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Sectarianism, Violence, and the Future of Iraq

By Dan Darling | March 1, 2006

While the ultimate fall-out from the Askariyah bombing is still in doubt, the situation is by no means grave. With the death toll standing 379 and 1,300 over the last several days, it is entirely clear for supporters and critics of the US presence in Iraq alike to ask where the country is heading.

To begin with, it should be understood that the nation is probably not yet on the verge of civil war, as can be seen from the fact that despite all of the valid concerns that have been raised as to the involvement of the militias in the recent violence, the individuals and political factions to which these individuals owe their allegiance are still, at least publicly, devoted to the political process, including the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. As the Los Angeles Times notes, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry has recently requested that US ambassador Zalmay Khalizhad refrain from making recommendations concerning the composition of a new Iraqi government, an event that at the absolute least suggests that the two largest political factions within Iraq, the United Iraqi Alliance and the two major Kurdish parties, still intend to push forward with the creation of a new government rather than Balkanizing into separate camps and preparing themselves for a fight for control of Iraq. Indeed, it is the major Shi’ite and Kurdish groups, all of whom occupy prominent positions within the new Iraqi government, who almost certainly have the most to lose with respect to the outbreak of a civil war in Iraq, particularly one that might lead to the country’s dissolution and the intervention of neighboring powers.

A Debate Over Terms

There has been, to a certain extent, a debate over the definition of civil war as it relates to Iraq. If it is defined simply by body count, then the Sunni insurgency itself certainly qualifies as one on account of the number of Iraqis it has killed in attacks since 2003. If it is defined as a major outbreak of sectarian violence, then one is hard-pressed to explain why Iraq should be defined as being in a state of civil war but that India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan, all of which have endured ongoing and extremely costly sectarian violence, should not be. Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of the current situation in Iraq is that it will lead to an annual cycle of sectarian violence similar to that found in the above-mentioned countries. Such an outcome would not be in the interests of either the United States or Iraq, but neither would it be synonymous with the dissolution of the Iraqi state along the lines that some observers have suggested.

Here again, the major difference between Iraq and other nations that have endured civil wars is that currently all of the major political factions inside Iraq are interested in continuing with some form of political participation, something that wasn’t the case in Lebanon following the events of Black Saturday or in Yugoslavia following the destruction of Ravno. In both cases, all of the major factions had given up on some kind of peaceful resolution and instead returned to their own power bases to prepare for the battle to control the country. If this begins to happen within Iraq (and it would be exceedingly easy for this to occur with most political parties controlling sizeable militias of their own), then and only then would it be appropriate to label the conflict as being a civil war, but not beforehand.

The absence of civil war, however, should not be seen as an absence of sectarian violence, and if such violence becomes commonplace in certain regions of Iraq or in conjunction with certain Shi’ite holy days, it will lead to a further weakening of the Iraqi state at the local and national levels as well as prolonging the existence and power of political or sectarian militias indefinitely, none of which will assist in the successful emergence of a democratic Iraq. Nor should the continuing existence of the insurgency, which has repeatedly targeted Iraqis of all ethnic groups and creeds, be seen solely through the lens of the Askariyah bombing or retaliation against the sectarian violence that followed: Zarqawi has been actively targeting Shi’ites since at least early 2004 if not beforehand.

The Myth of an Anti-Sectarian Iraq

One of the most unfortunate developments stemming from the Askariyah bombing is that it has prompted inadvertently prompted Western observers to inadvertently recite Saddam-era propaganda without being aware of how dated it is. One such aspect of this propaganda can be seen in the myth that sectarianism did not exist inside Iraq prior to the US invasion.

Yet as Dr. Anthony Cordesman makes clear on p. 1-2 of Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency, nothing could be further from the truth:

The politics of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980-1988, were essentially the politics of ruthless repression. Political dissent of any kind became even more dangerous … Hundreds of thousands of Arab Shi’ites were driven out of the country, and many formed an armed opposition with Iranian support. While most of the remaining Arab Shi’ites remained loyal, their secular and religious leaders were kept under constant surveillance and sometimes imprisoned and killed. The marsh areas along the Iranian border were a key center of the fighting between Iran and Iraq, but still became a sanctuary for deserters and Shi’ite opposition elements.

Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, did more than further impoverish the country. Uprisings in the Shi’ite areas in the south were suppressed with all of the regime’s customary violence and then followed by a mix of repression and low-level civil war that lasted until Saddam was driven from power. While this conflict received only limited attention from the outside world, it often involved significant local clashes between Iraqi government forces and those of Shi’ite opposition movements based in, and backed by, Iran. The post-Iraq War discovery of mass graves of Shi’ite fighters and civilians are a grim testimony to how serious this “quiet” fighting could be.

… From 1991 until the Coalition invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein created further problems by encouraging tribal divisions and favoring those tribes and clans that supported his rule and regime. He exploited religion by increasingly publicly embracing Islam, and privately favoring Sunni factions and religious leaders that supported him while penalizing Shi’ite religious leaders and centers he saw as a threat, At the same time, funds were poured into Sunni areas in the West, government and security jobs were given to Sunnis, and scarce resources went into military industries that heavily favored Sunni employment. The result was to distort the economy and urban structure of Iraq in ways that favored Sunni towns and cities in areas like Tikrit, Samarra, Fallujah, Ramadi and other largely loyalist Sunni towns.

The fact that Iraqi sectarianism predates the US invasion in no way negates the seriousness of its major reemergence following the Askariyah bombings. Yet it is also a major mistake to attribute the recent violence solely to random sectarianism while ignoring the substantial role played by Iran and its proxies like Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army in the recent violence. As Michael Rubin notes, Iran is employing much the same strategy in Iraq as it did in Lebanon during the 1980s. And unfortunately, it is Sadr and by extension Iran who have profited the most from the recent violence.

Theories of Sadr’s or Iranian involvement in the Askariyah bombing aside, it is essential that Western observers not allow their concern over the rise in Iraqi sectarianism to prevent them from recognizing the very real and very dangerous Iranian designs at work in Iraq.

1 Comment

I like this analysis - mostly because I have often wondered what would Iraq be like if the US had not invaded in 2003. There has been a preponderance of skeptics of the US invasion proclaiming that there was no insurgency before 2003. Perhaps they are right. But there was an equally oppressive action on the part of Sunni leaders (and, of course, Hussein) to hammer the Shi'ites into submission. That they needed no vehicle or suicide bombers to carry out their "insurgency replacement action" is of no merit. They had a method as grisly as anything we have seen since 2003.

I think the body count of Iraqi's, had the US not invaded, would be far higher. And the suggestions made in your article, I think, support that. The civil war/sectarian strife is not new - it's been around for years. It just has a new environment - supported this time by democratic elections and more legitimate governance. And what would be significant historically is for the tribal differences to change. I recall Bush saying that democracy in Iraq probably won't look the same as ours. No kidding. I just hope we can stand up for it and stand in long enough for it to happen.