Picture credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
During the forty years of their control over Iraq, the British deepened ethnic divisions by favoring the Sunnis and other minorities while ruling harshly over the Shia and the Kurds. But Iraqi nationalist politics at that time was secular and, in spite of British "divide and rule" policies, the nationalists successfully united the various ethnic and religious groups, developing a powerful support for national unity. Saddam Hussein's secular regime likewise played on ethnic and religious differences as a strategy of rule. Saddam favored the Sunnis and placed many restrictions on the Shia majority. But the regime directed its worst treatment at the Kurds, who carried on a sporadic armed struggle for autonomy, sometimes with support from Iran, Israel and Washington. Operation Anfal in 1988 killed many Kurds and destroyed 2000 villages, displacing large numbers of Kurds from their mountain areas. Saddam's regime also harshly suppressed a Shiite uprising in the South after the 1991 Gulf War.
During the 1990s, the US and UK patrolled "no-fly zones" over Iraq, claiming to protect vulnerable civilians in the (largely Kurdish) north and the (largely Shia) south. These no-fly zones effectively divided the country into three areas and Kurdish militia came to dominate the north militarily. Separate treatment of the north under the UN Oil-for-Food Programme further fostered autonomy from the central government. These moves set the stage for regional/ethnic separatism and a re-conception of Iraq by some hardliners as three nations within one state.
The US occupation of Iraq further deepened sectarian tensions. As the US searched for Iraqi political collaborators to establish a pro-occupation government, it marginalized the secular political forces, seen as too nationalist, in favor of more compliant religious parties and groupings. The growing Iraqi resistance hardened the occupiers' opposition to nationalism in all its forms. The US promoted (and the mass media accepted) an ethnic/religious conception of Iraqi politics that did not acknowledge the long supremacy of secular nationalism and did not reflect the complex ethnic mix and the diversity of many Iraqi cities and regions, such as Mosul, Basrah and especially multi-ethnic Baghdad. US military tactics, such as the use of Kurds and Shia to police Sunni towns, worsened relations between religious communities.
Sectarian differences have now worsened, due to the struggle over Iraq's constitution and a parallel battle over oil resources, largely located in the South and the North. In addition, many Christians and secular Iraqis, who might have been a force of moderation, have fled the country, fearing the growing power of the Islamist parties. The economic distress, high unemployment and general chaos of the occupation have stoked the tensions. The resulting poisonous political mix could degenerate into inter-communal violence and ethnic cleansing similar to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia and Lebanon. But a prolonged occupation, far from mitigating these developments, will only deepen the sectarian divides and stoke the animosities.
Following the US invasion of Iraq back in 2003, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey backed different sides of the conflict in the chaotic struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis as well as between the Arabs and the Kurds. According to a 2005 embassy cable released by Wikileaks, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah warned US diplomats that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was like serving Iraq to Iran “on a golden platter”. This article argues that the US withdrawal increases these foreign maneuvers but it overlooks US influence and the weak, ethnically divided state the occupation created. (Reuters)
Desire for increased autonomy threatens to intensify sectarian tensions in Iraq. The recent declaration of autonomy by the Salahuddin province, located north of Baghdad, added fuel to the fire. The question of autonomy is not new and provincial power conflicts have boiled in the country for years. Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki is in support of a strong central government and his government has tried to silence the autonomy movement. Autonomy would give a province more supervision over public property, which would loosen the government’s grip over the country’s large oil facilities. (Reuters)
Anbar, the geographically largest province in Iraq, is threatened by a possible return of the insurgency. Anbar is dominated by tribal Sunni Muslim sheiks, who now feel alienated by the government. Although violence in the province has subsided in recent years, there is a risk that this power struggle between the sheiks and the government could make the area vulnerable to a regrouping of the militants in the province. (Alertnet)
US commentary since 2003 has expressed concern about Iranian influence over Iraq. Yet US actions have in fact aided Iran as the US empowered the very Shiite politicians who have close relations to Tehran. Washington analysts recognize that US promotion of sectarian identity in Iraq aids Iran. Yet much of US policy continues to reinforce the sectarian status quo.(The National)
Sectarianism in Iraq does not consist of a doctrinal or theological dispute, but instead represents a struggle over resources. Alderman, in his study on tribal history in Al-Mada'in, also discovered that virtually all those interviewed claimed tribes were mixed religiously. (Informed Comment)
US forces incite sectarian violence amongst different ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, in order to gain support for a continued presence. In a survey conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, the largest percentage of Iraqis polled said they see themselves as "just Muslim rather than Sunni or Shia." The National Foundation Congress, a group of Iraqi citizens denouncing sectarianism in Iraq, claims national unity can occur but only when the US announces a timetable for withdrawal. (Guernica)
The Bush administration uses Iraqi sectarian violence as a way to justify the continued presence of US troops in Iraq. The US government employs a "divide and rule" policy by arming militant death squads to suppress Sunni resistance and assigning seats in the Iraqi Governing Council based on sectarian divisions. Before the US occupation of Iraq, however, Sunnis and Shias lived, worked, married and even attended religious services amongst one another. "In September of 2007, 500 British troops left Basra and ceased to conduct regular foot patrols; the overall level of violence has decreased 90 percent since then," suggesting the main source of violence in Iraq is the occupying forces, not sectarian conflict. (International Socialist Review)
Iraqis express concern that religious clerics are influencing Iraqi politics, despite assurances by US President George Bush that Iraq would become a "secular and free country." Many Iraqi academics and community leaders are concerned that human rights and religious freedom are at risk as religious clerics take a prominent role in the Iraqi government. (Inter Press Service)
In April 2007, US troops began to construct a concrete wall enclosing the predominantly Sunni suburb of Adhamiya in Baghdad, purportedly to "curtail inter-communal violence." Construction has continued, despite protests from residents who blame the occupying forces' segregation tactics for deepening ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq. Further, the wall reinforces the image of Iraqis as a conquered people, imprisoned in their own communities. (Toward Freedom)
In a new strategy to curb insurgent attacks in Iraq, US commanders are providing Sunni groups with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and supplies, in exchange for promises that they will fight al Qaida and stop attacks against Coalition forces. Critics fear that the US is actually arming both sides in a civil war, as weapons given to Sunni groups may eventually be used against the Shia-dominated government. "We have enough militias in Iraq ... Why are we creating new ones?," says an Iraqi government official. (New York Times)
According to the Pentagon, Sunni resistance is likely to welcome Sadr's invitation to work with his group. Although the Bush administration claims that the US cannot leave Iraq because sectarian violence will escalate, Sunni and Shiite leaders are attempting to work together to force the end of the occupation, suggesting that US efforts to drive the two sects into further distrust and anger are eroding. (Inter Press Service)
Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis, the leader of an alliance of Sunni tribes fighting Al-Qaeda, visited the Shiite stronghold Sadr city in an attempt at national reconciliation. Al-Hayis' visit can be seen as a reaction to years of sectarian violence and months of fruitless negotiations in the Constitutional Reform Committee, which has failed to incorporate amendments that would satisfy Iraq's political factions. Al-Hayis met with top officials from Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia movement in an attempt to unify the warring sects.(Daily Star-Lebanon)
This Associated Press article points out that the US is relying on the Shia Mahdi Army to ensure the security of the Shia mosque of Imman Kadhim in Baghdad. According to US officials, the US is leaving the Mahdi security network in place to prevent Sunni attacks on the shrine as happened in Samarra in 2006. Further, the US cannot directly confront the powerful Shia militia and does not want to divert resources from other parts of the city where the security situation is worse. The US is pursuing a contradictory policy in Iraq, saying that the Shia militias are a threat to Iraq's stability, yet letting the Shia Mahdi Army freely operate in Baghdad.
The Washington Post describes how the Shia majority government is arresting and removing police officers who "worked too aggressively to combat Shia militias." This perspective seems to echo Washington's increasing pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for not meeting the US imposed benchmarks towards reconciliation. According to this piece, the Iraqi government claims that the officers were dismissed for legitimate reasons, but most of them were considered to be the best in the field and at least 9 out of 16 were Sunnis. While Maliki does not appear to have seriously engaged in disbanding the Shia militias and is heavily influenced by sectarian differences, the US has been attempting to absolve itself from blame for the failure in Iraq by attributing the problems entirely to the partiality of the Iraqi government.
This Guardian article points out that, as part of the Baghdad Security Plan, the US is constructing a wall to separate the Sunni community of Adamiya from the surrounding Shia neighborhoods. The US claims the wall will improve the security situation, breaking the cycle of sectarian violence. However, the residents of Adamiya complain that they are being "caged" and treated inhumanely. Further, the Sunnis argue that the wall will aggravate sectarian tensions by segregating them from Shias neighbors.
Since the beginning of the US occupation, the CIA has supported and funded the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, putting its longtime Sunni "asset", Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, at the helm of the organization. According to a US military official, "US funding for the Iraqi National Intelligence Service amounted to US$3 billion over a three-year period that started in 2004." However, Shia politicians said they do not trust this agency and the Shia Minister of State for National Security Sherwan Waili created a new secret service that has an estimated 1,200 staff all over the country. (Los Angeles Times)
This Inter Press Service article points out that the US and Iraqi forces are carrying out a "genocidal strategy" in Fallujah, killing people seized during house-searches and patrols. According to Yasse, a resident of Fallujah, "seventeen young men were found executed after they were arrested by US troops and Fallujah police." Further, other residents reported that US forces allow Shia militias to raid Sunni neighborhoods, fueling the sectarian violence. With the deterioration of the security situation and the increase of the US backed-violence, most Iraqis now support attacks against the occupation forces.
This Asia Times article questions the concept of terrorism, showing that groups in Iraq are labeled terrorists depending on political interests. The US threatens to withdraw its support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government if it does not bring stability to Iraq. However, Maliki does not appear to seriously engage in disbanding militias, as he opposes Sunni militias while he tolerates the Shia Mahdi Army and Badr organization. The US has also been pursuing a contradictory policy in Iraq, claiming to fight terrorism, yet supporting the pro-US Kurdish militias that operate against Turkey in the north of the country.
This article from The Hindu suggests that the US has been manipulating the sectarian differences in Iraq to assure its interests and that this policy has only aggravated tensions between Sunnis and Shias. The situation is chaotic, especially in Baghdad, where the once cosmopolitan city is now torn by different groups trying desperately to control the capital. Many Iraqis see the US "surge" plan as an attempt to drive Sunnis out of the capital and consolidate the power of Kurdish and Shia US allies. Furthermore, several senior Iraqi government officials have links with the Shia militias, which are attacking Sunni neighborhoods and spreading violence across the country.
Although UN Secretary General Kofi Annan comments that the situation in Iraq "is worse than civil war? this open Democracy
article points out that the country remains "occupied" by US forces, which fuels and escalates the violence in that country. The author emphasizes that the Iraq conflict is not a civil war and that abuse of the term can "mislead the public into supporting or acquiescing in policies on vital matters" that they would otherwise condemn. Furthermore, the author notes that Iraqis will not relent in their resistance to the occupation until foreign troops are withdrawn.
This Global Research piece analyzes the disappearance of Iraq's multi-faith co-existence due to increasing ethnic violence, particularly in Iraq's north. Although reports of violence between Sunni and Shiite sects dominate the media, the author points out that Turkmens and Kurds also face marginalization, discrimination and hostility. Despite appearances of stability in northern Iraq, "there are troubling signs of an ethnic cleansing underway.? Furthermore, northern cities such as Tel-Afar, which was the subject of a large-scale bombardment by US forces in 2005, "remains under military siege, crippled and little heard from."
This Independent piece suggests that the Iraqi government no longer controls the police forces, who instead pledge their allegiance to local sectarian militias. Furthermore, the author argues that administrative power in Iraq remains "firmly with the US and Britain." Even the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cannot direct his security forces without approval from the US military. The author concludes that the US and UK leaders must accept that armed resistance in Iraq "is fueled by hostility to foreign occupation" and that the Iraqi government will only gain legitimacy and freedom when foreign troops withdraw.
The Iraqi government has established the Kirkuk Normalization Committee to reverse the "Arabization" policy, pursued under former leader Saddam Hussein, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. This Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty article analyzes possible future scenarios for the region, which houses major oil fields and accounts for 70 percent of Iraq's natural-gas deposits. The author concludes that Kirkuk, due to its ethnic diversity "is a microcosm of Iraq," and reconciliation in the region may provide a model for resolving the sectarian strife that engulfs the rest of the country.
Despite mounting sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, very few members of US Congress know the difference between the two branches of Islam. Furthermore, this New York Times piece reveals that some US counter-terrorism officials do not know which terrorist organizations affiliate themselves with which branch of the religion. The author maintains that knowledge of the so-called "enemy" in Iraq is a fundamental aspect of the US "war on terror." Such uncertainty exposes the intelligence failures plaguing the Bush administration and US Congress in their policymaking.
Sectarian violence in the city of Baquba, 50km northeast of Baghdad, continues to intensify due to the many different ethnic groups that inhabit the Diyala province town. Furthermore, residents claim that Iraqi security forces directly participate in criminal acts with the militias, while US military officials turn a blind eye. The new wave of violence destroys old traditions and residents blame the occupying forces for turning "1,400 years of community peace and intermarriages" into a sectarian battleground. (Inter Press Service)
This Los Angeles Times article highlights how rising sectarian tension impacts the daily life of Iraqi citizens. Locals in Baghdad say "sectarian death squads" that patrol the streets imprison them in their neighborhoods. Although Sunnis and Shiites have lived together for centuries, fear of death has forced many Iraqis to leave their mixed neighborhoods, taking refuge in communities where they can live among their own.
In southern Iraqi cities, fighting has increased between Shiite militias and US-backed Iraqi security forces. Violent eruptions in Karbala and Basra serve as a reminder of "how precariously the country teeters on the edge of civil war." According to the Washington Post, the Shiite-dominated south has spiraled "into an abyss of violence," with daily assassinations and rival militias, such as Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and Fadhila's armed wing, fighting openly in the streets.
US President George W. Bush has dismissed the idea of partitioning Iraq raised by US officials and Iraqi politicians as a policy alternative in light of the sectarian conflict. At a private meeting, Bush told Middle East experts that dividing Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish sections would "be like pouring oil on fire." While the US has not directly divided the country, many Iraqis still see Washington as playing sectarian politics in order to shore up imperial control. (Los Angeles Times)
This Integrated Regional Information Networks article examines the background of the conflict in Kirkuk, Iraq's biggest oil-producing city. After US-led coalition forces occupied Iraq in April 2003, Kurds and other non-Arab Iraqis began returning to the area to reclaim property confiscated by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. As security deteriorates in Iraq and sectarian conflict escalates, tensions from competing land claims among returning Kurds have turned violent, with some warning that "Kirkuk will become the focus of civil war."
According to this AlterNet article, Iraq's sectarian conflict stems from "the US government's political miscalculations." Instead of dividing power along the spectrum of political beliefs, the US chose to allocate "seats at the political table" by ethnic and religious identity. In addition, US interference in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's reconciliation plan "effectively scuttled perhaps the best chance for peace Iraq has had since the initial invasion." The authors conclude that the US must withdraw all troops and cease intervening in the political and military affairs of the country.
According to this Los Angeles Times article, leaders of Iraq's Shiite political bloc have begun "aggressively promoting a radical plan" to divide the country into autonomous federal regions. Sunni leaders "see nothing but greed in the new push," accusing Shiites of taking advantage of the escalating violence to "make an oil grab" and gain political concessions. Observers warn that cutting up the country would prove "as cataclysmic as the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947," and would "lead to increasing violence and sectarian displacement."
Renowned Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn reminisces about his time spent in Baghdad over the last 30 years. While acknowledging the city was not always a "centre of multiethnic understanding," he argues that the diversity of cultures, "which gave the city its peculiar allure," has now disappeared. The occupation and sectarian warfare have turned Baghdad into "a dozen cities," each one a heavily armed Shia or Sunni stronghold. Cockburn remains optimistic that having survived the 1991 Gulf War, the "bloodthirsty" regime of Saddam Hussein, and relentless sanctions, "Baghdad may rise again," but he predicts "it will be a different city." (Counter Punch)
This Al-Jazeera article depicts the civil conflict and resulting migration within Iraq. Influential tribal leaders and "death squads" force residents to leave their homes, herding refugees into "tent cities." Shia and Sunnis also swap homes, relocating to live with others of their sect and creating segregated communities. Since the February 2006 bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra, sectarian violence has displaced over 160,000 people nationwide.
International Crisis Group (ICG) examines the neglected but looming conflict in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The report describes the struggle as "equal parts street brawl over oil riches, ethnic competition over identity, and titanic clash between two nations." The ICG recommends a UN-led mediation between leaders of Kirkuk's communities as well as representatives of the Iraqi government and the Kurdish federal region.
Foreign Policy in Focus argues that the Iraqi civil conflict stems from political rather than sectarian issues. Despite the "misguided analyses" of foreign politicians, Shia and Sunni Iraqis have lived in harmony for centuries and have never had a sectarian civil war. The author concludes that the "US-engineered political order" which alienated Sunni Arabs has resulted in the deep divisions between Iraqis.
Rival Shiite militias seeking power and control over oil smuggling have put the city of Basra on the verge of open warfare. Locals say "death squads" openly patrol the streets and politicians, corrupt policemen, and gangs are all vying with one another to determine who will come out on top. The violence in Iraq's vital southern port city led Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to declare a state of emergency in Basra. (Christian Science Monitor)
Several prominent US politicians have suggested dividing Iraq into three semi-independent federal entities. The proposed tripartite break-ups would split Iraq along ethno-religious lines: Shi'a Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. As this article points out, these partition schemes distort Iraqi history and today's realities. Regionalism, not sectarianism, has historically been the main competitor to Iraqi nationalism. Partition schemes also demonstrate flagrant contempt for the fragile democratic process underway in Iraq. (openDemocracy)
Following the nomination of Jawad al-Maliki as prime minister, commentators constantly repeat the need for Iraq's government to overcome sectarian divisions, political deadlock, and a "brewing civil war." Yet as this article points out, Iraq cannot achieve national sovereignty and political legitimacy as long as the US-led occupation continues. Violence, corruption and sectarianism have all sprung from the military occupation, and will persist so long as it continues, despite the best efforts of Maliki or any other Iraqi politician. (Uruknet)
Despite clear warnings, Whitehouse and Pentagon officials ignored the threat of sectarian militias, which many now blame for the increased violence and insecurity in Iraq. Focusing instead on the largely Sunni insurgency, the US allowed militias such as the Kurdish Peshmurga and Shiite Badr Organization and Mahdi Army to organize and infiltrate various government ministries. Though intelligence officials warned of sectarian militias beginning in 2003, the Bush administration deliberately ignored the threat and withheld funding from initiatives to ban and disarm Iraq's militias. (Knight Ridder)
Sectarian violence and intimidation have forced 65,000 Iraqis to flee their homes, Iraq's Ministry for Displacement and Migration estimates. The Iraqi Red Crescent has been able to provide food, water, blankets and kerosene to roughly 5,000 families living in makeshift camps, less than half the total of displaced families. Though the UN maintains a limited presence in Iraq, it is trying to secure emergency funds in anticipation of the growing number of internally displaced persons. (BBC)
More than three months after the December 15, 2005 parliamentary elections, Iraqi leaders have yet to form a government. Politicians attribute the standstill to a variety of factors â€“ Shiite leaders accuse the US of interfering in Iraqi politics while Sunni Arabs say the Kurdish and Shiite factions remain unwilling to share power. Following the February 22 bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra, sectarian violence has escalated, leading to a troublesome pattern: the inability to form a unity government has aggravated sectarian violence, which further complicates political negotiations. (Knight Ridder)
For the neoconservative advocates of the war in Iraq, the slide towards civil war does not represent a policy failure, but rather a strategic victory. According to John Walsh of Counter Punch, the "pre-eminent neocon" Daniel Pipes argued that "when Sunni terrorists target Shiites and vice versa, non-Muslims are less likely to be hurt." With "Muslim terrorists" busy killing each other, the logic goes, the rest of the world is made safer. Furthermore, with the distraction of sectarian violence, outside forces can more easily control Iraq. Aside from being racist, Walsh points out, such a "divide and rule" tactic represents "a crime against humanity."
Professor Stephen Zunes examines the history of sectarianism in Iraq and the US role in exacerbating sectarian violence. Though US officials blame violence on "longstanding sectarian hatred," Iraq had previously maintained a strong national identity and tradition of secularism. Following the invasion in 2003, US officials dissolved Iraq's army and government bureaucracy â€“ two highly secular institutions â€“ and divvied authority along ethnic and religious lines. As Zunes points out, the ongoing presence of US troops will not prevent an Iraqi civil war, as the Bush administration insists, but will continue to aggravate sectarian violence. (Foreign Policy in Focus)
According to Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver of the Institute for Policy Studies, the attack on the Askariya mosque in Samarra does not indicate a sudden outbreak of civil war in Iraq. Rather, the growing violence represents the US occupation's failure "to bring security, let alone â€˜democracy,' to the people of Iraq." Furthermore, the ongoing US presence in Iraq continues to incite violent resistance while US-imposed "democracy" has aggravated sectarian divisions. Nonetheless, the authors point out, many Iraqi leaders have called for unity while encouraging peaceful resistance to sectarian violence and the US occupation.
Iraqi leaders have urged unity following the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra. Though officials do not know who staged the attack, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani labeled the bombing a "conspiracy that is targeting Iraq's unity." Talabani was joined by Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, and the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars in calling for peace and denouncing sectarian violence. (Al Jazeera)
Kurdish and Sunni political parties expressed disappointment over the nomination of Ibrahim al-Jafari as Prime Minister, citing mismanagement under Iraq's transitional government and the rise of sectarian militias. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the ruling Shiite coalition, may also dissolve as members voted 64 to 63 in favor of Jafari over rival Adil Abd al-Mahdi during internal elections for prime minister. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)
According to Robert Dreyfuss, the results of Iraq's parliamentary elections highlight a shattered Iraqi body politic that may very well lead to civil war. The Arab League peace initiative, a short-lived but promising effort to unite the Shiite-Kurdish government, the Sunni-led opposition, and the armed resistance, has collapsed, while Iraqi lawmakers must still resolve a contentious constitution, which Shiite leaders have refused to amend. As Dreyfuss points out, Iraq has little hope of establishing a "national unity government." (TomPaine)
As Iraq's government gradually takes shape, Kurdish groups continue to demand independence. Though Kurdish political parties, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have gained significant power in Baghdad and have committed to a unified Iraq, polls indicate that 98 percent of Kurdish voters favor an independent Kurdistan. While Sunni-Shiite relations tend to dominate the discussion of Iraq's future, Kurdish autonomy will certainly play an important role in political negotiations. (Institute for War and Peace Reporting)