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The real source of the violence in Iraq

By Lance Selfa | September 23, 2005 | Page 8

THE SEPTEMBER 15 bombings in Baghdad that left more than 200 dead again raised the threat that Iraq is descending into a religion-inspired civil war that will be worse than the 1990s massacres and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

The attacks also raised important questions about the resistance to U.S. forces in Iraq. Is the resistance simply a religious-based insurgency, of Sunni Muslims determined to target Shiites? Is it attempting to provoke (or has it already started) a civil war between Sunnis and Shia?

To answer these questions, it's important to establish a few basic points about the Iraqi resistance.

First, it's important to reject the media caricature of the resistance, encouraged by the Bush administration, which portrays it as terrorists led by "foreign fighters," like the al Qaeda-linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Actually, every reasonable description of the Iraqi resistance--including those produced by the Pentagon and the CIA--has established that it is overwhelmingly an Iraqi-based and -led movement.

Second, the resistance overwhelmingly targets the U.S. military and its Iraqi collaborators. Attacks on civilians account for fewer than 5 percent of all acts of violence attributed to the Iraqi resistance, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Third, there is much more to the resistance in Iraq than military attacks. The resistance includes guerrillas groups, but also unionists struggling to prevent the privatization of the oil industry and the unemployed demanding jobs. Lost in the news of the Baghdad bombings was the announcement of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra that it would oppose the U.S.-sponsored privatization of the Iraqi oil industry.

If the antiwar movement shouldn't accept the media caricature of the resistance, neither should it tolerate the sloppy reporting that constantly refers to the conflict in Iraq as being Shiites and Kurds vs. Sunnis.

One of the strongest opponents of the occupation is the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has the support of hundreds of thousands of the poorest Shiites in Iraq. Al-Sadr has allied with the Sunni-led Association of Muslim Scholars to demand that the U.S. get out of Iraq immediately. And last month in Najaf, Sadr's militias clashed with the Badr Brigade, the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party.

So while it is certainly true to describe the core of the resistance as rooted in the Sunni communities of Iraq, it is by no means only a Sunni resistance. As journalist Patrick Cockburn told Socialist Worker in a September 2 interview, "The most important thing in the context is that most Iraqi Arabs don't like the occupation. This isn't true of the Kurds, but it is true of Iraqi Arabs, whether Sunni or Shia."

That said, there are forces that are trying to stir up sectarian tensions. The most important of these is the U.S. occupation itself.

The U.S. has used sectarian and ethnic militias, such as the Kurdish peshmerga--for example, in its assault on Falluja. Washington also allowed militias connected to two of the largest Shiite parties--the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party--to carve up the security services among themselves.

Ethnic and religious tensions are immediately inflamed when the Iraqi security forces are used in assaults on Sunni and Turkmen towns like Tal Afar and Ramadi.

While the U.S. would certainly prefer not to see a division of the Iraqi state into ethnically based enclaves--a result that some observers predict if the Iraqi constitution fails in the planned October 15 vote--there are some Washington think-tankers promoting this as a "Plan B."

Understanding that the U.S. is a chief source of sectarian strife in Iraq doesn't absolve those who, like Zarqawi and his supporters, mount sectarian attacks, targeting civilians. These should be condemned--as, in fact, the majority of the guerrilla resistance in Iraq condemns them. "In statements on the Internet, the guerrilla groups also reject Zarqawi's tactic of targeting innocent civilians, and especially Iraqi Shiites," Middle East expert Juan Cole reported in his Informed Comment blog September 16.

While politicians and some in the antiwar movement worry that a quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will open the floodgates to sectarian bloodletting, exactly the opposite is the case. The U.S. occupation is creating the conditions for sectarian bloodletting to take place right now. As Cockburn puts it, "[T]he thing to bear in mind is that it was the antipathy to the occupation that enabled some of the more vicious groups, who carry out sectarian attacks on Shia, to stay in business."

It would be utopian to think that all sectarian tensions will disappear with the withdrawal of the U.S. occupiers. But getting the U.S. out of Iraq will go a long way to alleviating those tensions.

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