Iraq: Teetering on the edge of all out civil war

Sectarian militias on the streets as US imperialism’s disastrous policies are exposed

In the twenty four hours following Wednesday’s destruction of the sacred Shiah Askariya mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad, Iraq shuddered on the edge of a bloodbath. It is most likely that elements within the insurgency opposed to the setting up of the new government used the bombing to deliberately provoke a much sharper sectarian polarisation. Across the country there were snapshots of what a future civil war may look like if the Iraqi working class and poor peasantry are not able to build and maintain class unity in the face of this threat.

In retaliation, over 150 mainly Iraqi Sunnis but also Shias were killed in tit-for-tat attacks: some brutally tortured before being assassinated. The pro-insurgency Sunni Clerical Association of Muslim scholars claimed that over 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, ten imams killed and fifteen more abducted. Basra saw twenty five deaths, including 11 prisoners who were removed from jails and then executed.

Across the Middle East demonstrations of Shiahs took place, particularly in Lebanon with sharp protests being made by the Ahmadinejad administration in Tehran. The populist Iranian President Ahmadinejad has already strengthened his position within the regime and the Iranian population through exposing the hypocrisy of US imperialism’s position on Iran’s right to produce enriched uranium. He will use this bombing attack to whip up further the feeling amongst many Iranians that they are surrounded by hostile enemies thus necessitating national unity behind the regime. The increased instability in Iraq may encourage the Iranian regime to intervene more directly in political events in its western neighbour through parties like Dawa and Sciri which were based in exile in Tehran.

In many Gulf states, there are important Shiah populations and the attack in Iraq could cause tensions and even clashes in countries like Bahrain where the majority Shiah are ruled by a Sunni elite. This explains why the Bahrani regime organised a national demonstration of both Sunnis and Shiahs over the weekend to protest against the bombing. They obviously hope to direct anger over the bombing into safe channels. In Saudi Arabia, 10% of the population is Shiah but they live in the vitally important oil region of the country.

The biggest effect of the attack have obviously been felt in Iraq where the main Sunni bloc of parties in the new Iraqi parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, pulled out of negotiations to form a new government in protest against the killings. The Iraqi Kurdish President, Jalal Talibani woke up to reality and admitted publicly for the first time the danger of internecine conflict when he said: “We should all stand hand in hand to prevent the danger of civil war.”

Iraq has moved much closer to such an eventuality. Brutal repression of religious and ethnic groupings and the impoverishment of the majority under the regime of Saddam Hussein created some of the conditions. However, the main responsibility for this horrific possibility is US imperialism’s invasion of Iraq in the first place. This needs to be viewed against the background of the historic inability of capitalism to fulfil the national aspirations of the oppressed and guarantee rights of religious and cultural expression in regions like the Middle East.


Some Western media reports imply these sectarian clashes as inevitable and part of the make up of Muslim societies, as if such conflicts were not part of the experience of a whole number of world religions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The working class and poor peasantry have a proud history of struggle in Iraq against oppression and dictatorship. Part of this has been an understanding and an experience of joint struggle across the religious and ethnic divide.

In April 2004, when US imperialism attempted to pacify the mainly Sunni city of Falujah, there were mass demonstrations of Sunni and Shiah, including one of 200 000 in Baghdad. Blood donor centres were set up in Shiah areas as well as food collection points. Therefore, even recently despite attempts to undermine the unity of the working class, there have been valiant efforts to maintain it against the odds.

However, the division between Sunni and Shiah Muslims do have a history which goes back to the seventh century when there was disputed claim of who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed, following his death. His cousin Ali and his supporters were driven out by rival groupings but maintained their right to be the head of the Islamic caliphate. It is the descendants of these Muslims that became know as Shias. Religious leaders and different reactionary political forces have kept the division alive over the centuries and fanned the flames of conflict between the two wings of Islam for their own purposes.

The Al Askariya mosque is so revered because two ninth century Shiah imams (religious leaders) are buried there and the final imam ever to live, Muhammad al-Mahdi was last seen in the grounds of this mosque. Shiah teachings explain that al-Mahdi will reappear on earth to amongst other things bring justice to humanity.

However, recent clashes between Iraqi Shiah and Sunnis have more recent roots. Iraq is dominated by three main ethnic and religious groupings: Kurds in the north (17%), Sunnis in the centre and west (20%) and a Shiah majority in the south (60%). the Saddam Hussein’s regime was made up predominantly by members of the Sunni elite. His administration attempted to gain support amongst the wider Sunni minority. In addition, Hussein maintained his grip on power through vicious repression of the Shiahs but also the Kurds in northern Iraq. This involved outlawing any commemoration of Shiah ceremonies such as Ashoura because the regime feared that they could become a focus for political discontent. He also used methods of ethnic cleansing to change the population balance in the vitally important oil regions in northern Iraq by settling Shiahs from southern Iraq in and around Mosul, forcibly driving out Kurds in the process.

One of the results of the first Gulf War was the creation of a British and US policed no-fly zone in Kurdish northern Iraq and the Shiah south which effectively dismembered Iraq. US imperialism developed a close alliance with the corrupt leaders of the main two reactionary Kurdish parties. These parties encouraged the idea amongst the population that support for the US’s campaign to overthrow Saddam would lead to independence for Kurds in oil-rich northern Iraq and the return of land taken from them by the old regime. This increased national tensions further.

However, imperialism was never interested in the genuine liberation from oppression for Iraq’s population. When a national uprising began after the first Gulf war in southern Iraq mainly comprised of Shiahs, US imperialism stood aside as Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard brutally put down these protests.

Decades of UN sanctions and the farcically named “oil for food” programme implemented after the first Gulf war brought Iraq close to economic collapse and meant huge swathes of the population lived in abject poverty without basic medical attention. Up to 800 000 Iraqi children died as a result of these sanctions. The danger of frictions and clashes always grows in conditions of widespread poverty amongst an ethnic and religious diverse population especially where there is an absence of a strong independent working class movement especially where reactionary organisations are active. These were the conditions that existed in Iraq.

The US invasion and occupation which followed the twelve years of sanctions brought chaos and destruction on an even bigger scale. As a result of the occupation invasion and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, central administration broke down completely in Iraq. The prisons were emptied of over 100 000 inmates before the US army took Baghdad. Widespread looting and destruction took place. The US army only deigned to defend the buildings housing the oil ministry. Electricity and water supply collapsed in the days following the invasion, never to return to pre-war levels. This was as a result of the combined effect of the ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign, the absence of utility workers, the looting of installations and the beginning of attacks by the mainly Sunni-led insurgency.

US imperialism unprepared

While US imperialism planned its invasion meticulously, it was totally unprepared for the post- Saddam scenario. Expecting to be welcomed open-armed on the streets of Iraqi cities, they instead soon found Iraqi hostility to their presence because of the chaos, lawlessness, mass unemployment and poverty that spread into almost every corner of the country.

Mass opposition to the occupation and a desire for a better life developed quickly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, there were no parties of the working class or poor peasantry with a mass national presence and membership amongst all the different ethnic and religious groupings. If such parties had been based on socialist ideas, they would have been able to explain politically the class reasons why poor Shiahs, Sunnis, and Kurdish workers and peasants had more in common with each other than with the leaders of their communities. In fact such parties would have been able to show through concrete action that not only was this the case but that through their united action they had the potential power to bring about important changes to the daily living conditions of the masses. This would not have been a simple task but with determined campaigning activity and the correct tactics, tensions and frictions whipped up by reactionary forces and suspicions that existed because of previous events, could have been attenuated through common struggle.

In the absence of parties like this many poor Iraqis turned to other political forces. Elements of the old Ba’athist regime and armed forces formed the core of many of the myriad insurgent groups and built support amongst the Sunnis for the ending of the occupation. However, an element of the propaganda of some of these groups has been to whip up fears that Sunnis had been particularly targeted by the US occupation and that in the advent of elections, Shiah parties linked to the regime in Iran, would take over the running of Iraq leading to its dismemberment into three different parts and a further deterioration in the conditions and future prospects of Sunnis.

Amongst Shiahs, parties which had existed in exile in Iran like Al Dawa and Sciri built their base and the latter recruited members to its militias, the Badr brigade. A rapidly growing force was the followers of Modtadr al-Sadr and his armed militia, the Mahdi Army. Based on support amongst the poorest Shiah suburbs of the big cities, al-Sadr used radical social and national rhetoric to build his organisation. Part of his aim was to build an alternative power base amongst the poorest Shiahs in competition with the older Shiah religious leaders and parties. This demonstrates that the Shiah parties and organisations are not one solid bloc and there are pressures within and between them just as there are between the Sunni organisations.

Different reactionary forces, including elements within the insurgency, have attempted to stoke the fires of sectarian conflict by increasingly targeting Shiah areas for suicide bomb attacks as opposed to targets related to the occupation of Iraq. One of the worst examples of this was the killing of over 271 Shiahs in the Ashoura day commemorations in March 2004.

In rebuilding the security forces and army in Iraq, US imperialism has deepened the sectarian divide. The overwhelming majority of recruits have been Shiahs and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Iraqi army units who fought alongside US soldiers in the attempt to crush Fallujah were in the main, Shiah and Kurds. This was not lost on the mainly Sunni population of Fallujah.

Reactionary Shiah forces, including militias hostile to the occupation, have been co-opted by US and British imperialism into the Iraqi security forces. From there they have conducted a brutal campaign of targeting Sunnis for torture and assassination. In fact one of the reasons why negotiations for a new government had stalled were Sunni protests that the powerful Ministry of the Interior would be once again headed by Bayan Jaber of the Iranian Sciri party. It is widely believed that Jaber tolerated attacks organised against Sunnis from within the Ministry of the Interior.

In relation to this, US ambassador to Iraq Kalilzad bluntly commented in the days leading up to the bombing of the al-Askariya Mosque, “We are not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian”. What breathtaking hypocrisy! US imperialism is one of the main reasons why sectarianism stalks Iraq today.

Disastrous elections

The reason why its representatives have intervened so ham-fistedly is because of the much weakened position US imperialism finds itself in today. The election results were a disaster for them. The Bush administration hoped that the more secular Shiah group led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi would win. Instead, the United Iraqi Alliance made up of Sciri and Al Dawa and linked to the Iranian regime, won the most seats. The new Prime Minster will be Al Jaafari elected from the UIA, mainly with the votes of MPs supporting Moqtadr Al Sadr, whom US imperialism tried to crush in 2004 and 2005!

Following the bombing of the Askariya mosque, Moqtadr al-Sadr came out in opposition to retaliatory attacks against Sunni mosques and for unity amongst Iraqis. However, in reality his position is ambivalent on the issue and members of his militia were reported to be involved in attacks against Sunni mosques. It will be impossible for al-Sadr and his militia to build unity amongst Sunnis and Shiahs given his conservative Shiah Islamic ideology – despite the fact he bases himself amongst the poorest Shiahs. In fact his ideas if implemented would be a big setback for the working class of Iraq both Shiah and Sunni alike.

While open sectarian conflict is not guaranteed, it is now more likely. The bombing of the mosque will have terrified even those Shiahs who previously had not been corralled into the camp of one or other of the sectarian Shiah parties. They will feel that if reactionary forces are prepared to attack one of the most revered Shiah shrines in the world, then they will be prepared to do anything against Shiah population. As a result working class and poor Shiahs, in the absence of any strong alternative, fearing for the security of their homes and families will move towards the sectarian parties. The same process will tend to develop amongst the Sunni population.

In response to the 2004 Ashoura ceremony massacres of Shiahs there were important demonstrations of unity across the religious divide. This time unfortunately they were not so prevalent. When there were demonstrations subsequent events were far more ominous. Forty seven bullet riddled bodies were discovered in Nahrawan outside Baghdad. Those killed were both Shiah and Sunni young men stopped at an impromptu checkpoint and assassinated on the spot. Their crime: to attend a joint demonstration against the bombing of the Askariya shrine.

Only socialist ideas provide the basis for building unity across the sectarian divide. These ideas show the common basis of exploitation and oppression amongst the working class and poor peasantry whatever their religious, ethnic or national background. What is more they provide the tactics and strategy for the working class, the only section of society with the potential power to defeat imperialism, capitalism and religious sectarianism, with a way forward.

Such a movement needs to be based on a programme for a mass struggle to drive out imperialism from Iraq and the rebuilding of its shattered economy along socialist lines. This would allow the use of Iraq’s massive potential wealth to transform the living standards of all of its population regardless of religious or ethnic background. Decent jobs, housing, education and medical provision for all and the respect of all minorities’ language, cultural and religious rights would ease the basis of sectarian tension and the conditions in which it breeds.

In order to guarantee the security of all sections of the population against the death squads who are now roaming the streets with impunity, it is necessary to build community self-defence units organised democratically and with all religious and ethnic sections of society represented. Such defence units would defend religious establishments and local working class communities, particularly those where mixed communities live.

Time is running out for Iraq’s people. US imperialism, the Iraqi elite and its major parties have taken the country to the brink of civil war. Only the working class, drawing behind it the poor peasantry, has the potential to draw the country back from the precipice.

  • For a democratically controlled multi-ethnic non sectarian defense force to organise defence of all religious sites and working class communities.
  • For a mass struggle to end the US occupation and for a mass struggle for an emergency plan to provides jobs, education, electric power and water and medical facilities for all sections of society. For the nationalisation of all oil companies and installation under workers’ control and management.
  • For a democratic plan of production under the control of the Iraqi working class and poor peasantry.
  • For a socialist Iraq as part of a socialist confederation of Middle Eastern states which would defend the rights of all national, ethnic and religious minorities
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