Imperial roots of Iraq’s sectarian violence

November 11, 2013

Ashley Smith explains the backdrop to the growing bloodshed in post-occupation Iraq.

AS IRAQI Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Washington, D.C., for a summit meeting with Barack Obama on November 1, his country teetered on the precipice of a new sectarian civil war. Iraq Body Count reports that an average of 70 bombings and shootings each month have killed more than 7,000 civilians and wounded thousands more in 2013.

The wave of violence has forced even more Iraqis to flee their homes, adding to the 4 million displaced during the Sunni-Shia civil war that reached its height between 2006 and 2008.

As the New York Times reports, Baghdad is again being torn apart by sectarian attacks:

The drastic surge in violence--mainly car bombs planted by al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate against the Shiite majority, and the security sweeps in majority Sunni neighborhoods that follow--has lent a new sense of Balkanization to this city. Security forces have increasingly restricted the movements of Iraqis in and out of Sunni areas, relying on the neighborhoods listed on residence cards as an indicator of sect. Sunnis also fear reprisals from reconstituted Shiite militias, groups once responsible for some of the worst of the sectarian carnage that gripped Iraq just a few years ago.

Wreckage left behind after a car bombing in Baghdad
Wreckage left behind after a car bombing in Baghdad (James Gordon)

The sectarian polarization throughout the Middle East, including in Syria, has spilled over into Iraq and exacerbated the country's slide back toward another civil war. Thus, Martin Kobler, the UN's special representative for Iraq until earlier this year, states that the "battlefields of Iraq and Syria are merging."

The same powers backing sectarian forces in Syria are doing the same in Iraq. According to the Economist, "Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia fund some of the most militant groups. Iraqi officials say that Turkey and other Gulf countries, including Qatar, are involved, too."

As a result, says the International Crisis Group's Joost Hiltermann, Iraq is "a house of cards" on the verge of collapse. He continued, "It is a contraption held together solely by the reluctance of many of its components to let things again come to blows, and which survives on constant infusions of cash thanks to high international oil prices."

The Myth of Eternal Sectarianism

In the run-up to Maliki's visit to Washington this month, the corporate media provided their usual explanation for the sectarian violence in Iraq--the supposedly "ancient" conflict between Sunni and Shia in the Muslim world. New York Times columnist David Brooks quoted policy analyst Anthony Cordesman claiming that, "[T]he upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization, rather than a clash between civilizations."

In reality, this is a self-serving myth. The U.S. is the principal culprit behind the explosion of sectarianism in Iraq and the region. As Nir Rosen, the author of Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World, writes:

While there was never perfect harmony, there was also no history of civil war between Sunnis and Shiites until the American invasion of Iraq, nor anything reassembling the international mobilization of sectarianism through media and statements of politicians and clerics. But since the American occupation of Iraq created a bloody civil war, relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the region have deteriorated to the point where if you meet a stranger, the first thing you want to find out if he is Sunni or Shiite.

The Bush administration went to war in Iraq 10 years ago to seize control of the country and impose a client regime. The Bush team wanted to replace Saddam Hussein's state capitalist regime and its nationalized oil industry with a neoliberal one that would open up the economy to multinational oil companies.

According to the "Bush Doctrine," the invasion of Iraq was to be the first of a series of regime changes that would reach Syria and Iran, too. With the region and its energy reserves under its hegemony, the U.S. could blackmail the rest of the world's powers, especially its rising rival China, which depends on the area for its oil and natural gas imports.

While Iraqis were happy to have Saddam Hussein toppled, the Shia and Sunni communities did not welcome the U.S. as a liberator. Only the Kurds in the North were pleased to greet the Americans. Bush alienated the Sunni ruling class and masses by criminalizing membership in Hussein's Baath Party--which to many people was merely a requirement for employment, not a statement of political sympathy. This project drive parts of the Sunni population toward the armed resistance.

Bush similarly drove the Shia establishment and masses into opposition when he delayed elections and declared that the U.S. would rule Iraq through the Coalition Provisional Authority. He feared that Shia parties would win any early contest and align the country with Iran.

Divide and Rule

As a consequence, the Bush administration was fighting the war of a colonial overlord against resistance from both Sunnis and Shia.

U.S. forces targeted the Sunni resistance with the utmost repression, raiding homes, seizing ordinary people, tortured detainees in Abu Ghraib and wreaking havoc over whole cities like Falluja. At the same time, the U.S. targeted Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army for repression.

For a brief period, the fractured Sunni and Shia resistance looked like it was going to unite. To prevent this from happening, Washington turned to the oldest trick in the imperial toolkit--divide and rule. Thus, it was the U.S., in encouraging a sectarian divide in order to cement its rule, that sowed the seeds of the ongoing violence in Iraq.

The Bush administration hoped to lure the Shia away from Sunnis by offering them the hope of winning control of the new state through elections. At the same time, the U.S. wanted to avoid a Shia government that would strike an alliance with Iran. The election law imposed by the American occupation was designed, as in Lebanon decades before, to keep power divided in the new state among the three communities: Sunni, Shia and Kurds.

The Shia and Kurdish ruling class parties took the bait, whereas the Sunni ruling class largely boycotted the electoral process. As a result, it was cut out of the dispensation of "democratic" power in the first post-Hussein government. In these conditions, al-Qaeda became increasingly active among Sunnis, drawing supporters to their nihilistic project of killing Shia in their mosques and religious processions.

In turn, Shia militias, including Sadr's Mahdi Army, turned on the Sunni population, triggering a sectarian civil war that ripped Baghdad apart. As demonstrated in the BBC's recent documentary James Steele: America's Mystery Man in Iraq, U.S. ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte and his henchman, Steele, encouraged the Shia militias not only to target al-Qaeda, but the entire Sunni resistance.

Contrary to U.S. propaganda, George Bush's so-called "surge"--which deployed 30,000 more combat troops to Iraq--did not bring peace to Baghdad. The civil war had largely ended before the surge was implemented--with a Shia victory and an almost complete ethnic cleansing of the city's Sunni population. The surge also didn't combat sectarianism, but reinforced it. American forces erected massive concrete blast walls to segregate Shia and Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Moreover, one key element of the surge strategy--a new tilt toward the Sunnis--was based on the further communalization of Iraqi politics. Sunni tribal leadership had grown frustrated with how al-Qaeda attacks triggered the Shia militias' assault on the Sunni population. So, independently of the U.S., they formed Awakening Councils to combat al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration opted to put 100,000 Sunnis from the Awakening Councils on the U.S. payroll. The hope was that they would be lured into the political process, where they could be used as a bulwark against Maliki's Shia-dominated government.

Once triggered by the U.S., sectarianism took on a life of its own. The ruling classes of among the Kurds, Shia and Sunnis aimed to ensure that they were in the best position to win the spoils of controlling the state--the wealth of the oil economy, whether through the nationalized industry or contracts with multinational corporations.

Maliki's Sectarianism Triggers Sunni Revolt

The Shia political parties, despite their divisions, have been able to exploit the fact that Shiites are the largest part of the population. The parties have formed an alliance that has successfully controlled parliament and keeps Maliki in power. Maliki has worked hard to consolidate this position, first against American interference and then against any challengers, especially from the Sunnis.

Maliki's Shia electoral coalition, the National Alliance, won the 2010 elections, defeating the Sunni-backed Iraqiya Party, which was supported by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. In negotiations with the Obama administration over the Status of Forces Agreement that governed the occupation, Maliki refused to grant U.S. soldiers immunity from being charged in the Iraqi courts. This forced Obama to abandon plans to leave a significant number of troops after his promised "withdrawal," and pull out all combat troops at the end of 2011.

Since then, Maliki has further consolidated a Shia state, with the government systematically discriminating against the Sunni population. As journalist Hamza Hendawi described, "Iraq's ruling Shiites are moving quickly to keep the two Muslim sects separate--and unequal. Sunnis are locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders banned from Cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives. Sunnis cannot get help find the body of loved ones killed in the war."

The International Crisis Group summarized, "[F]or many Sunni Arabs, the sense of an alien occupation never ended; rather, a Shiite occupation was substituted for a U.S. one. As they see it, they lost their capital to their confessional foes, who blanket the city with Shiite symbols...and simultaneously warn of and brag about their newly achieved domination."

Soon after the end of the U.S. occupation, Maliki moved against his Sunni opponents in parliament. In just one example, he attempted to arrest the Sunni Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi on charges of supporting terrorism. Hashemi fled the country, but was convicted in abstentia and sentenced to death.

Then, on December 20 of last year, Maliki ordered his security forces to raid the home of Iraq's Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, another Sunni political leader. The police arrested dozens of his aides and bodyguards on charges of participating in terrorism.

This was the straw that broke the camel's back for the Sunni establishment and its mass base. They launched a nonviolent protest movement that began in Issawi's hometown of Falluja and spread throughout Sunni Iraq. Thousands occupied the highways in Ramadi, similar numbers poured out into protests in Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Diyala, as well as the remaining Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. Maliki responded by sending the predominantly Shia army to repress the protests.

While the protest movement was Sunni in composition, it initially drew sympathetic responses from some Shia and Kurdish leaders exasperated with Maliki's corrupt and autocratic rule. For example, Moktada al-Sadr expressed support for the protests. One member of Sadr's parliamentary bloc, Amir Kinani, stated:

We [the Sadrists] have sent more than one delegation to meet protesters and voice our support. We told them that we are part of the National Alliance, but we are firmly against Maliki's way of dealing with the demonstrations. What we are trying to do is prevent a sectarian war by sending a message to Arab Sunnis and to Kurds that Maliki does not represent the Shiites and that his mistakes are his own.

The Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) went so far as to threaten mass demonstrations against Maliki in the predominantly Shia South. Sunnis, Kurds and a section of Shia representatives in parliament came together to pass a law restricting prime ministers to two terms in office, a shot across the bow for Maliki, who is widely expected to run for a third term in 2014.

On the Edge of Civil War

Undeterred, however, Maliki escalated his crackdown on the Sunni protests, denouncing the movement as a front for the terrorists of al-Qaeda. In April of this year, he ordered his troops to attack one protest in the northern city of Hawija, in which 50 Sunni demonstrators were killed and 110 injured.

Maliki's relentless assault split the three factions that had organized the protests over which direction the movement should go in.

The Sunni tribal leadership supports a moderate course of political reforms within the existing state. The Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Party of Iraq is campaigning for a Sunni autonomous zone, similar to that of the Kurds in the north. Finally, former soldiers organized in the Naqshbandi and Islamists in the Islamic Army support armed struggle against the state for regime change.

Increasingly, the armed wing of the movement has gained influence among young Sunnis, who have lost hope of making any gains in parliament or pursuing an autonomous zone. They have flocked to the Naqshbandi and Islamic Army, which have staged growing attacks on government forces and the police. Thus, the nonviolent movement has morphed into a Sunni guerilla struggle against the Shia government.

In this explosive situation, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an affiliate of al-Qaeda escalated its sectarian attacks on Shia mosques, religious processions and homes. These reactionary assaults have broken the fleeting possibility of winning unity with Shia and Kurdish forces that are disgusted with Maliki's corrupt government.

The Sadrists and ISCI denounced ISIS, abandoned plans for protests against Maliki and instead staged pro-government demonstrations. Bolstered by his reconsolidated Shia support, Maliki has intensified the repression, not only against Sunni guerillas, but the entire Sunni population. As the Economist reported:

Security forces have been carrying out raids and mass arrests, further enraging Sunni civilians. "At the moment, what fuels the conflict the most is the presence of central-government security forces in Sunni areas, where they arrest young by the hundreds, torture them and then release them after money is paid," says a seasoned foreign-aid worker. "You can see al-Qaeda benefiting from the heavy-handed presence of the armed forces," he adds.

Worse, Shia militias have regrouped and begun to stage attacks on the Sunni population. As a result of all the violence, an average of 1,000 people a month are now being killed in bombing and shootings.

Regional Powers and Sectarianism

The sectarian responses by the region's ruling classes to the Arab Spring have accelerated and compounded Iraq's descent toward civil war. When the Tunisian and Egyptian people rose up and toppled their autocratic rulers, ruling classes in other countries threatened by revolt turned to the divide-and-conquer strategy, exploiting the sectarianism the U.S. spawned.

In Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi tried and failed to crush a popular rebellion, which ultimately succeeded, but only as a consequence of a NATO air war that brought down the regime. By contrast, Washington's favorites among the reactionary Arab regimes have sought to crush all opposition, with tacit U.S. tolerance if not support. In Bahrain, for example, forces supplied by Saudi Arabia massacred Shia protesters, while the government unleashed a torrent of propaganda against Shia throughout the region as the agents of its mortal enemy Iran.

The battleground has since shifted to Syria, where the regime of Bashir al-Assad faced a mass nonviolent movement for change and responded with barbaric military attacks. Assad has postured as the protector of the Alawite minority while launching a war on the rebellion, which he dismisses as a front for American and Saudi-backed Sunni terrorists.

The rest of the region's key players have amplified the sectarian elements in Syria. On one side, the Shia state in Iran and its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, support Assad--Hezbollah militia forces have reportedly fought against the rebels alongside the Syrian army, while Iran uses Maliki's Iraq to funnel war materiel to the regime. On the other side, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the most extreme sectarian elements of the guerilla resistance.

The sectarianism in Syria has, in turn, fed back into Iraq, exacerbating the violence gripping the country. Iran and Saudi Arabia are each supporting sectarian parties and militias within Iraq, treating the country as a pawn in their battle for control over the region. And ISIS now operates across the border in both countries, targeting Shia and other religious minorities they consider "infidels."

This is the context in which Maliki visited Obama in Washington earlier this month. Maliki claimed his government was as ally in the so-called "war on terror" against al Qaeda, he promised he would help convince Iran to agree to U.S. demands about Iran's nuclear capacities, and he offered to aid in brokering a peace deal in Syria.

In return, Maliki demanded increased military support in the form of helicopter gunships and drones to attack al Qaeda. Clearly, given his track record, he would use such weaponry to terrorize the Sunni population at large.

As Obama headed into the meeting, the U.S. establishment worried that it has lost Iraq to Iran for good. Thus, Rep. Eliot Engel, top Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lamented, "It almost seems like, after all the blood we lost and all the money we spent, Iran seems to have more influence in Iraq than the United State does, and that of course is a galling situation."

But weakened by its setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is not a position to dictate terms to Maliki. So despite Senate luminaries, in an open letter and in congressional hearings, attacking the Iraqi prime minister for his corruption, authoritarian methods and sectarianism, the Obama administration put minimal pressure on Maliki. They want to keep him in their camp as much as possible.

Obama agreed to continue weapons contracts with Iraq for F-16 warplanes and a missile defense system, which would enable Maliki to control Iraq's airspace and intercept Iranian air shipments of military aid to Assad. But the administration rejected the demand for helicopters.

U.S. officials did pressure Maliki to stop his assault on Sunni politicians and instead agree to power-sharing in the government. Taking a move out of the Bush administration playbook, Obama hopes to use the Sunnis and Kurds as pawns to get Iraq out of the Iranian camp and back into the American one.

It is hard to predict where the sectarian dynamics triggered by the U.S. will leave Iraq. At this stage, the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni components of Iraq's ruling class retain a commitment to some kind of deal to divide up the profits from state control of the oil industry. This dampens the tendency to all-out civil war.

There are, however, centrifugal tendencies that could pull Iraq apart along communal lines. The Kurds have flirted with a break from Iraq. Some sections of the Sunni elite are committed to their own autonomous zone. Against these, the Shia government is determined to maintain control over the entire country.

Either way, sectarianism and sectarian violence will continue to plague the country, as each communal faction of Iraq's ruling class jockeys for control of the state and its oil revenues--and appeals to sectarian loyalty to shore up its support.

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