Iraq: Sectarianism strengthened

Weeks after elections in Iraq (15 December), the result is still awaited.

An announcement is imminent as we go to press. Reports indicate that it will show an entrenchment of sectarian division along ethnic and religious lines, contrary to upbeat comments by the US regime, echoed by Britain’s politicians, junior partners in the occupation of the country.

Of the 275 seats up for grabs, nearly half are expected to go to the United Iraq Alliance (UIA), a coalition of Shia Islamists headed by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim). The two main Kurdish parties should hold around 50 seats, followed by the Iraqi Consensus Front (Sunni Arab Islamists). The predominantly secular Shia grouping headed by former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, could pick up 25, followed by Sunni nationalists, Kurdish Islamists and others.

This reinforces the position Shia forces gained at the last ‘elections’ (30 January 2005) – held under even tighter martial law, when the vast majority of Sunnis boycotted the vote. It means that the UIA can effectively pick who it goes into coalition with.

The title of an article in The Economist magazine, The Wrong Lot Won, Dammit (7 January), sums up the despondency of many capitalist commentators. Far from representing a step towards stability, the opposite is the case. The invasion and occupation have set in motion a process which could see the break up of Iraq into its main constituent parts: a Shia-dominated south, Kurdish north and Sunni centre and west. In all likelihood this would lead to severe repression against minority groups. In fact, ethnic cleansing is already taking place as Kurds and Shia move to control their respective oil-rich areas.

This could only be cut across by the development of a united, non-sectarian insurgency fighting for national liberation. Such a movement would be strongest if based on the working class, with a socialist programme linking the expulsion of imperialist forces with the need for working-class control and management of the economy. That would include the demand for the nationalisation of oil to enable the natural wealth of Iraq to fund jobs, housing, healthcare and education for all, the right for all ethnic, religious and secular peoples to co-exist peacefully and organise collectively. It would require worker and community self-defence to be organised democratically and on a non-sectarian basis. And it would attempt to link up with workers internationally, starting with neighbouring states.

Unfortunately, at present, the momentum is in the opposite direction. It is true that some sections of the working class have taken important steps to organise collectively – for example, oil workers in the south. And other workers, such as those in administration, have the potential to play a progressive role. It is also true that all the insurgent groups share the desire to kick out the occupying forces. But there is no significant force putting forward a unifying alternative in Iraq itself, let alone a socialist one.

Indeed, Sciri and the UIA have been emboldened by the election to push through their sectarian Shia position. Al-Hakim has stated that the constitution, endorsed by a referendum last October, must stand without any substantial amendments. This allows a large measure of autonomy to the Shia in the south. The UIA will have enough seats in parliament to block any constitutional changes it opposes. So, not only does the election strengthen the positions of the Shia and Kurdish elites, but it also exacerbates Sunni fears that they will be trapped in resource-poor, landlocked areas of the country. (Sunnis make up a fifth of the population, but were the dominant group under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.)

Impossible as it is from a distance to have a complete picture, it is clear that life in Iraq for the vast majority of people is horrific. Basic infrastructure has collapsed, violence and repression rule. Oil and electricity production remain below pre-war levels, and it must be remembered that pre-war Iraq was languishing under extremely harsh sanctions imposed by western imperialism.

The Guardian newspaper commented on a recent US Agency for International Development (USAid) report. It described the chaos: “It is increasingly common for tribes people to ‘turn in’ to the authorities enemies as insurgents – this as a form of tribal revenge”. It says: “In the social breakdown that has accompanied the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime, criminal elements within Iraqi society have had almost free rein… Baghdad is reportedly divided into zones controlled by organised criminal groups-clans”. Running counter to the propaganda of the British state, which tries to portray southern Iraq, where most British troops are based, as a haven of peace and tranquillity, the report says that in this region, “social liberties have been curtailed dramatically by roving bands of self-appointed religious-moral police”. (18 January)

The increasingly stark sectarian divisions were also shown up in the votes cast by the Iraqi military and police, which were published in the International Herald Tribune (27 December). These showed that 45% of votes went to the main slate of Kurdish candidates, meaning that Kurds are massively over-represented in the armed forces, as they make up around a fifth of the population. A further 30% of votes went to the UIA. Only 7% went to the three leading Sunni parties.

The Financial Times reported from the Tal Afar district of Iraq, north-west of Baghdad. This is a mixed Turcoman, Kurd and Sunni Arab area on the border of the Kurdish autonomous region, and is held up by the US as a model of ethnic interaction following a massive show of military might, Operation Restoring Rights, last September. Here, Sunnis have complained in writing of the “extreme use of force” by Kurds and Shia in the Iraqi army. US major, James Gallivan, said: “We have made partnering with the Iraqi army our number one priority”. (18 January) Gallivan meant it as a rebuttal of the allegation when, in reality, given the composition of the army, it reinforces the claim of sectarianism.

The occupation is sinking deeper into the mire. The New York Times has pointed to attempts to divide the insurgency, in particular, against Al Qa’ida in Iraq, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It would appear that support for Al Qa’ida is limited, above all, because of its extreme brutality and the fact that it has killed many Iraqi people. The problem for the US/UK, however, is that all the insurgent groups demand a timetable for troop withdrawal, something which Bush has repeatedly refused.

This tactic is leading US forces to contact groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq and Muhammad’s Army, “which are believed to comprise mainly Iraqi nationalists and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party”. The report said that in December the US released Satam Quaood, described as a “former associate” of Saddam, as a “goodwill gesture” to insurgent groups. (7 January) This means that the US is attempting to deal with elements of the same vicious regime it kicked out of power in the first place. After all, whereas Saddam was the head butcher of the Iraqi working class, he was surrounded by henchmen more than willing to carry out his bidding.

All this spells disaster for US imperialism. Contrary to its assertions, there has been no let up in the violence. Bush is desperate for some troop withdrawal before facing tricky mid-term elections later this year. Troop numbers are still above the levels they were before the Iraq elections, and which now represent the baseline – 138,000.

Just at a time when the US regime is increasing pressure on the Iranian regime, Iran’s allies in Iraq – Sciri and other Shia forces – have been strengthened. Meanwhile, marginalised Sunnis increasingly feel they have nothing to lose but to fight occupation. And, although Sunnis are a minority in Iraq, they are an overwhelming majority in the Middle East as a whole.

Does anyone still say this is not a quagmire?

From Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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January 2006