Socialist Worker

What are the real divisions in Iraq?

The occupation has raised the spectre of civil war in Iraq, but, argues Kamil Mahdi, ethnic divisions have never played a major role

Issue No. 1936

There is much talk in the media about the dangers of civil war in Iraq if US and Brtish troops are withdrawn. But we have to ask, who is talking about civil war, and why are they talking about civil war? There are political and class conflicts in Iraqi society. These conflicts impinge on the question of how to resist the occupation, and what form the resistance should take.

The perceived ethnic tensions are based entirely on the outlook of the occupiers—an outlook that is based on the false notion that Iraqi society is divided and on the verge of civil war.

The occupiers say that, if they leave, Iraq will destroy itself. They claim that the occupation is the only guarantee against civil war. But they are acting in a way that is attempting to create the very same problem that they describe.

Those who believe that withdrawing the occupying troops will lead to sectarian war do not know Iraq. Yes, there will be conflict, but it will not be sectarian.

Sectarian conflict is the deliberate consequence of foreign intervention. There are political differences in Iraq. There has been a breakdown of state and civil institutions, and a reversion of society to more traditional communities—religious communities, local communities, tribes and extended families.

But that does not mean the country is moving towards civil war—at least not ethnic and religious conflict.

Iraq has no history of such conflict. There is no reason why the strengthening of traditional institutions, in itself, means there will be a civil war.

It is the deliberate play on ethnicity and sectarianism by the occupation that is the danger. The ethnically based selection of the members of the US-appointed governing council established by the occupation, and of the present interim government, is an attempt to create a system of ethnic and sectarian politics.

Individuals with links to the occupation are imposed as representatives of this or that community.

We have moved from a dictatorship that practised sectarian policies to an occupation which is incorporating sectarian structures into government. This dangerous move is resisted by the Iraqis.

There is a question over how to deal with the legacy of suffering under the old regime.

Saddam’s regime practised a particularly poisonous policy of discrimination against sections of the population—casting a slur against the mass of Shias and depriving the Kurds of their national rights.

The regime tried to exploit the diversity in Iraqi society but, as far as the mass of ordinary Iraqis are concerned, we are proud of our diversity.

There is a lot of intermarriage and mixing between Shias and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, especially in urban areas. The ethnic divide is neither strong nor antagonistic.

The main political issues in Iraq are not the religious or ethnic divisions but historical and political issues—social justice, the question of land, of development, the struggle against imperialism and for national liberation. These are the primary historical issues of Iraqi politics. These questions involve all the movements and all the people involved in struggle.

In Iraq’s history these questions have never been the domain of one community or another. These issues are political not communal.

There is a question that needs addressing: the national rights of the Kurdish peoples living in Iraq.

This question is defined geographically—a large chunk of Iraq encompasses Kurdistan. But there is no reason to assume that the aspiration for Kurdish national identity will lead to war. Many Iraqis recognise that the Kurds have their own cultural and national aspirations, although most Iraqis live in multi-ethnic cities where separation is not an option. So this question can only be resolved in a truly democratic way.

There is a strong sense that the occupation cannot be allowed to continue. There is a real danger that there are different perceptions of how to resist the occupation, and that the occupation forces might try to divide the people on a political basis.

People have to be aware that all forms of resistance to the occupation are legitimate and that the Iraqi resistance must not be turned against one section of the population, who might believe in a different form of resistance. But the need to confront the occupation is essential.

Kamil Mahdi is an Iraqi and a lecturer in Middle Eastern economics at the University of Exeter

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Sat 29 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1936
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