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The civil war in Iraq:
Bitter fruit of occupation

December 15, 2006 | Page 6

ASHLEY SMITH reviews two new books that show why the U.S. is at the root of Iraq's civil war.

IMPERIAL POWERS have always turned to the "divide-and-conquer" strategy to maintain their rule on occupied populations.

Confronted with a widespread resistance to its occupation of Iraq, the U.S. has drawn on this vile tradition, setting the country's Shia, Sunnis and Kurds against one another in order to maintain its rule.

In an important rejoinder to government and media lies, Patrick Cockburn's The Occupation and Nir Rosen's In the Belly of the Green Bird recount in horrifying detail how U.S. policy, not some ancient hatreds, is responsible for the country's developing civil war.

Cockburn and Rosen show how the U.S. manipulated Iraq's three main communities from the beginning of the invasion and occupation.

What else to read

Patrick Cockburn's new book is The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq. His ongoing coverage of Iraq can be found on the CounterPunch Web site.

Nir Rosen's book is In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of Martyrs in Iraq. After his recent return from Iraq, he published an extensive article "Anatomy of a civil war: Iraq's descent into chaos" in the Boston Review. A list of his most recent articles has been compiled at the New America Foundation Web site.


It turned to the Kurds, who had suffered severe repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein, with promises of regional autonomy, and won their two main parties, the PUK and KDP, to support the occupation. Among all the political forces in Iraq, only they have proved loyal to the U.S.

The U.S. occupation immediately repressed the Sunni population. U.S. pro-consul Paul Bremer launched a "de-Baathification" program that purged not just Baathists but all Sunnis from the Iraqi military and most other institutions.

Sunnis were reduced then to second-class citizens, and in response, the population remained hostile to U.S. forces throughout the occupation.

The U.S. also feared the rise of a Shia-dominated state aligned with Iran. U.S. officials didn't want Shiites to use their numerical majority in Iraq to form a strong state hostile to U.S. aims of regional domination.

Moreover, the U.S. had promised their Kurdish allies that the new Iraqi state would be federal in nature, guaranteeing the Kurds' ability to maintain autonomy from the rest of Iraq.

This attitude alienated the Shia population of Iraq. By May 2003, radical Shia clerics grouped around Moqtada al-Sadr preached to tens of thousands against the occupation and for self-rule.

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JUST A few months after Bush announced "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, a nationalist resistance developed, first among the Sunni minority, and later among the Shia majority. The chief voices of this resistance were radical Sunni and Shia clerics, and their mosques became organizing centers of opposition to the occupation.

There were few other outlets than these religious ones. Hussein's Baath Party and its dictatorial regime had discredited secular nationalism and destroyed other secular alternatives, like the once proud Iraqi Communist Party, whose remnants further discredited themselves by supporting the occupation government and condemning the resistance.

Sunni clerics formed the Association of Muslim Scholars that galvanized opposition and began supporting a guerrilla resistance against U.S. troops. They proclaimed their nationalist aspirations with banners proclaiming "Iraq for Iraqis," but they also invoked fundamentalist Sunni traditions that teach anti-Shiite sectarianism.

Among the Shia, al-Sadr quickly built a vast organization and his Mahdi Army, which posed a threat to the U.S. He established a base among the Shia poor as the radical alternative to moderate clerics like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and parties like Dawa and the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Thus, Iraq's movement for national self-determination found expression through Sunni and Shia religious organization. Initially, both wings of the resistance boasted national unity against occupation.

In their books, Cockburn and Rosen describe how the U.S. occupation turned on the Sunni and Shia clerics, their parties and their supporters. Anger with the occupation rose as U.S. forces raided neighborhoods, arrested clerics, and detained and tortured thousands in their infamous prisons like Abu Ghraib.

Out of this overflowing resentment, first the Sunnis and then the Shia launched a guerrilla resistance. Contrary to the often-repeated lie that the rising attacks were the result of "foreign fighters" and "al-Qaeda terrorist," this was a home-grown resistance to occupation, with wide popular support.

As Cockburn writes, "American blindness to Iraqi nationalism, the hostility of the occupied to the occupier, was why the U.S. was caught by surprise when a new guerilla war started in June and July 2003."

Into this growing conflict came sectarian forces like the Sunni Salafists, led by people like al-Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who aimed not only to fight the U.S. occupation, but to establish a Sunni fundamentalist regime and target the Shia population, regarded by the Salafists as infidels.

At this stage, both Sunni and Shia leaders in the rising resistance denounced attacks on the Shia as dividing the Iraqi people. Moreover, in April 2004, when the Sunnis rose up against the occupation in Falluja, al-Sadr's forces simultaneously rose up in Najaf, and the two groups exchanged solidarity and offered mutual support.

However, solidarity between the Shia and Sunni resistance was short-lived. Cockburn argues that "Shia in Baghdad, perhaps 70 percent of the capital's population, saw Falluja as the launching pad for the suicide bombers who blew themselves up every day. Again and again, these attacks butchered the young men who waited for days outside police stations and army recruitment centers looking for jobs."

As a result, when the U.S. invaded and leveled Falluja a second time in November 2004, Sunnis across the country protested, but Shia leaders like Sadr failed to rally their forces in support.

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FACED WITH their greatest fear--the potential of a united Sunni and Shia resistance--the U.S. exploited growing sectarian tensions.

U.S. commanders and the interim government led by Iyad Allawi used Shia and Kurdish troops in assaults on Sunni neighborhoods. Sunnis began to look on the Shia in turn as their enemies, strengthening the once-marginal ideas and organization of Sunni Salafists.

The U.S. concession to finally hold elections in January 2005 was an attempt to conciliate the Shia and split them off from unity with ongoing Sunni rebellion.

As Nir Rosen points out, "Iraq's election law itself seemed designed to promote civil war." The Kurds hoped to maintain a federal Iraq in which they controlled their northern zone as an autonomous province--in pursuit of their long-term aim of an independent Kurdistan.

Shia clerical parties in the United Iraqi Alliance did not like this concession to "Kurdish" federalism, but nevertheless agreed to elections in order to secure Shia dominance in the rest of the country. And the Sunnis looked on elections as a certain loss of any power.

The Shia parties who won the elections used their control of the government to attack the Sunni Salafists, the broader Sunni resistance and the Sunni community itself. The Shia SCIRI party controlled the Interior Ministry, where it organized its notorious Badr Brigades to kill thousands of Sunnis. Sadr's Mahdi Army infiltrated the police, which similarly attacked the Sunnis in revenge against Salafist attacks.

Faced with such repression, the Sunni masses drew closer both to their own militias and the Salafists who targeted the Shia. And in the North, the Kurds increasingly aimed to drive all Arabs, Shia and Sunni, out of the region to gain control of the crucial oil industry.

As Cockburn writes, "Iraq was splitting into three separate parts. The fault lines dividing Sunni, Shia and Kurd became wider by the day."

Sunni Salafists turned these divisions into a low-intensity civil war when they blew up a Shia holy site, Samara's Golden Dome, in February 2006. Though many Sunni forces condemned the attack and many Shia leaders urged against revenge attacks, in the days following the bombing, the Madhi Army and Badr Brigade went on a rampage of sectarian violence, killing over 1,300 Sunnis in Baghdad.

Ever since, the dynamic of civil war has grown throughout the country.

In the North, both Sunni and Shia oppose Kurdish demands for autonomy while Kurdish forces aim to ethnically cleanse Arabs to secure their dominance. This has led to widening clashes between Sadr's forces, who are collaborating with the region's Turkmen minority, and the Kurdish militia.

In the rest of the country, a civil war rages between Shia and Sunni. Baghdad's historically integrated neighborhoods have been torn apart as Shia and Sunni form increasingly homogenous areas. The sectarian pressures have broken apart Shia-Sunni marriages. The danger of full-scale sectarian cleansing of cities and regions looms on the horizon.

Rosen quotes one Iraqi stating, "To be clear, now Shia are Iranians for the Sunni, and Sunni are Salafi terrorists for the Shia. We have a civil war here."

While civil war rages, a majority of Shia and Sunni oppose the U.S. occupation, want it to end and also support resistance to the occupiers. However, there is no credible nationalist force capable of galvanizing this sentiment into a united movement against sectarianism, national oppression and the occupation.

Instead, various religious parties aspiring to rule an Islamic capitalist state have filled the vacuum, and their own sectarianism made them vulnerable to U.S. imperialism's divide-and-conquer strategies.

As Iraq expert Michael Schwartz rightly argues, "The American invasion and occupation of Iraq have visited a series of plagues on both the Iraqi and the American people--and on the world as a whole; and these plagues will have no hope of amelioration until the U.S. military genuinely withdraws from that country or is expelled."

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