March 7, 2006
sectarian violence which 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
longstanding history of secularism and a strong national identity among
its Arab population despite its sectarian differences.
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.
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.
a result, the tendency in the United States to blame "sectarian
conflict" and "long-simmering hatreds" for the Sunni-Shiite violence in
Iraq is, in effect, blaming the victim.
Fostering Fragmentation and Conflict
of the longstanding 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 Shiites, 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.
risk of Iraq breaking up into a Sunni Kurdish state, a Sunni Arab
state, and a Shiite 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 sixty years ago. Recent weeks have
shown ominous signs of what may be yet to come on a massive scale, as
scores of Shiite 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 February 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."
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 which 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 lines.
army divisions are separated, with parts of western Baghdad being
patrolled by army units dominated by Sunnis while eastern Baghdad is
being patrolled by Shiite-dominated units. Without unifying national
institutions, the breakup of the country remains a real possibility.
there are fewer differences between Sunnis and Shiites than there are
between Catholics and Protestants. In small Iraqi towns of mixed
populations with only one mosque, Sunnis and Shiites worship together.
Intermarriage is not uncommon. This harmony is now threatening to
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
Shiite 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.
a result, the United States initially insisted on indefinite rule by
Iraqis picked directly or indirectly by Washington. However, when
hundreds of thousands of Shiites 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 Baathists, the Hashemites, and the
Ottomans, the Shiite majority was eager to rule. Not surprisingly,
elections have brought Shiite 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.
opposition to Shiite 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 Shiite Arabs.
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 which 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
Shiite-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 Shiites 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
Shiite civilians and their holy places.
its dependence on the United States and ties to Iran, however, the
Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has its own agenda. Culturally and
linguistically, Iraq's Shiites are every bit as Arab as the Sunnis. Yet
while the vast majority of the country's Shiite Arab majority has no
desire to be pawns of either Iran or the United States, the response by
the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and Shiite 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 Shiites have responded with aggressive
counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations against the Sunni
community. Human rights abuses by Shiites against the Sunni minority
have increased dramatically, polarizing the country still further.
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.
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
American officers have reported that radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's
Al-Mahdi Army maintains a strong presence in the regular police force,
including up to 90% 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 Shiite militia leaders, particularly
Shiite government of Iran, long cited for its human rights abuses by
both the Bush administration and reputable human rights organizations,
has actively supported Shiite 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-Shiite
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.
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 government.
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.
last month's terrorist bombing of the Shiite shrine and the tragic
killings that followed, however, there were also impressive signs of
unity. In cities throughout Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites mobilized to
protect each other's mosques and neighborhoods.
the young firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada 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 Al-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
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, which 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
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.
Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus (www.fpif.org). He is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).