Is Iraq really sliding into a sectarian civil war? And if so, is it a divide and rule tactic of imperialism?
The statement by the US ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad that the Iraq invasion had opened up a ’Pandora’s Box of sectarian conflict’, has focused attention on the prospect of a slide towards open civil war in Iraq. Is this the most likely development in Iraq? And, therefore, is it light-minded to call for the ’immediate end to the occupation’? Ken Smith addresses these crucial questions.
Is there a way out of the Iraq quagmire?
Some in the anti-war movement argue that the occupying powers are exaggerating the threat of civil war in order to justify the continuation of their brutal subjugation of Iraq.
They correctly point out there has been a long secular tradition alongside ethnic and religious tolerance inside Iraq. And that, in recent years, despite the attempts to stir up inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict there have been many mass displays that have cut across divisions in society.
This, however, reflects only one side of the reality now existing in Iraq. The other side is increasingly bloody sectarian conflict. There is no doubt that the occupation itself, and the divide-and-rule policies of the US and Britain, are the major reasons for the slide towards civil war. However, the increased ethnic and religious divisions are real, and very far from being under the control of the occupying powers.
Iraq, like the other countries of the Middle East, was created by British imperialism, the barbaric occupying power of the time. It created an artificial state which suited its interests. Just as the US-led coalition acts today, it used a divide-and-rule policy of balancing between the different ethnic and religious forces in the country and playing one off against the other. Inevitably ethnic and religious tensions have been a feature of Iraq ever since.
On the other side there have been united national movements of Iraqis, including the struggle that led to the forcing out of British imperialism. Most importantly were the development of mass struggles of the working class and poor – leading to the growth of a mass Communist Party (CP) in Iraq in the 1950s. More recently, there were many examples in the aftermath of the first Gulf War of class unity between Sunni and Shia Arabs and Kurds, against the Saddam regime.
However, events in the latter part of the twentieth century severely weakened independent workers’ organisation.
The Saddam dictatorship, with the backing of US imperialism, crushed the mass workers’ organisations. This was made easier by the mistaken policies of the leadership of the CP. Combined with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe (which were falsely equated with genuine socialism by capitalism worldwide) it meant that when Saddam was toppled the idea of recreating a mass united movement of the working class and poor was not present.
This reflected the ideological collapse of the leaders of the former workers’ parties and left a vacuum. This has been mainly filled in the post-Saddam era by political groupings that are based on fostering religious divisions in society or appealing to one side of the sectarian divide or the other.
The support for these groupings is not just based on religious affiliation but is also based on the geographical division of the economic wealth of the country. In particular, Sunni Arabs – who formed much of the elite under Saddam – now find themselves a minority in the country and in areas outside of where the oil wealth is based, which are controlled by Kurdish and Shia organisations.
Imperialism has deliberately fostered sectarian division, in order to maintain power, by leaning on different ethnic and religious-based militias, including bringing them into the state forces. One senior US government official had to admit that the US-backed Shia-dominated government was fuelling the civil war, particularly by the Interior Ministry’s use of death squads and secret prisons against Sunnis.
It is now well documented that the US deliberately used Shia troops to do all the most brutal jobs during the flattening of Najaf, inevitably fuelling religious divisions. But while it is imperialism that has fanned the flames, it is also now the case that a Frankenstein monster has been created that imperialism cannot control or wish away. Although sectarian division is not prevalent in all areas of Iraq, nevertheless there is a rising trend of sectarian conflict which is becoming more predominant, especially in major urban areas.
Imperialism’s dreams of a compliant regime in Iraq which would allow it to withdraw its troops as soon as possible are in tatters. They would have preferred to avoid the break-up of Iraq, given its consequences for the whole region, but the reality is that the continuation of the occupation means that a full-blown civil war or even the break up of the country into religious or ethnically based enclaves is increasingly likely.
Will withdrawing the troops end strife?
The presence of the occupying powers is undoubtedly intensifying the level of conflict and violence inside Iraq. The Socialist Party calls for the immediate withdrawal of the troops and supports the right of the Iraqi people to defend themselves and to resist and drive out the occupying powers.
However, this does not mean we give unqualified backing to every action claimed to be in the name of the resistance. The anti-war movement also needs to put forward an alternative to the threat of sectarian civil war.
In Ireland, for example, the Socialist Party and its forerunner, Militant, supported a united Ireland and the removal of British troops. But we did not support the methods of the IRA or Sinn Fein which also wanted a united Ireland and the troops out.
We argued that the methods of individual terrorism were divisive and cut across the possibility of united working-class action by Catholic and Protestant workers. Ultimately, we correctly argued, these wrong methods could not build a united struggle capable of removing British forces.
Instead, their methods, along with the methods of Protestant paramilitaries, entrenched the sectarian polarisation of society in Northern Ireland. And, although there has been a decrease in the number of British troops in Northern Ireland, with them mainly confined to barracks, sectarian conflict remains with an increasingly sectarian demographic division of the population.
The continuation of the occupation in Iraq is a disaster for the peoples there. The withdrawal of the troops must remain the central demand of the anti-war movement worldwide. However, alone, this demand is inadequate
One of the key questions to be addressed by the anti-war movement is: ’if you are successful in withdrawing the troops what force in society can avoid a descent into chaos?’.
The millions who marched on 15 February 2003 will undoubtedly want to see an end to the occupation and the troops withdrawn. But at the same time – as shown by the smaller turnouts on recent anti-war demonstrations – many will also question can they can achieve this just by marching. They will want to be convinced that the long-suffering Iraqi people will not face a worse situation through the withdrawal of the troops.
To argue simply that withdrawing the troops will end the sectarian conflict will not convince this mass of people whose sympathies are with the anti-war movement, particularly given the experience of Ireland over many decades. Indeed, many will observe that the only thing that unites many of the groups inside Iraq at present is they all want the troops withdrawn.
And once the troops are withdrawn a power vacuum could open up which would lead to sectarian conflict on a much bigger scale. So the anti-war movement needs to put forward a programme that would mean that the withdrawal of the troops and a struggle by the Iraqi people for self-determination would not end in bloody civil war or an Islamic regime which will drive the rights of working-class people, women and minorities back centuries.
A mass anti-war movement in Britain and the USA, seriously campaigning for an end to the occupation and removal of the Bush and Blair regimes, would need to build a struggle linked to the workers’ movement that caused their ruling elites more problems at home than they experienced abroad.
Such a movement, combined with an unwinnable conflict that led to a collapse in morale of US troops, forced the US withdrawal from Vietnam. In Vietnam, however, there was a united mass resistance against the occupying powers, which led to the overthrow of the pro-US regime in South Vietnam and the unification of the country under communist rule.
In Iraq, regrettably, the resistance is divided along religious and ethnic lines each trying to win control of different parts of the country. A descent into a fragmented – or ’Balkanised’ – country with contending factions competing for power and territory is an increasingly likely scenario.
The occupying powers have withdrawn to bases in many areas and are more and more reliant on brutal aerial bombing, combined with using Iraqi forces that are often aligned with the various groupings controlling the sectarian militias.
Already, many areas of the country are controlled by sectarian-based militias. There may be genuine resistance fighters involved in these organisations but in the main they are led by disparate elements – including former elements of the Baathist regime, criminals and gangsters and reactionary religious ideologues.
Some Shia leaders, like Moktada al-Sadr, whose base is in Shia-Sunni areas, such as Baghdad, the South and even in parts of the ’Sunni triangle’, have put forward a mixed message.
On the one hand they have called united demonstrations of Shia and Sunnis: "After all, we are one united people whether we are Sunnis or Shiites, Kurds or Arabs", proclaimed a prominent Sadr supporter. (Associated Press/IHT 20 August 2005).
On the other hand it has been reported that members of Al-Sadr’s ’Mahdi Army’ have taken part in attacks on Sunni mosques. Al-Sadr’s Islamic aims and support for clerical rule, and the Shia make-up of his supporters, severely limit his movement’s ability to appeal to broad layers of workers and the oppressed.
Is there any force capable of uniting the opposition to imperialism on non-sectarian lines?
Socialists believe that the only basis upon which the Iraqi people can freely decide their future is liberation from both the foreign occupation and the forces of the Iraqi state and militias. Concretely, this means striving to establish a non-sectarian defence force, made up of Arab Shias, Sunnis and Kurdish workers, youth and all the Iraqi peoples, that is controlled by democratically elected committees of workers, students, the unemployed and peasants.
The formation of these sorts of bodies would be part of building a genuine movement of ordinary working Iraqis, forming democratic independent labour unions and other mass organisations. It is essential to unite workers and the rural poor with a programme that cuts across religious, communal, and ethnic divisions.
A revived workers’ movement is required to fight to end the occupation and imperialist domination of the economy, particularly the sweeping programme of privatisation which is placing Iraqi assets into the hands of multinational corporations.
A fight for democratic and trade union rights has to be combined with a struggle against capitalism, landlordism, and tribal fiefdoms, which provide the basis for oppressive feudal practices. Given the explosive character of the national question in Iraq, it is vital that the workers’ movement puts forward a socialist programme. This should be based on the right of the national groups to self-determination, while guaranteeing the rights of minorities.
Such a programme, however, has to be linked to the idea of a planned, socialist economy – the only way of avoiding a divisive struggle over scarce resources.
Given the current weakness of the working class in Iraq, such a revival of workers’ organisations and socialist ideas may seem somewhat distant. Working-class solidarity and socialist policies, however, offer the only way of avoiding civil war and bloody ethnic clashes.
Without a powerful initiative from the working class, Iraq faces the prospect of a vicious cycle of bloody national conflicts, ethnic cleansing, and so on, along the lines of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
So how should the anti-war movement be taken forward?
THE RECENT events inside Iraq and the complicated mood in Britain following the 7 July suicide bombings have required a more thought out approach from the anti-war movement in Britain and internationally.
Whilst the aim of removing the troops and ending the occupation is still the primary unifying goal of the anti-war movement, the question of how to achieve this now is more complex than simply organising demonstrations or repeating yesterday’s slogans; or worse advocating slogans and solutions which are confusing and simplistic and ultimately could serve to weaken the anti-war movement’s effectiveness.
The Socialist Party (which has been part of the Stop the War Coalition and on its steering committee since its foundation), has argued recently that "it is necessary for the STWC to link its call for withdrawal of troops to an appeal for a solution which emphasises the importance of unity across non-sectarian lines against the occupying powers."
We believe the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition are underestimating the degree of sectarian conflict in Iraq. For example, a recent Stop the War bulletin stated that: "There is a civil war in Iraq right now… between those who oppose the occupation and those who are collaborating with it. The US occupiers want to replace that civil war with a civil war which sets Iraqi against Iraqi on sectarian grounds."
They have also gone too far in giving unqualified prominence to the al-Sadr movement – in a way that could have given the impression that the anti-war movement was uncritically backing the al-Sadr movement – and dangerously repeating statements by Muslim commentators which were divisive in blaming all "Europeans" for Islamaphobia.
The Socialist Party has argued that there need to be slogans and demands which unite the majority rather than give undue emphasis to issues which could potentially divide the anti-war movement. In particular, given the unpopularity of Blair and the Labour government’s attacks on education, we suggested the slogan "Education not occupation".
In the USA the anti-war movement has undergone a big resurgence following Hurricane Katrina, where the stark contrast between the over $1,000 billion spent on the war and occupation compared to the miserable government response in the aftermath of Katrina graphically exposed all the seeping class divisions in US society.
There also had to be transmitted from the leadership of the Stop the War movement a belief that going on a demonstration could make a difference and the troops could be withdrawn and the occupation ended.
As explained above this requires an explanation of the complicated situation inside Iraq and taking an internationalist position which advocates a class-based, non-sectarian alternative to take the struggles of the Iraqi people forward.
If the anti-war movement showed that there is a way of ending the occupation of Iraq – in particular, by linking it in to the anger and desire of working-class people to remove the hated Blair regime – which represented a genuine step forward for the majority in Britain, Iraq and internationally, then a movement mobilising the millions, like in February 2003, could once again emerge.
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.