US Occupation of Iraq Faces Both Old and New Resistance


By Matthew Riemer

Power and Interest News Report
August 31, 2003

As the U.S. occupation of Iraq is maintained, U.S. forces will become increasingly involved in political, religious, and ethnic conflicts not directly related to the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime or the fertilization of his ravaged country with the potential for an economically globalized and democratic society. Such conflicts -- which ostensibly present themselves to the United States as "security" issues -- are a natural result of a diverse and oppressed people suddenly emerging from the shadow of autocratic rule and into a new environment created by a foreign occupation of questionable intent and effect.

Essentially, the United States faces two kinds of forces in Iraq. The first is openly hostile and is a direct result of the occupation; namely, any of the varied groups of resistance forces and organizations made up of both local and imported soldiers. Such military forces are directly opposed to the United States and openly attack its interests within Iraq. The second kind of force is only a potentially hostile one created by the cultural and social conflicts alluded to above -- ones that transcend both the reign of Saddam Hussein and U.S. aggression.

The primary complexity of a situation like the one now found in Iraq lies in the fact that many of the tensions now exerting destabilizing pressure on the country's political and social climate have nothing to do with the U.S. invasion and occupation or Saddam Hussein's bloody rule, but instead are ones that go far beyond these relatively short timelines back centuries, like the conflict between Sunni and Shi'a and between the Kurds of northern Iraq and Sunni Arabs and Turkmen as well as other ethnic conflict. The long military and economic battle between the United States and Saddam Hussein has only served to exacerbate these ubiquitous tensions and provide their modern context.

These are now the issues that signify the greatest threat to the U.S. occupation because of their latent ability to entangle an unwitting foreigner in situations he cannot understand let alone resolve. U.S. forces, now basically policing these conflicts, are in the perfect position for just such an entanglement. And the inevitability of being dragged into these situations is made more ominous when the more basic, military goals of a foreign occupation have yet to be met as is the case currently in Iraq.

Recently, in the northern Iraqi towns of Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk, violence between local Kurds and Turkmen resulted in more than ten Turkmen dead, while U.S. troops monitored the conflict and held back rioters in one instance. Though no U.S. casualties were reported from this confrontation, it is a situation that will undoubtedly reoccur and may very well include U.S. casualties the next time. The Turkmen, who also demonstrated in Baghdad, feel they are not represented fairly in the post-Saddam political environment. While in the majority Shi'a southern part of the country, religious leaders are asserting themselves in ways counter to U.S. interests as well as Sunnis in the north, especially the Shi'a religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Additionally, there are further divisions and rivalries within Shi'a society now that the ouster of Saddam has led to their ability to protest and articulate their ideas. In fact, most Shi'a leaders have been cooperating with the United States and its sponsored government; al-Sadr has been the most outspoken critic.

On August 29 a bomb exploded in Najaf immediately following noon prayers at one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam, the mosque of Imam Ali. Over 100 people were killed including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, one of Iraq's leading Shi'ite clerics and one tacitly cooperating with the United States. Whether this act is ultimately blamed on Ba'athist elements, al-Qaeda, or rival Shi'ite factions, it represents the intensity and complexity of local politics in which the U.S. may become embroiled.

When developing a policy for these undesirable situations, the U.S. must realize that these conflicts would be occurring whether or not there is a Saddam Hussein or a U.S. occupation and that their resolution is not really a realistic U.S. aim -- though certainly U.S. interests are greatly affected by their course and outcome. So these historical themes and the nuanced situations they produce will only further tax the U.S. efforts at stabilizing Iraq for foreign investment, especially since the most basic criteria for a successful occupation and transformation of society are lacking. Also, those resisting "coalition" efforts and other Western entities in Iraq are hindering efforts to restore Iraq's infrastructure through sabotage and intimidation. Unfortunately for the U.S., such observations are not always made by society at large and, regardless of the reason, many Iraqis feel that their lives are essentially no better under occupation.

Therefore, not only does the United States have to succeed in the traditional categories of a foreign occupation, but also in areas that have remained unsolved for centuries. This may prove to be the Achilles' heel of the U.S. occupation efforts: even if all of the military goals are met, the old and ideological issues surrounding much of Iraq's fragmentation must still be overcome if Iraq is going to become an independent state capable of carrying out the wishes of Washington without constant scrutiny.

In fact, democracy may not be what Washington wants in Iraq at the present time. Too many groups exerting varying degrees of influence in varying directions creates a more decentralized political environment where autocratic and even ostensibly benign centralized power are naturally precluded by the diversity of participants.

In cases such as the skirmishes in Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk and the broader Sunni-Shi'a divide, U.S. forces are bystanders and represent a third stream. Energies expended and losses taken by the United States policing or being swept up in these kinds of confrontations represent the most difficult aspect of the current occupation. Problems and divides that have lasted for centuries are unlikely to be solved by an occupying military force whose leaders have very little regard for cultural sensitivity and relativity.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Power and Interest News Report.

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