By Martin Thomas
Since a Shia mosque in Samarra was bombed on 22 February, Iraq has taken a new lurch towards sectarian civil war. Over a thousand people have been killed, dozens of mosques bombed.
Three more mosques were attacked over the weekend 4-5 March. For the present, it looks as if the call for restraint by Shia-Islamist leaders such as Ayatollah Sistani has held back escalation into full-scale civil war.
Sectarian polarisation has been pushed to a higher stage. The Shia-Islamist leaders are in, or close to, government, and would rather try to stabilise their government than pitch into full civil war. But government forces are increasingly seen, by a wide range of Sunni Arabs, as just Shia-sectarian militias in uniform.
The Sunni-supremacist “resistance” people who bombed the mosque — and who killed 22 people by bombing a marketplace in a Shia area of Baghdad the previous day, and who have targeted hundreds of Shia over the last two weeks — are deadly reactionaries. But the US/ UK occupation, and the Shia-Islamist/ Kurdish Iraqi government under its protection, are grinding Iraqi society further into the abyss.
The main anti-sectarian force of substance is the new Iraqi labour movement that has emerged since 2003: fragmented, beleaguered, hard-pressed, but still standing firm. The most hopeful news recently has been the formation of a joint committee of the three main union federations - IWF, IFOU, FWCUI - and the Kurdish unions, after a meeting in Jordan in January which issued a joint statement of opposition to World Bank and IMF plans for Iraq.
Only by supporting that Iraqi labour movement — against the US/UK, and against both Shia and Sunni Islamists — can socialists and activists in Britain help the cause of a free, democratic, and secular Iraq.
The USA, in collaboration with Kurdish leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, has responded to Samarra by stepping up pressure on the United Iraqi Alliance (the Shia-Islamist coalition which is the biggest party in the elected assembly) to choose someone other than outgoing prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari to head the new government due to be formed after the December 2005 elections.
The Kurds don’t like Jaafari’s overtures to the Turkish government. The USA is anxious to get a government with some Sunni Arab representation, and without obvious Shia-sectarian control of the Interior Ministry.
The USA did not invent, or deliberately provoke, the tension in Iraq between Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Arabs. The suggestion — made in the Guardian and elsewhere — that the USA secretly did the Samarra bombing itself — is only a device to ward off questions for those who now, as in the Cold War, want to limit all political thought to the single idea “Yankee, bad”. The USA surely has assassination teams and dirty-tricks squads operating in Iraq. But why should it do something that visibly makes more difficult its aim of patching together a compliant, and minimally stable, Iraqi government?
But in a dozen ways the invasion and occupation has nourished sectarianism.
According to Hanna Batatu’s huge study, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, in the early 20th century: “Islam in Iraq was more a force of division than of integration. It split deeply Shii and Sunni Arabs. Socially they seldom mixed, and as a rule did not intermarry. In mixed cities they lived in separate quarters... To the strict Shiis, the government... of the Ottoman sultan that led Sunni Islam [and ruled the lands which are now Iraq for centuries before the British seized them after World War One] was in its essence a usurpation... They were... estranged from it, few caring to serve it or to attend its schools... [In any case] the writ of the authorities ran precariously outside the main towns”.
The monarchy which ruled Iraq from World War Two to 1958, under British protection, was also a Sunni regime, though less exclusively so. Elements of a non-sectarian Iraqi nationalism developed, and flowered in the few years of open political life after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. But by 1963 that open political life had been stifled by a coup led by the pan-Arabist, and therefore Sunni-inclined, Ba’th party.
As Batatu finished his book in 1978, he wrote: “The new national loyalty... is still hazy... unacceptable to the Kurds, poorly assimilative of the Shiis”.
As the Ba’th regime hardened into a totalitarian dictatorship, it also became rigidly Sunni. In 1991, after the Kuwait war, a heavily-Shia rising in southern Iraq, against the dictatorship, was ferociously repressed by Saddam’s Sunni-led army. For the next 12 years Saddam deliberately punished the south.
Any removal of the dictatorship was likely to lead to an increase of the political weight of the Shia Arab majority within Iraq. Inevitably some Sunni Arabs would fear “revenge”; but a secular government which provided some workable democracy and redistributed to social purposes the huge funds seized by Saddam for the military and the bureaucracy, could have managed the shift without making the majority of Sunni Arabs feel they were being done down.
Instead, the US/UK invasion shattered not only the dictatorship, but also the basics of public administration. And the more-or-less secular exile politicians whom the USA favoured — people like Iyad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi — were seen by most Iraqis as corrupt and alien opportunists.
Amid the looting and chaos after the invasion, Iraqis turned to their mosques as the only strong institutions that might help them. The brutality and arrogance of the occupation — both of the officials issuing economic decrees from within Saddam's old palaces, and of the nervous, trigger-happy troops careering round the streets in armoured vehicles — quickly rallied many Iraqis to the Sunni-Islamist “resistance”.
Just this week (6 March), Amnesty International has reported that US troops are holding about 14,000 Iraqis in jail without charge. Thousands of others have been through jail and eventually released “without explanation or apology or reparation after months of detention, victims of a system that is arbitrary and a recipe for abuse.”
By now there can be hardly an Arab in Iraq, especially not a Sunni Arab, who has not had a member of their extended family killed, injured, or jailed by the Americans or British.
The USA’s chosen methods of “reconstruction” — doling out almost all contracts to American companies — have seen billions of Iraqi money spent, without yet establishing jobs, clean water, or reliable electricity for the people.
A comment by a Sunni Arab driver in Baghdad on how he gets round the city, quoted by the Pakistan Daily Times (1 March), sums up the deterioration: “This one says I’m Badr [Shia-Islamist militia], this one I show to police, and I have the American press pass and my ordinary ID. I applied for a Mahdi Army pass [another Shia-Islamist militia] on Friday... I am Sunni so these passes mean I don’t get in trouble with anyone while I’m out and about”.
Millions of Iraqis have fled the country, to Jordan or further away if they have the means.
The softer Sunni Islamists, around the Iraqi offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, now say: “We would refuse the withdrawal of American forces during this period. They have to fix what they destroyed … [and] guarantee that no sect will dominate the other sect and no party will dominate another party.” (Salman Jumayli, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Accordance Front).
“When the Americans entered Iraq, the Shia helped them a lot, and the Sunnis stood against them,” says another Front spokesperson. But “the Sunnis are now accepting the American political direction. It’s not suitable for the Americans to leave.”
Nervous of further US losses, the US troops have not even attempted to protect mosques and neighbourhoods under sectarian attack since 22 February. Their presence — and their jailing of so many thousands — causes resentment, while offering nothing positive.
A sudden scuttling by the USA would probably embolden the Sunni-Arab “resistance” to take the offensive, and shatter the fragile ruling Kurdish-Shia alliance, thus tipping Iraq into a full-scale civil war which could only end by it being chopped up into segments ruled by inflamed Shia and Sunni Islamists and by Kurdish warlords. But the USA’s current course leads more slowly towards the same conclusion.