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Patrick Cockburn on the threat of civil war in Iraq
The U.S. pushes Iraq to the brink

March 3, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

THE BOMBING of the Askariya Shia Muslim mosque in Samarra last week led to a wave of attacks on Sunni mosques and the killings of scores of Iraqis. The sectarian violence was the worst since the U.S. invasion in 2003, raising the specter of civil war in Iraq. Government forces and U.S. soldiers cracked down, imposing a nonstop curfew.

According to some reports, demonstrations involving Sunni and Shiites together put the blame for the bombing where it belongs--on the U.S. occupiers.

At the beginning of the week, Moktada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric whose supporters have periodically clashed with U.S. armed forces, repeated his demand for immediate U.S. withdrawal and called for joint Shia-Sunni prayer services and other demonstrations of unity.

Earlier, Sami Ramadani, a left-wing exile from Saddam Hussein's Iraq and prominent opponent of the U.S. war, described anti-occupation protests in Samarra, Kut, Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood and elsewhere.

"[T]he popular mood has been anti-occupation rather than sectarian," he wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper. "Iraq is awash with rumors about the collusion of the occupation forces and their Iraqi clients with sectarian attacks and death squads: the U.S. is widely seen as fostering sectarian division to prevent the emergence of a united national resistance."

At the same time, however, the deadly violence aimed at Sunnis shouldn't be underestimated. This threat has led the U.S. to move more actively in its attempts to curb the power of Shiite parties, which have been exposed for operating death squads from within the Interior Ministry and the Iraqi police.

The Samarra bombing came as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was attempting to strong-arm the Shia Muslim parties that won last December's election into accepting a "national unity" government. According to news reports, Khalilzad wanted the new government to include Sunni groups and the two main Kurdish parties--and to install Ayad Allawi, a CIA asset and former prime minister in an interim government, in a key cabinet post.

The goal for the U.S. was to dislodge the Iran-backed Shia party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, from its control of the powerful Interior Ministry--and force out Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose Dawa party also has ties to Iran. The maneuver was set back when Jaafari won the support of Shia members of parliament to remain prime minister, thanks to the backing of Moktada al-Sadr.

Now the bombing in Samarra and the aftermath have laid bare what even leading conservative commentator William F. Buckley calls the U.S. "failure" in the occupation of Iraq.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Iraq correspondent for Britain's Independent newspaper. He spoke with Socialist Worker's LEE SUSTAR about the situation in Iraq following the bombing.

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THE MAINSTREAM press in the U.S. is discussing the potential of a Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq. Do you think that's in store?

YES, I think it is quite possible. I think also that while we might have a civil war, we certainly have gone further down the road toward the disintegration of Iraq as a unitary state.

THE BOMBING took place in the context of negotiations for a national unity government. How will the talks be affected?

AN AWFUL lot of baloney is being talked about this.

First of all, we had two elections last year, both of which were won by the Shia coalition, followed by the Kurds. In the first one, the Sunnis boycotted; in the second, they won 55 seats out of 275. This was announced to the world as a great example of democracy.

Since then, the U.S., supported by the Kurds, says it's absolutely essential to have a national unity government--meaning, in effect, that they are going to disregard the results of the elections, which were won by the Shia. So it's not surprising that this has made the Shia hostile in general to the U.S.

This is also part of a pattern that we've seen since the invasion in 2003. Remember that during the first Gulf War in 1991, one of the reasons that the U.S. and the U.S.-led coalition did not want to go to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein was that this might lead to a Shia government with close links to Iran.

Now since 2003, there has been persistent pressure from Washington to try to avoid this consequence--first, wanting to delay elections; now that we've had elections, trying to prevent the Shia majority from getting control of the state, particularly the power ministries of interior and defense.

This is put forward as if a national unity government will stop Sunni groups from massacring Shia or prevent a greater war. But there's no reason to suppose that at all, because the Sunni parliamentary groups are by no means closely linked to the guerrillas.

All the guerrilla groups called for a boycott in the first election, and some of them boycotted the second election. The idea that a national unity government would lead to the end of the insurrection is, I think, completely unrealistic.

THERE ARE reports that U.S. military commanders are working with Sunni tribal leaders and even resistance groups to try to negotiate peace in various localities.

THAT IS exaggerated. I think that people underestimate the degree to which the insurgent organizations have put down roots.

They also think they are going to win, because they think the U.S. is going to withdraw. So they don't have any reason to stop fighting--quite the contrary.

I think at the beginning, a lot of the insurgent organizations thought that the U.S. would only have come to Iraq with a large army if it were planning to stay for a long time. They thought there was going to be a long occupation. They're rather surprised to discover that there are likely to be large troop withdrawals. So they don't really have a reason to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Then we have the hardy perennial--local tribal leaders. This label is often dubious, because some of them have power, and some of them don't. Sometimes it's unclear who is a tribal leader in Iraq. Some were paraded by Saddam, some just announce that they're tribal leaders.

Often, they want benefits from the U.S. or somebody else--usually money. All claim they have secretly got control of their neighborhood. Most of the time, this turns out to be entirely untrue. And often, when they get involved in these negotiations, they get killed.

Remember, these insurgent organizations have been around for more than two years, and they're not going to simply evaporate.

IS THE U.S. trying to change horses to the Sunnis, or is it just using the Kurds and the Sunnis to pressure the Shia?

IT'S A very complex game in Iraq. Before the war, I was in Kurdistan. The plan was to invade Iraq from the north as well as the south, and this required the cooperation of the Turks. The Turks were gong to send an army of 40,000 men, along with the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division into northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurds were completely hysterical about this--the last thing they wanted to see was the Turks. Then the Turkish parliament said [the U.S. and Turkish troops] weren't coming, so U.S. ended up allied with Kurds in north Iraq. And that alliance has basically gone on.

At the moment, people think, "Could not the U.S. support the Sunni against the Shia majority, perhaps broker an agreement between the Kurds and some of the Sunni and the secular parties like Allawi's group?"

But these people have enormous differences between them. It would be deeply unstable and very reliant on the U.S. I don't think that's going to happen.

In parts of Iraq, we already have a civil war. It looks to me like the first stage of the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s. Today, we had 47 people hauled out of their cars after going to a demonstration, and murdered along the road. That was the sort of thing that started happening in Lebanon. And that can really terrify people immediately.

Also, a lot of these killings are carried out by people in military uniform or police uniform. Either they are in disguise, or in many cases, they probably really are soldiers or police. Consequently, the Sunni and Shia are going to shoot at anybody in uniform, and rely on their own militias. This is an important stage in the breakup of the country.

IN WHOSE interest was the bombing of the Askariya mosque? The Sunni fundamentalists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are being blamed.

THE OCCUPATION has always been massively unpopular in Iraq. And various groups who previously had no foothold in Iraq or anywhere else in the world--extreme Islamists and jihadi groups--were able to get a foothold because of the general hostility to the occupation.

These Salafists are basically Sunni purists who want to go back to the early days of the Caliphate, but they are also defined by fighting the occupation. That's how they got some got some degree of acceptance there.

But some of these groups consider Iraqi Shias and Christians as just as much their enemy as American soldiers. They don't want simply to get rid of the Americans. They want to create their own peculiar Sunni fundamentalist state in Iraq.

This involves ensuring that it's not a national struggle, but fighting the Shia as well as the Americans. So there have been elements trying to provoke a civil war for the past two years, and they're getting pretty close to success.

HOW DOES this dovetail with the U.S. pressure on Iran over its nuclear program and its influence in Iraq?

THE IRANIANS were very pleased to see the end of Saddam, and during the Iraqi constitutional referendum and the elections last year--while no one was paying much attention--the Iranian government was saying, "Right on!" Because they want the Shia to come to power in Iraq, because the Shia are their natural allies. The Iranians have been major beneficiaries.

There has always been rather something absurd about U.S. or British officials saying Iran should mind its own business. Iran has always been concerned with Iraq and involved with Iraq. At this moment, it's probably more influential in Iraq than at any time in the past. They are very influential among the Shia, and they are even probably very influential among the Kurds.

Jalal Talabani, the [Kurdish] Iraqi president, was based in Iran for years, and drew his main support from there. So it's bizarre for the U.S. administration to attack the Iranians when in fact they need to conciliate with them.

It was also bananas to speak about the axis of evil. It basically sent the message, "We're going to Baghdad first, then to Tehran and Damascus." There was an incentive for both Syria and Iran to think, "Right, if you're coming for us, we're going to make sure you'll have a lot of trouble in Baghdad."

There's so much trouble anyway that's its difficult to know how much was fomented by Syria or Iran. But certainly they have every incentive to do so.

DOES THIS bombing in Samarra strengthen the arguments of those in the U.S. foreign policy establishment calling for a breakup of Iraq?

IT KIND of is breaking up. But is there going to be a benign breakup? An Iraqi minister said to me that maybe the future of the central government is a few buildings in the Green Zone. That might happen, but there might also be a reaction in the other direction.

So maybe we are in kind of a Weimar period--like Germany in the 1920s--as someone in the Iraqi government put it to me. Either it will go toward complete disintegration, or some authoritarian figure will take over. There's going to be a winner out of all of this.

There's some truth to the Weimar analogy, although one shouldn't carry it too far. There may come a moment when the Shia, or a large part of the Shia, think having the U.S. Army in Iraq is an obstacle to them taking full power.

The U.S. had enough trouble with the Sunni uprising. It simply can't face the hostility of the Shia as well. What would happen if [leading Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani also wanted this--and called for a timetable to end the occupation? Some of this may end up being decisions taken by Iraqis, not by Americans.

IS THERE any prospect of Iraqi nationalism cutting against sectarianism?

AS STRAIGHT secular nationalism, not much. Saddam, first of all, discredited it. His slogans were nationalistic against Iran, and his regime had a catastrophic effect on the lives of the Iraqi people.

Then you have a kind of Saddamism without Saddam--Allawi-type nationalism. But that's somewhat discredited because it's so reliant on the U.S. It's rather peculiar to have someone with Allawi's background and his links with foreign intelligence services as the figure for national self-determination--an Iraqi de Gaulle figure. I think it was crackers to think that he could ever play that role.

In the insurgency, you have lots of different groups. What they have in common is that they are against the occupation. But what's happened is that the nationalist groups have become closer to the Salafi, the Sunni Arab fundamentalists, and the fundamentalists have a patriotic side to them as well.

Now every so often, you will see in the press that the nationalist groups are going to get rid of the Salafi because they are murdering everybody. But it hasn't happened--either because the Salafi groups are too strong, or because the insurgent groups have too much in common.

WHEN MOKTADA Al-Sadr uses nationalist rhetoric, is it because his base is in Baghdad and he would lose out in a federated Iraq, or is it genuine?

HE IS a nationalist. His base has always been both religious and nationalist. With Moktada's people, it's not quite the obverse of the Sunni Salafi. There hasn't been the sort of bigoted sectarianism.

If you look at posters for Moktada's movement, there are pictures of him and his martyred forbearers dressed in clerical black robes, and behind them the Iraqi flag. It is a mixture of religion and nationalism, which is very potent. They've also got a national network through the clergy who follow him. It's less gut sectarian than a lot of insurgent groups.

SO WHERE does all this leave the U.S. occupation? There's a bipartisan consensus in support of preserving long-term U.S. bases in Iraq, but is this possible?

THERE AREN'T going to be bases in the long term. Bases that are going to have mortar bombs lobbed at them every second day?

One of the many problems is that while the extent of the deterioration of the situation in Iraq is sometimes appreciated in Washington, it's always six months or a year behind the times. This isn't just true of the administration itself, but of the Democrats, commentators and a lot of the media.

They're going to have bases? Where? Who's going to support these bases? Is there going to be a base in Kurdistan? The rest of the Iraqis aren't going to like that. In Shia areas, they will be attacked. In Sunni areas, they will be attacked.

This is something people talked about a few years ago, but the chance of long-term bases is exactly nil at this point.

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