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Iraqi Sectarianism: Inherited, Irreversible?
The most feared outcome of the uncalculated, illegal and unethical US adventure in Iraq is almost a reality now. Sectarian strife in Iraq is making headlines around the world, with calls for restraint by all parties — both inside and outside the war-torn country –seemingly falling on deaf ears. What brought about that dreadful outcome? Is it too late to prevent a full-scale civil war? What could be the best way forward?
While a report on the issue Monday, February27 , by the International Crisis Group (ICG) gives answers for these questions, it might have ignored some decisive factors.
"If Iraq falls apart, historians may seek to identify years from now what was the decisive moment. The ratification of the constitution in October 2005 , a sectarian document that both marginalized and alienated the Sunni Arab community?
"The flawed January 2005 elections that handed victory to a Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which drafted the constitution and established a government that countered outrages against Shiites with indiscriminate attacks against Sunnis? Establishment of the Interim Governing Council in July 2003 , a body that in its composition prized communal identities over national-political platforms?
"Or, even earlier, in the nature of the ousted regime and its consistent and brutal suppression of political stirrings in the Shiite and Kurdish communities that it saw as threatening its survival? Most likely it is a combination of all four, as this report argues."
The ICG's assessment of the situation, at least in part, ignores many other factors that, if grasped, may help reach "the best way forward."
Claiming that the nature of the ousted regime itself and its "consistent and brutal suppression of political stirrings in the Shiite and Kurdish communities" were possible decisive causes for the current flare-up of sectarian strife in Iraq, in effect ignores the very "true nature of that regime."
Saddam Hussein, often referred to be some Western media as "Sunni," was no more than a despot and a dictator whose practices and actions were a reflection of this nature and nothing more.
To say that Saddam Hussein oppressed Shiites and Kurds and favored Sunnis, on the backdrop of himself being a Sunni, is not only a distortion of facts, but also an outright lie.
Saddam's regime officials and inner circle did reflect the Iraqi mosaic, including Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. But to say the choice rested on sectarian lines would also be an "ignorant" judgment.
Speaker of Iraq's National Assembly (Parliament) Saadoun Hammady and Minister of Trade Mohamed Mehdi Saleh were Shiites, while the famous Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz was Christian.
Does this mean that Saddam was trying to please certain sects? Does it mean choice of his henchmen depended on their religious or ethnic affiliations? It is a fact that dictators tend to pick their aides in terms of "approval and getting along" with whatever a dictator sees right.
In the majority of Iraq's provinces, where Shiites and Sunnis live side by side, it is normal for one family to have Shiite and Sunni members.
In Baghdad, Dyala, Basra, Babel and other provinces across Iraq, it is hard to see clear lines across sectarian divisions socially, with marriages bringing a Shiite bride and a Sunni groom together or the other way around.
This social mosaic has always been there. It is true tensions might have been there as well. But to what extent? What made these develop so dangerously as to cause huge casualties and threaten an open civil war now?
There have to be other "exterior factors." US officials themselves actually highlight these factors.
James Jeffrey, the State Department coordinator on Iraq, pointed the finger at Al-Qaeda for the latest violence.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of "outsiders" stoking tensions — usually a code word for Iran and Syria.
The ICG's report highlighted three US-related developments as other potential decisive factors behind the outbreak of sectarian violence.
But no one seems to be looking deeper or may be coming outright to blame Washington's invasion and occupation, its favoring of Shiites and Kurds at the expense of the Sunnis, and its short-sighted handling of the Iraqi quagmire for the whole bloody situation.
A few months after the invasion, reports coming from Washington highlighted the lack of a US plan to handle the country it had just occupied, along with a serious misunderstanding of the "Iraqi case" in general. We still remember how the widely spread notion in 2003 was that Iraqis would meet US soldiers with "roses"!
The same situation seems to be repeated now with the sectarian jinni out of its bottle. While it is hard to accuse the Americans of fueling sectarian strife in Iraq now, it is safe to say the US short-sightedness and lack of "a clear vision or exit strategy" have all been major factors in matters reaching that risky cliffhanger.
US ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad was amongst the first US officials to foresee the fast-approaching sectarian sandstorm when he hinted "a possible cutoff of US security aid if the coming Iraqi government included sectarian ministers."
But typical of US moves in Iraq, the realization might have come too late already. The US occupation forces themselves, in their actions to curb the armed resistance, have long been accused of singling out Sunni neighborhoods for massive operations that saw major violations of human rights. Sunni mosques have also been the scene of such operations. While the US and their allies of the Iraqi government argue that most anti-US operations in Sunni areas of the country are to confront resistance fighters only, two massive revolts by a major Shiite faction widely dispute these claims.
Revolts against US occupation by Al-Sadr's followers were dealt with in a way different from the handling of other resistance factions, to say the least. There were no massive operations in Shiite areas, or at least nothing that made the headlines. Even Mehdi Army Militia are still there and operative despite being declared illegal under current laws. Mehdi Militia themselves played a big role in attacking Sunnis last week following the bombing of the golden dome in Samarra.
Rice called the sectarian clashes "a blow" and said Iraqis were going through "an extremely hard and extremely delicate moment." Yes, but the Americans are also facing the consequences of that "blow."
ICG recommendations to Washington focused on what it could do to get their Shiite-Kurd allies to include the Sunnis in a "national unity government," "encouraging meaningful amendments to the constitution to produce an inclusive document that protects the fundamental interests of all principal communities and assisting in building up security forces that are not only adequately trained and equipped, but also inclusive and non-sectarian."
But in short, the United States has played a big role in fueling the sectarian strife in Iraq, whether wittingly or unwittingly. Consequently, it has to play a more positive role in curbing that devastating plague before it is too late.
An exit strategy, with a clear schedule for gradually withdrawing its occupation forces might be a good first step in this direction.