Occupation, Resistance And Sectarianism In Iraq
8 March 2007
Four years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the country is wracked by ongoing and escalating violence. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis have died, according to a study published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet in October.
The corporate media’s coverage of the Iraq conflagration has focused only on reports of sectarian violence between Sunni
and Shiite Iraqis. This violence is stripped of political context and conflated with the post-invasion surge in common
criminality and the brutality of US and US-controlled proxy forces to obscure the roots of the ongoing bloodshed. The
media presents the greatest threat to Iraqis as not being the occupation but other Iraqis and therefore, the logic goes,
the occupation’s end. Sectarian violence is today the key justification espoused by Washington for maintaining US troops
Most media reports have dutifully parroted Washington’s line, discarding the hindrances of a lack of firm evidence and
political analysis, that the leading anti-occupation forces in Iraq are responsible for the sectarian violence. In the
lead up to the Bush administration’s “surge” there has been a media focus on Jaish al Mahdi (the Mahdi Army militia of
up to 60,000 members aligned with Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr), claiming it is the worst offender, organising Shiite
death squads to attack Sunnis.
This claim not only absolves the occupation of responsibility despite the myriad ways in which it fosters sectarian
violence — in particular by organising death squads (often along sectarian lines), such as the special police commandos
and those that operate out of the interior ministry (a May 2006 article posted at Brusselstribunal.org noted that,
according to the Iraqi Organisation for Follow-up and Monitoring, 92% of the 3498 bodies found in different regions of
Iraq had been arrested by the Iraqi puppet government's interior ministry).
Claims about preventing 'civil war' also provide cover for the US military’s confrontation with the popular
anti-occupation forces based among the Shiite poor.
The Mahdi Army grew rapidly from hundreds of members to thousands after the US-led invasion, with a huge surge in
membership and support during armed clashes with the occupation forces in Najaf and other cities in 2004. Its members
fought alongside the Sunni resistance in Fallujah in April 2004, and Sadr has collaborated with the Association of
Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group often linked to the insurgency.
Nir Rosen wrote in a November-December Boston Review article that after the 2003 invasion Sadr became the “single most important person in Iraq and the only one capable of
sustaining the fragile alliance between Shias and Sunnis”.
The Mahdi Army has repeatedly fought occupation forces in Sadr City, Najaf, Basra, Amara and elsewhere. Sadr has
organised his supporters in mass demonstrations against the occupation, and, in August, in solidarity with the Lebanese
resistance movement Hezbollah during the Israeli invasion. He has repeatedly called for Iraqi unity in the struggle for
Sectarianism and Sadr
In a July 11 report on the role of Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq, the International Crisis Group stated: “As sectarian
tensions have grown, so too has his movement’s involvement in the dirty war that pits Sunnis against Shiites. [Sadr] has
maintained his calls for national unity, even in the wake of particularly vicious attacks against Shiite civilians, yet
the February 2006 attack against a Shiite shrine in Samarra appears to have been a turning point. Since then, the
violence has reached alarming proportions as Sadrists have indiscriminately attacked presumed Baathists and Wahhabis.”
The rapid growth of the Mahdi Army during 2006, in conditions of heightened sectarian tension stoked by jihadist attacks
and death-squad killings, and the fact that the militia is relatively loosely organised, without a disciplined
hierarchical structure, are two important factors that have contributed to the degeneration of elements of the militia
According to the December report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG — established by the US Congress in March 2006 and headed
by former secretary of state James Baker), “As the Mahdi Army has grown in size and influence, some elements have moved
beyond Sadr’s control”. Since mid-2006 Sadr has fired and suspended various officials in his organisation who have
engaged in sectarian attacks and reprisal killings and repeated his calls for cross-sect unity.
From all reports, the December 30 execution of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, during which guards taunted Hussein by
chanting “Moqtada”, fuelled a surge of indignation among Iraq’s Sunnis. There are many news reports of interviews with
Iraqi people who describe rising levels of mistrust and hostility between members of the two major Islamic sects, but it
is unclear exactly how deeply and irreversibly this sentiment has penetrated Iraqi society. A March 4 Washington Post article reported that “sociologists estimate that nearly a third of Iraqi marriages are unions between members of
different sectarian or ethnic communities”, but that many of these marriages were running into difficulty in the current
The most alarming result of the violence in Iraq is the displacement of millions of Iraqis, often on a sectarian basis.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqis; almost 2 million
Iraqis have fled the country. Many news sources report a wave of “ethnic cleansing” being carried out in the form of
threats and intimidation to force displacement and consolidate Sunni-only or Shiite-only neighbourhoods and cities. The
International Organisation for Migration reported on December 19 that it estimated that more than 250,000 people have
been displaced in central and southern Iraq since the February 2006 bombing of Samarra’s Al Askari Mosque.
However, much of the violence that is portrayed in the media as being based on sectarian hatred is in fact based on
political power struggles between different groups, and this is not limited to struggles between adherents of the two
sects and the country’s different ethnic groups. There are rival factions among Shiite and Sunni Arabs, and among the
Kurds in the north.
A December 4 Inter Press Service article quoted professor of political science at Baghdad university Zahiu Yassen:
“[Sectarian] civil war as the media expresses it is not yet a solid fact … the violence is still within the limits of
political conflict between ruling parties, and all the killings are conducted by gangs hired by politicians. No Iraqi
has killed his neighbour for being Sunni or Shia.” However he added, “but how long would people keep reason and
Divide and rule
The occupation regime has attempted to develop a sectarian framework for ruling and exploiting Iraq, in order to
undermine the armed indigenous resistance. The latest effort is the new oil law, which Iraq’s cabinet approved on
February 27 and will now go to the parliament. Under the law, which will (at last!) deliver Iraq’s oilfields into the
hands of US and British oil companies, corporations will be able to deal with both the central and regional governments.
A February 28 Time magazine report quoted Saleh al Mutlaq, leader of the National Dialogue Front, a secular Sunni-led slate that contested
the December 2005 parliamentary elections: “The feeling is that the law is focused very much on sectarianism.” He
explained that the law “divides the country and the wealth into groups — Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites”.
In an interview with British journal International Socialism (#109, winter 2006), Sami Ramadani, a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University, explained the
impact of Washington’s insistence on dealing with Iraqis in an ethno-sectarian framework, through the construction of
the government, the bureaucracy, the constitution and the security forces: “A so-called ‘balance’ between the different
communities basically enshrines very rigid sectarian and ethnic divisions, even down to the lowest level appointments or
committees. This is completely alien to the country’s general traditions, over hundreds of years.”
None of the violence in Iraq — the insurgency, the sectarian violence, the power struggles, and the extreme level of
purely criminal violence — can be viewed other than in the context of a brutal foreign occupation that has brought mass
insecurity, unemployment, repression and poverty. But the occupation has not only sparked violence by institutionalising
sectarianism: every attempt by the occupation to supposedly “quell violence” actually helps fuel it.
Take August 2006’s “Operation Together Forward”, which was aimed at “securing Baghdad” by increasing US troop levels.
The ISG report described its outcome as “disheartening”. The report noted, “Violence in Baghdad — already at high levels
— jumped more than 43 percent between the summer and October 2006.”
On January 25 the Washington Post reported that, as a result of the operation, “Baghdad has balkanized further into Shiite and Sunni Muslim enclaves,
making the population more reliant on militias and insurgents for protection”.
In a December 6 Tomdispatch.com article, Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at New York’s Stony Brook University,
explained how the operation increased sectarian divisions in the capital: “When the American troops enter the various
sections of Baghdad, they drive the militias off the streets and underground. Usually this results in battles between
militia-members-turned-insurgents and the invading force, but it also results in the suppression of their enforcement
and protection activities … This makes the community not less, but far more vulnerable to suicide bombers and death
“At about the same time and in a similar way, American troops facilitated death squad attacks in the nearby cities of
Balad and Duluiyah, scenes of intense sectarian tension. American troops cordoned off the cities, seeking to root out
Sunni insurgents accused of slaughtering 17 Shia workers. This drove the local Sunni militia underground and soon
afterward Shia death squads appeared. According to the Washington Post, ‘A police officer in Duluiyah, Capt. Qaid al-Azawi, accused American forces of standing by in Balad while militiamen
in police cars and police uniforms slaughtered Sunnis’ …
“This primary commitment — to subdue the forces that oppose the American occupation — ultimately translates into a
perverse formula in which more American forces generate further sectarian violence.”
Battle for Sadr City
Under “Operation Law and Order”, not a Dick Wolf TV show but part of the Bush administration’s Iraq “surge”, US combat
troop levels in the Iraqi capital are being increased by some 17,500 soldiers. The surge, Reuters reported on March 4,
is “regarded as a last attempt to stop Iraq sliding into all-out sectarian civil war”.
But while this may be how it’s being pitched to a sceptical US and international public, underlying it is the White
House’s increasing desperation to smash opposition to the occupation. The Bush regime faces increasing domestic pressure
from a working class that is weary of the war and alarmed by the steadily increasing body count of US soldiers. Close to
3200 US soldiers had died as of March 7; tens of thousands have been wounded and an unknown number of “security
contractors” have been killed.
The ideal outcomes of the surge for Washington is the construction of an Iraqi proxy government of “national unity”
based on collaborators drawn from both Islamic sects and the Kurds; the marginalisation of anti-occupation forces; and
the destruction of any forces capable of developing into a politically independent pole of attraction for dissenters
from the pro-US status quo in Iraq. As part of this process, Washington is trying to develop a relationship with some
predominantly Sunni groups, including negotiating with some insurgent groups and sponsoring Sunni tribes to fight rebels
in the militantly anti-occupation Anbar province.
Establishing control of Sadr City and smashing Sadr’s power base are key aims of the surge. Since the invasion, US
forces have never managed to win control of Sadr City, a massive predominantly Shiite slum neighbourhood in Baghdad,
home to some 2.5 million people. The neighbourhood, formerly called Saddam City, is named after Sadr’s father, Mohammed
Sadek al Sadr, a cleric killed by the Hussein regime in 1999.
Sadr-aligned forces in the neighbourhood have attempted to establish a limited form of local government independent of
the central government and the occupation regime.
On March 5, Associated Press reported that some Sadr-aligned figures in cities outside the capital had been arrested and
that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki declared he will be “reshuffling” his cabinet within two weeks, in a move that is
likely to undermine the power of Sadr-linked forces in parliament. This will include removing the health ministry from
their hands and possibly cutting five of the Sadrists’ six cabinet positions. These provocative actions, as well as the
ceaseless suicide bombings against civilians in Sadr City, where the community’s defence system against such attacks has
been driven underground by the occupation, are likely to bring widespread armed confrontation between Sadrists and the
occupation forces closer.
Iraq for Iraqis!
The August 17 New York Times quoted a US official as saying that the White House was “beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq’s
democratically elected government might not survive” and was “considering alternatives other than democracy” for Iraq.
Maliki has been warned to cooperate with the new US strategy in Iraq, or lose his job. On March 3, Human Rights Watch
opposed Maliki’s imposition of martial law in Baghdad as part of the “security” plan, which gives Baghdad commander
General Qanbar Hashim the “authority to conduct warrantless arrests, monitor private communications, and restrict civil
society groups in Baghdad”.
The idea that brutally pacifying Baghdad will establish control of the whole country is a gross misconception that
ignores the reality of a strengthening insurgency in Anbar province and of functioning local governments based on tribal
and clerical rule, often in conjunction with local insurgents, throughout Iraq. Not only is the insurgency larger and
with a broader base of support than ever — it is also becoming more skilled in its methods, successfully bringing down a
number of US helicopters in recent months.
The nationalist resistance to the US-led occupation has grown steadily since the invasion. Statistics published in the
February 26 edition of the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index reveal that attacks against occupation forces
significantly outnumber those against civilians and Iraqi security forces. There has been a steady increase in attacks
on occupation forces since the invasion, reaching a highpoint of an average 180 a day in January, according to a
February 28 Stars and Stripes article. Poll results printed in the Iraq Index show a majority of Iraqis support these attacks (61% in September 2006,
including 62% of Shiites and 92% of Sunnis).
The occupation forces, and the Bush “surge”, don’t represent a solution to the violence gripping Iraq; instead, they are
intrinsically linked to the ongoing bloodshed. The ongoing occupation is opposed by the majority of Iraqis — likewise
the majority of people in the US, Britain and Australia want the troops to leave. The key step towards bringing peace to
Iraq will be the intransigent resistance of Iraqis and the anti-war movements in the countries of the “Coalition of the
Willing” forcing the withdrawal of foreign troops followed by the payment of massive war reparations for the devastation
already inflicted on Iraq.
A key focus for the Australian anti-war movement should be the impending visit of US President George Bush to Sydney in
September as part of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. An anti-war coalition (
) has already begun planning protests that oppose the ongoing wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, call for environmental
justice, and back workers’ rights. The Stop Bush call to action explains: “Another world is not only possible — it is
necessary! In September 2007 we are inviting you to join the millions of people around the world standing up for peace,
democracy, clean energy and the rights of working people everywhere.”
[Emma Clancy and Simon Cunich are members of the national executive of Resistance, a socialist youth organisation. Visit http://www.resistance.org.au