"Sunnis and Shiites are united"
April 16, 2004 | Page 5
LEE SUSTAR looks at the roots of the revolt against occupation in Iraq.
IRAQ'S NATIONAL movement to liberate the country from U.S. occupation has shown its power--and will continue to grow until the occupiers are forced to withdraw. That's the long-term reality that Washington is dealing with in the wake of last week's armed uprisings across Iraq.
The U.S. may regain its footing, either through brute force or a series of deals--but every bomb dropped on a mosque, every midnight raid in a Baghdad neighborhood, and every civilian killed by U.S. forces generates more recruits for the resistance.
"We can beat these guys, and we're proving our resolve," claimed an anonymous military officer to a New York Times reporter. "But unless the political side keeps up, we'll have to do it again after [the new Iraqi government takes over] July 1, and maybe in September, and again next year, and again and again."
The U.S. Marines' savage repression that killed hundreds in Falluja, along with the simultaneous crackdown on Shiite Muslim followers of militant cleric Moktadr al-Sadr, succeeded only in spurring revolts in cities across central and southern Iraq. Iraqi police either refused to fight the insurgents--or joined them. A unit of the new U.S.-trained Iraqi armed forces mutinied against orders to join the attack on Fallluja.
Shiite mosques took donations of blood and food for Sunni Muslims trapped in Falluja. Sunnis cheered Shiite fighters in Baghdad. "Sunnis and Shiites are united in Baghdad, under the same nationalist impulse," wrote journalist Pepe Escobar, who has traveled widely in occupied Iraq. "The popular justification is always the same: this is now a jihad, regardless of whether one is Sunni or Shiite. People will fight in their neighborhoods, even if they don't join [Sadr's] Mahdi Army."
A few months ago, a group calling itself the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iraq announced its existence--but few honest observers in the U.S. media predicted a national uprising. "While there seems to be some regional coordination among groups, it is clear that the opposition is made up of many different organizations, some regionally based, some local; some are explicitly Saddamist, some more broadly Baathist, some Islamist, and some frankly anti-Saddam and nationalist," journalist Mark Danner wrote in the New York Review of Books in December.
"Within and among these groupings, a competitive politics now exists, an armed politics that will evolve and develop, depending on how successful they are in attacking the Americans and forcing them to adjust their policies and, eventually, to leave the country."
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U.S. PROCONSUL Paul Bremer and the military brass claimed that the armed resistance in Iraq was small--composed of scattered "former regime elements" in the so-called Sunni Triangle of central Iraq, al-Qaeda operatives, and a band of hardline Shiites led by Sadr which is determined to build an Islamist state. At the same time, U.S. officials and the media constantly raise the specter of civil war in Iraq--in particular, between Sunnis and Shiites--in order to justify an indefinite occupation.
This was a central justification for the rigged caucus voting for the interim government due to take office July 1. The real aim is to limit the role of Shiites--who comprise about 60 percent of the Iraqi population--for fear that an Shiite Islamist government would come under the influence of neighboring Iran, where Shiite clerics have ruled since the 1979 revolution.
At the same time, the U.S. wants to keep the question of independence for the Kurdish minority in the north of Iraq from coming to a head. To that end, the U.S. has sought to manipulate the Kurdish question and sectarian divisions, incorporating leading Kurdish and Shiite parties into the Governing Council.
Washington calculated that by making some concessions to the long-oppressed Kurds and Shiites, U.S. forces would have a free hand to put down armed resistance under the guise of rooting out "Saddam loyalists." U.S. officials coined the term "Sunni triangle" to portray resistance fighters as Saddam-aligned Sunni elites unwilling to surrender their privileges in the "liberated" Iraq.
In fact, resistance in the most rebellious city, Falluja, began two weeks after the U.S. conquest--when U.S. troops fired on a crowd of demonstrators, killing at least 17 people, including women and children. Since then, the U.S. military has repeatedly tried to crack down on the resistance there--which has led only to the growth of militias in Falluja and elsewhere.
A particularly aggressive show of force by Marines set the stage for the killing of four U.S. mercenaries on March 31. The massive U.S. retaliation for these four killings--which had left an estimated 600 civilians by the end of last weekend--will only provoke more armed struggle--but now on a much wider scale.
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AT THE same time that the Marines were storming through Falluja, they forced a confrontation with the Shiite leader Moktadr al-Sadr by closing down his newspaper. When troops fired on demonstrators protesting the closure, Sadr's forces struck back in cities around the country, attacking Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian and other forces.
The U.S. portrays Sadr as an Iranian-style Islamist in order to justify its crackdown. But the U.S. appointed the main Shiite organization--the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose leaders had been exiled in Iran--to seats on the Governing Council.
SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Brigades, have been incorporated into the new Iraqi police and intelligence services. Another Shiite party, Da'wa, is also part of the Governing Council. Both SCIRI and Da'wa are aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq.
The U.S. planned to steer Shiite politics by backing the return of exiled Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei to Iraq shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Khoei, however, was murdered in a mosque at the Shiite holy city of Najaf--a crime for which the U.S. occupation authorities have indicted Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sistani, who now controls Khoei's wealthy foundation, has tried to play an inside-outside game, cooperating with the occupation, but insisting on direct elections to form the next government. When Bremer rammed the interim constitution through the Governing Council in March, Sistani announced that it wasn't legitimate until approved by a national assembly--and Sadr made his move.
Based on the authority of his father--a prominent cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999--Sadr has built a network of support in the Baghdad slums. By operating a series of hospitals and other social services, he has attracted support from Shiites--who are disproportionately poor and working class in Iraq--around Iraq.
While formally deferential to Sistani's religious authority, Sadr has repeatedly denounced the Governing Council, and, by implication, its moderate Shiite participants and Sistani. Sadr's criticisms have struck a chord with Iraqis fed up not only with the humiliation and violence of the occupation, but with unemployment and poverty.
For example, when Sadr's forces revolted, even Sunni shopkeepers across Baghdad heeded his call for a three-day general strike. Suddenly, the U.S. military, laying siege to Falluja, instead found itself fighting a war on multiple fronts--a war of national liberation.
The politics of today's resistance are varied. Iraq's left and progressive forces are only just emerging from years of repression. Sadr's supporters, meanwhile, are known to harass women and have been accused of beating and jailing their rivals.
Some in the antiwar movement have therefore hesitated to support the Iraq resistance--or look to a United Nations (UN)-led occupation as an alternative to U.S. or Islamist rule. But a UN occupation would still deny Iraqis the right of self-determination--a right that must be defended most strongly by those of us in the U.S., which claims the right to sponsor coups and launch invasions whenever it suits its interests.
The central demand of the Iraqi resistance is an end to the U.S. occupation--now. In this, they must have our full support.