Fault lines in occupied Iraq

The eruption of fighting from Basra to Baghdad has demolished the latest U.S. war lie that occupied Iraq has turned the corner toward peace and stability. As April began, the Iraqi central government--backed by all the firepower of the U.S. military--was still battling forces loyal to rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

Patrick Cockburn is a journalist whose reports from Iraq have appeared in Britain's Independent and other publications, and the author of several books on Iraq, including most recently Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq. He talked to Eric Ruder about the background to the renewed combat and what it means for Iraq's future.

COULD YOU describe how Basra became a flashpoint for this confrontation, and why it happened now?

BASRA IS the second city of Iraq, with a population of 2 million, the great majority of them Shia. From 2003, the British were there, but they never really had control of the city, and what they did have was steadily reduced.

So the powers in Basra are the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr; Fadilah, a splinter group led by Mohammad Yacoubi, who was a lieutenant of Moktada's father; and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and its armed wing, the Badr Organization, who are closely allied to the government in Baghdad.

What else to read

Patrick Cockburn's latest book on Iraq is Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, an analysis of the rise of the rebel cleric and the position of the Sadrists in Iraq today.

Cockburn's The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq documents the crimes of the occupation and the emergence of the ensuing civil war.

British journalist Jonathan Steele's Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq is a damning indictment of the war lies used to justify the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq, and the occupation that followed.

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story. Also, see In Praise of Barbarians, a collection of essays on U.S. imperialism and society by Mike Davis.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, republished in an updated paperback edition from the American Empire Project with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

They essentially split up the resources in the city, the port, the refineries--Fadilah, in particular, is very strong in the oil industry. The thing to remember is that the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army always came from the poorer Shia, while the Supreme Council comes from the merchants, the businessmen--the slightly better off.

In Basra, the poorest of the poor are often the marsh Arabs. These are people who used to live in the marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet near Basra, and they had an extraordinary culture there. They lived in reed houses, like a sort of ancient Venice.

The marshes were drained by Saddam Hussein to quell rebellions, and the marsh Arabs were forced to flee to Basra and live in terrible slums. They support Moktada and the Sadrists and are also famously tough fighters as members of militias.

THE U.S. appears to have sanctioned the Iraqi government assault on Basra and is collaborating with the attack on Sadr's forces in Baghdad. What is the U.S. after?

U.S. POLICY toward Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attack on Basra is very strange. One of the reasons that violence is down a bit in Iraq--though not by anything like the amount people seem to imagine--is that Moktada al-Sadr had declared a ceasefire. By letting Maliki attack the Mahdi Army in Basra, the ceasefire has been blown out of the water.

Why the U.S. allowed it is a bit of a mystery. But why did Maliki do it? I think probably because there are going to be elections at the end of October, and his own Dawa Party is pretty small, his allies on the Supreme Council are pretty unpopular, and they want to get a grip on the south of Iraq before the elections, which the Sadrists were expected to do well in.

There are other reasons for the timing. The leader of the Supreme Council, Abdel Aziz Hakim, is very ill with lung cancer, and he isn't expected to last long, so they may have felt they were a little bit stronger now.

THE U.S. has surrounded Sadr's forces in Sadr City and seems to be engaged in a Gaza-like siege. What will the consequences of this be?

THEY'VE SURROUNDED Sadr City, which isn't so much a district of Baghdad as a twin city, with a population of 2 million, about one-third of the population of Baghdad. They've sealed it off, but that's the big fortress of the Sadrists. So they can cut it off and make incursions, but I don't think they can capture it--and if they have any sense, they won't.

It's still an extraordinary event. The last time this happened was in Najaf in 2004 when Paul Bremer, the U.S. viceroy in Iraq, had the amazingly bad idea to suddenly take on Moktada--close down his newspapers, arrest one of his lieutenants and then issue an arrest warrant for Moktada himself. The whole south of Iraq and Baghdad erupted.

The Sadrists are usually stronger than they look. They are the one big political movement in Iraq. They appeal to the Shia poor, and most Iraqis are Shia and most Shia are poor, so they have a very big constituency. They aren't that well organized, but they have a lot of people supporting them.

This was a complete disaster for the U.S. in 2004, and it looks like they may have done the same thing all over again. You can see that they're being sucked into air strikes and support for the Iraqi army because Maliki made this strange statement that everyone must be disarmed within 72 hours. These are people who Saddam Hussein couldn't disarm, so I don't think the present Iraqi government is going to be able to do it.

But there's something not very serious about what he's doing. If they're going to get anywhere, they've got to use U.S. air power, but an awful lot of people are going to get killed if they do that. And even so, it may not get them very far.

DOES THIS fighting represent the opening battle in a struggle between rival Shia factions over what the future of Iraq will look like?

THESE DIVISIONS have been there before. There are social divisions within the Shia community, and there are political divisions.

Moktada always opposed the U.S. occupation, while the Supreme Council and Dawa were prepared to play along with it. The Supreme Council was set up by the Iranians, and a lot of its senior members speak Farsi not Arabic, while the Sadrists have traditionally been anti-Iranian and Iraqi nationalist.

The Shia community seems to be splitting for the first time. As soon as the U.S. decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein, two things were pretty much inevitable. One, the Shia community would take power, and the religious parties would be the likely vehicle for that. And two, Iranian influence would increase because their big enemy was Saddam Hussein, and he was going to be overthrown.

A lot of what the U.S. has done over the last five years is find a way in which Saddam is gone, but they don't have the alternative of a powerful religious Shia government backed by Iranian power.

Moktada represents their worst nightmare. He is the guy who seems to be calling the shots in Iraq, is wearing a black turban, and looks and sounds a bit like the Ayatollah Khomeini. And whatever reason they overthrew Saddam for, it wasn't for that.

IT PASSES for established fact in the U.S. media that the Bush troop surge has been a success and is primarily responsible for the decrease in violence in Iraq over the last year. Does this fit with reality?

THE SURGE was oversold and misunderstood. What was the surge? A small increase in the number of American troops. Did that make a critical difference? No, it didn't.

What changed was something very different. In 2006 and 2007, there was a very bloody civil war, though Bush and Blair were denying it. This very savage civil war was basically won by the Shia, who control three-quarters of Baghdad.

The Sunni were on the ropes. The Sunni groups didn't like al-Qaeda, but above all, they could see that while they weren't doing badly against the U.S., they were doing very badly against the Shia, and were being driven out of Baghdad. The Sunnis took a very cold look at this and decided we have to find more allies, so we've got to stop fighting the U.S. and ally ourselves with the U.S. against al-Qaeda, but above all against the Shia.

That was the key change. One of the problems about the analysis of Iraq in the U.S. is that there's always a supposition that it's the U.S., and the U.S. alone, controlling the political weather in Iraq--but that ain't really so. There are many things going on there that are related to the U.S., but aren't controlled by the U.S.

The Shia felt that they won in Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army declared a ceasefire. But I always find it a bit chilling because people keep asking me if it's better in Iraq. In one sense, it is--about 12 or 14 months ago, 3,000 civilians were being slaughtered every month. This month, it's going to be around 1,500 or 1,600 dead, though nobody quite knows how many people have been killed in Basra and elsewhere.

So it's better--1,500 instead of 3,000--but it's still terrible. But somehow, the impression has been given in the U.S. that the corner has been turned--that things are getting better and we're there for the long haul.

A temporary change has taken place--it might go on for a few months or even a couple years, but what has really changed is that Sunni and Shia in Baghdad and in central Iraq--because of the fighting, the killing, the torturing--hate and fear each other more than they hate and fear the U.S. at the moment.

But that doesn't mean that they're keen on the U.S. occupation in the long term, and it doesn't mean that this situation is going to last.

The government in many ways is even weaker. There are these new Sunni groups--the sahwas or Awakening Councils--that are really a huge militia, some 90,000 strong. I've talked to them in and around Falluja, and as soon as you mention the Iraqi government, they say it's the worst government in the world. They regard the government as their enemy. So Iraq is even more fragmented than it was before.

U.S. politicians--Bush, Cheney and others--keep appealing for Iraqi communities to come together and pass various laws, but one of the reasons that the U.S. position has improved somewhat is that Iraqi communities were so split and hated each other so much that the Sunni preferred the Americans to the Shia, and vice versa. And of course, the Kurds have always looked to an alliance with the U.S.

The U.S. position improved because of the enormous differences between Iraqis, so it's absurd that they then demand that Iraqis come together.

SO DOES that mean the U.S. is caught between divide-and-conquer tactics and wanting a strong, pro-U.S. Iraqi government that could bring stability and allow for a long-term U.S. presence?

I THINK that the occupation of Iraq, and really the occupations of any country, tend in the long term to exacerbate ethnic and sectarian divisions. It does so for quite a simple reason. Usually, there is a majority and a minority, and the minority looks to the occupying power to even up the balance.

It's not always so, but in a divided country, one or the other is going to look to the occupier as its ally. In Iraq, you always had sectarian and ethnic divisions, and sometimes these were serious. But suddenly, after 2003, a Sunni former officer who was looking at his Shia neighbor didn't just see a Shia, but somebody he regarded as a traitor to his country if he was cooperating with the Americans.

So this exacerbated pre-existing divisions. That's true in any occupied country, such as British-occupied India. The number of places where you could say that a foreign occupation reduced sectarian or ethnic differences is very small. I can't think of one.

WHAT CARDS does the U.S. have left to play at this point?

I JUST got back from Iraq, and it reminds me of Lebanon during the civil wars. At some times, there would be lulls when there was less violence. People would go out in the streets in Beirut and sit in the cafes, and people would go to the beaches. And journalists, if they were unwise, would write articles about how Lebanon is rising from the ashes.

But all the Lebanese knew that nothing had been solved, and that the veneer of calm could go, and would go, at some point, and they were always right.

In Iraq, the conditions are worse. It's a much more violent place, with more fighting. When all the spurious optimism was being produced about the surge, it always seemed to me that there were so many things that could break. It's worth pointing out that people like Gen. Petraeus in Baghdad were always pretty careful about saying it was fragile and reversible, much more so than the people in Washington.

So now, we suddenly have another explosion of violence, and it makes the surge look oversold. Unfortunately, I think the barometer in the U.S. used to judge whether things are going well or badly in Iraq is the count of U.S. casualties. If they stay down, people may feel things aren't too bad, and they could get better.

But, this is a pretty partial barometer. When you look at Iraqis, counting the number of dead bodies is important, but it's not the only thing. One should ask why it is that 3 million Iraqi refugees--2 million outside the country and 1 million inside, or one in nine Iraqis who had to flee their homes--aren't going home? It's pretty telling that they don't. No one wants to stay a refugee. They don't go home because it's too dangerous.

I think that the biggest success of the surge was a public relations success at home. It's actually been the name of the game since 2003. I was talking to an Iraqi politician in Baghdad, and he told me that the problem is, as always, that the agenda in Iraq is driven by the perception in the U.S. of what's happening in Iraq--rather than what's really happening on the ground.