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U.S. pushes sectarian divide to weaken resistance
Will Iraq collapse into a civil war?

March 17, 2006 | Page 8

PAUL D'AMATO, Socialist Worker's "The Meaning of Marxism" columnist, looks at the threat of deepening sectarian and ethnic conflicts in Iraq.

THE BOMBING of the Shia Askariya Mosque in Samarra triggered a spate of sectarian violence in Iraq that has led to hundreds of deaths and the destruction of dozens of Sunni mosques. Amid hopes that the violence was subsiding, a series of deadly firebombs ripped through Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood in mid-March, killing 44 and wounded 200.

The question is this: Is civil war a real possibility in Iraq or simply a media invention?

One thing is certain. The U.S. press cannot be trusted to tell the truth. It lumps all violence in Iraq into one heap, blurring the distinction between sectarian violence and violence directed by the Iraqi resistance against the occupation.

It rarely notes the fact that resistance attacks against occupation forces constitute the overwhelming majority of attacks, according a recent Government Accounting Office report.

The mainstream press also left out the fact that immediately after the Samarra bombing, representatives of Shia groups led by Moktada al-Sadr and Sheikh al-Khalisi came together with the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni organization, to blame the U.S. and the "sectarian government" for the attack and for attempting to "make a civil war in Iraq." Their joint statement said the occupation is responsible "for all that has happened in Iraq--sectarianism, terrorism and other problems," and they demanded that the U.S. occupiers "leave Iraq as quickly as possible and return back home."

In the days after the Samarra bombing, tens of thousands of Iraqis came out in large numbers in several cities--Shiite and Sunni alike--to denounce sectarian violence and call for an end to the occupation.

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YET IT cannot be denied that there are a number of factors contributing to sectarian division in Iraq.

To start with, the dismantling by the U.S. of the secular Baath party and the Iraqi army--as well as these two institutions' discredited status in the eyes of most Iraqis--has left the door open to political and national realignments based on ethnic and religious identity.

The secular vacuum was widened by the absence of any sizable or legitimate left alternative in Iraq, a legacy of the suppression of the Communist Party under Saddam Hussein--and of the fact that the remnant of the Communist Party today has joined the coalition government rather than the resistance, thereby leaving the field open to religious forces to fill that oppositional void.

There is some cooperation between Sunni and Shia forces that consider themselves nationalist opponents of the occupation, but there is no national political and military resistance organization that unites all opponents of the occupation, regardless of religion.

The U.S. overseers also established an electoral system that "encouraged sectarianism by dividing up authority based not on technical skills or ideological affiliation but ethnic and religious identity," writes analyst Stephen Zunes.

The U.S. also reconstituted the Iraqi army along sectarian lines. This became particularly important to the U.S. in response to the previous high point of joint Shia-Sunni resistance to the occupation, in April 2004.

An outpouring of Shiite and Sunni solidarity for besieged residents of Falluja resisting the first U.S. assault on their city, as well as the armed conflict between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Najaf and Sadr City, alarmed the occupation authorities. In response, the U.S. began using Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias to accompany U.S. troops in assaults on Sunni resistance strongholds--as a way of inserting a sectarian dimension to the conflict.

Shiite death squads, operating directly out of the Ministry of the Interior, have, according to the head of the Baghdad morgue (who just fled the country to avoid assassination) killed 7,000 Iraqis in the past several months.

But the U.S. is also concerned about a Shiite-controlled Iraq, which it fears will have closer ties to Iran. This explains why the U.S. suddenly condemned the existence of these Shiite death squads. It stretches credulity to believe that these death squads were formed without U.S. knowledge or support.

On the Sunni side, according to Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn, "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 groups also target Shiites as part of a plan to establish a fundamentalist Sunni state. They are a minority force, and many resistance spokespeople have denounced them, but they have yet to be marginalized.

It is reasonable to assume that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to--if not positively encouraged--the activities of these sectarian Sunni fundamentalist groups.

All this makes a mockery of calls by U.S. officials against sectarian violence. When U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad calls for a "government of national unity," he means a "unity" constituted by balancing competing political forces that are ethnically (Kurdish) and religious-based.

Like the Iran-Iraq War, where the U.S. played both sides off each other in order to exhaust each, the U.S. isn't interested in preventing Shiite-Sunni divisions in Iraq so much as manipulating them.

A further factor making it easier to foment sectarian divisions is the fact that Iraq's central government is weak--unable to form itself into a functioning body and trapped within the confines of the Green Zone in central Baghdad.

Outside this zone, Iraq is divided into three regions--the Kurdish-controlled North, which seeks complete autonomy if not independence (and where civil war threatens to break out between Kurds and Turkomans over control of Kirkuk, Iraq's northern oil hub); the South, whose cities are mostly controlled by fundamentalist Shiite militias; and the central region which, when U.S. troops aren't present, is controlled by Sunni resistance groups (outside of Sadr City).

The full crystallization of this rough division of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish mini-states--like the carve-up of Bosnia in the 1990s--would be a disaster, requiring "ethnic cleansing" of entire areas.

But Iraq is not Bosnia, where there was no political counterweight to the pressures of national breakup.

Iraq has a long tradition of secular nationalism and a sense of Iraqi identity that transcended religious differences--though more recently, it has a history of Shiite resentment against Baathist oppression, which some Shiites viewed as Sunni dominance.

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WHILE THE occupiers may try to foment divisions, their presence also generates anti-imperialist sentiment that acts to unify Iraqis. These two tendencies are in conflict with each other, and it is not yet clear which will win out.

But some commentators are saying that Iraq's lack of a sectarian past makes civil war impossible, and they emphasize the fact that most of the sectarian violence appears to be imposed from above by armed groups, rather than pogromist mob actions.

However, that tradition has been eroded by the U.S. occupation--consciously and deliberately so.

Moreover, under certain circumstances, even small groups of armed fighters determined to foment sectarian violence can, by striking fear into people, create a retaliatory climate that spirals out of control, forcing individuals to seek "protection" from armed sectarian groups out of fear for their own safety.

Certainly it is the case that the anti-U.S. demonstrations against sectarian violence that followed the mosque bombing have not prevented further outbursts of violence.

According to Guardian correspondent Jonathan Steele, "Minorities in mixed areas are slipping away to be with their 'own.'" And a Washington Post article recently described the circumstances in which such a dynamic can take hold.

"Last week, Daash fled his predominantly Sunni village of Awad, north of Baghdad on the edge of the Sunni town of Taji, after what he said were too many death threats from Sunni insurgents after the mosque bombing, and too many bodies of Shiite men left bullet-riddled on roadsides," the Post story read. "'I will never go back,' he said.

"Iraqis have prided themselves on intermarriages as the glue that would always keep Iraq from splitting apart. They point to the mingling of Shiite, Sunni and Christian, and of Arab and Kurd. But sitting in a school converted into a refugee center in the Shiite neighborhood of Shoula in north Baghdad, Daash found himself unable to imagine ever living among his Sunni neighbors again, or ever again visiting an aunt and cousin in Tikrit who are married to Sunnis." How widespread this development is isn't yet clear.

It should not come as a surprise that Iraq's resistance could be channeled into religious forms. This trend has been at work in the Middle East region for some time now. The weakening of secular nationalist and left alternatives in a number of countries has given rise to the growth of political Islam, which filled the vacuum they left.

In the 1970s, you would have been accused of being completely out of touch had you argued that Islamist political parties would become dominant among Palestinians--but that is precisely what has taken place. It is far from out of the question that the same thing could happen in Iraq--or that there are Sunni and Shia organizations could be hostile to each other despite the lack of a history of sectarian conflict.

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IRAQ TODAY is at an impasse. The occupying forces have no legitimacy, and therefore can rule only by naked force. The resistance has prevented the U.S. from consolidating its position in Iraq, let alone the collaborationist Iraqi government, yet it doesn't possess the strength or political strategy to project itself as a national alternative.

Under these conditions, the U.S. will continue to foment divisions to weaken the resistance, and certain domestic political forces will use sectarianism to their own advantage.

Mass Iraqi sentiment against sectarian division is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for this to be overcome. What is also required is a further cementing of a political and military resistance that unites Shia and Sunni and works tirelessly to suppress those forces attempting to foment sectarian conflict.

Without that, the scratch of sectarian division can fester into the gangrene of sectarian war.

To those U.S. officials who attempt to justify the occupation on the grounds that it is needed to prevent a sectarian bloodbath, the simple answer is that it is precisely the occupation that has made such a bloodbath possible. Only an end to the occupation can begin to reverse this process--and, conversely, only a united resistance that stands firm against sectarian division can succeed in liberating Iraq.

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