Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Divide et Imperium

Edward Wong of the N.Y. Times recently wrote a very good article about the inter-communal strife in Iraq. In discussing the topic of the interplay of the different communities, (Shi’i Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and predominantly Sunni Kurds) with the (American) occupation authorities, the article reflected on the fact that the much feared prospect of civil war, may have already begun.

To be sure, there were previously attacks on prominent Shi’i leaders like Ayatullah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim of the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but these could be explained as the response of the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime in its death throws, or as an attack by other political enemies of the Ayatollah. Regardless of who was directly responsible for the attack, and even though it took place near the tomb of Ali in Najaf, the target was most likely the Ayatollah himself, and not the shrine or the other worshippers there.

Conversely, some of the most recent attacks have been directed against Shi'i mosques themselves as well as against ordinary Shi'is, and not limited to those who appear to be tied to the current US sponsored regime.

Of course, there was always a certain amount of cleavage between Sunnis and Shi’is in Iraq, but in some regards, the occupation has made the sectarian divisions much worse.

There is a certain logic to all of this. While a foreign invasion often unites a population against the invader, a foreign occupation, by definition creates the circumstances for civil war – although not necessarily on a sectarian basis. The occupation automatically creates a division between those who collaborate with the occupation on the one hand, and those who are steadfast in their opposition and resist it, on the other. If the occupiers support one particular ethnic, sectarian, or regional group over the other, the un-favored group tends to oppose the favored group as well as the occupiers.

Of course, the US entered the war with grand claims of “liberating” the Iraqi people, and didn’t really make any pronouncements about shifting the balance of power away from the Sunni Arab minority which had always made up the bulk of the ruling elite, and towards the Shi’i majority. But the reality of the Shi’i majority was always understood, and it was always assumed by all concerned that this majority sect would provide the bulk of the new leadership of the country.

Some have attempted to denigrate the Sunni resistance as a refusal to accept the loss of their position as the ruling sect. There may be a certain element of truth in this, but the exploitation of this sentiment is part of the problem.

In a television interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball”, James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, tried to explain:

The mistake that was made here, I think, was not principally, a failure of enough American troops. I think it was not having enough Iraqi troops go in with us. And they would have had to have been Shia and Kurds. .

This is, of course, the logical approach. Shia and Kurds would be more easily used to put down an insurgency in the Arab Sunni areas of Iraq. They would also be less likely to mutiny or desert, as Iraqi police and National Guard units did last April, when the US forces first tried to subdue the city of Fallujah.

However, using Shia forces to put down the insurgency in a Sunni area can have unfortunate consequences. It encourages the Sunnis to regard the Shia as local agents of the foreign occupation.

According to Mariam Fam of the Associated Press

Civilians who escaped the Sunni militant stronghold of Fallujah during the assault on insurgents there claimed some National Guardsmen plastered walls with photos of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a top Shiite cleric, angering Sunni townspeople. Reporters in Fallujah saw photos of Shiite saints tied to the bumpers of some trucks carrying Iraqi security forces.

Of course, among Shi'is, Ayatollah Sistani is a unifying figure, and from their perspective, putting up his picture would make absolute sense. However, when the American forces flatten the city of Fallujah, and their local allies portray themselves as acting under his inspiration, the Fallujans would tend to regard this as a provocation.

This is not to say that the suicide attacks on the processions at Shi'a mosques in Najaf and Karbala are a direct response from Sunni Iraqis (generally) to the actions of some Shi'a members of the Iraqi National Guard. Nor should it be thought of as a general Sunni response to the fact that the Shi'a Prime Minister (Iyad Allawi) had authorized the attack on Fallujah. It is very likely that some of the foreign elements in Iraq are Wahabis, who have a deep seated, almost pathological hatred for the Shi’a, and it is quite possible that they were responsible for this latest attack.

However, there are obviously Sunni Iraqis involved, to a certain extent, in some of the attacks directed specifically against Shi’is, and this is, at least partially, the result of the attempt to tie the Iraqi National Guard and the new order to the Shi’a community. The problem is only accentuated by Shi'a National Guardsmen rubbing it in the faces of the Sunnis.

This may not be a bad thing, from a selfish American perspective. If the predominantly Sunni insurgents are provoked into attacking Shi’a, they have less resources and opportunity to attack Americans. And having the Sunnis attack the Shi’a would also tend to force the Shi'a to side with the US occupation.

At that point, the US would be able to reduce its military involvement, and begin to rule the country through surrogates, which appears to be the objective of US strategy. This is the logic of divide et imperium.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?