdi Army could sweep through Baghdad purging his Sunni enemies.

Could al-Sadr be operating secretly as an agent of Iran establishing himself as a main-player in a future Iraqi Islamic state?

It’s possible.

After all, The Washington Post states that, "Many of the bodies had their hands still bound—and many of them had wound up at the morgue after what their families had said was their abduction by the Mahdi Army, the Shi’ite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr."

Al-Sadr has denied any involvement in the carnage that followed the bombing. But, is he lying? Did agents from the Interior Ministry dress in black so they would look like the Mahdi Army and, thus, connect al-Sadr to the hostilities?

It is impossible to know.

We do know, however, that al-Sadr met the very next day with representatives of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) and called for an immediate end to the bloodshed.

He also delivered a speech that was suspiciously omitted from western press-coverage where he demanded an end to the violence and an immediate withdrawal of all occupation forces.

He said, "The Iraqi people must not be divided"…"they are one from north to south"….He called for "joint Friday communal prayers with both Sunnis and Shiites" affirming that "there are no Sunni or Shiites mosques, you are a single people."

"Do you want to give aid to the enemy? Do you want to render the occupier victorious? Do you wish to make Satan triumphant or do you wish to help the truth.

No, no to falsehood," he shouted.

"Our Iraq is passing through a big crisis, insofar as our enemies are entering among our brethren and spreading turmoil among you."

"Do not forget the plotting of the Occupation, for if we forget its plots it will kill us all without exception. This series of attacks is not the first and it won’t be the last. The attacks will continue. Beware, and be responsible. Religion is your responsibility, mosques are your responsibility, the Muslim people are your responsibility, so do not attack the secure houses of God. Love one another and be brethren of one another so that our Iraq will be secure and stable and independent. We want the expulsion of the Occupier and the American ambassador." (Juan Cole; "Informed Comment")

Is al-Sadr sincere or is this just another political ploy to boost his popularity?

The problem with al-Sadr’s speech is that it doesn’t fit with the facts as we know them. The relatives of many of the victims of the killing spree spoke only of Sadrists, not of death squads. Also, a number of bloggers have stated unequivocally that it was the Mahdi Army who led the attacks.

What’s most damaging to al-Sadr, however, is the fact that over 1,300 Iraqis were killed and 200 mosques destroyed in the rampage. How could the Interior Ministry’s meager death squads kill on a scale like that? That would require a small army…. the Mahdi Army. This makes al-Sadr the prime suspect in the Baghdad massacre.

So what does al-Sadr gain from all this?

Well, for the time being he is the most powerful man in Baghdad. He’s out-maneuvered the Iraqi Security Forces, the US Army, and Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Jaafari. His ruthlessness and political cunning have made him Iraq’s newest political powerbroker. Many people now believe that he is more influential than Supreme Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The ascendancy of al-Sadr demonstrates the inability of the United States to bring either democracy or security to the Iraqi people. Al-Sadr has simply filled a security-vacuum created by the occupation. As political analyst Phyllis Bennis says, "The declared US strategy of training an Iraqi counter-insurgency military force to replace US and 'coalition’ troops is a failure."

The Bush plan has completely backfired and put forces in motion that can no longer be controlled. The Iraqi-state has been crushed, but a multi-headed hydra has sprung up in its place making the country ungovernable. The US now faces an intractable resistance on the one hand and militia-violence on the other. Both will continue to gnaw-away relentlessly at America’s vulnerabilities.

Iraq’s devolution into anarchy does not bode well for the occupation. The factionalized-asymmetrical warfare is best-suited to disparate groups who can strike at will and disappear into the crowd. Guerilla attacks counteract the US military’s strongest assets; high-tech weaponry and overwhelming force. We can expect a "long slog" as conditions continue to degenerate.

It’s going to be "militia-rule" for quite a while in the new Iraq. America can either withdraw now or prepare to get caught in the crossfire.

:: Article nr. 21115 sent on 02-mar-2006 01:03 ECT


:: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website.

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