On 23 February 47 factory workers were stopped at a checkpoint north of Baghdad, dragged out of their buses and shot dead. The brutal murders were reported across the world as another sectarian attack.
The victims were described as Shia Muslims. Their killers, we were to conclude, were Sunnis.
The next day it emerged that the men were a mix of Sunnis and Shias returning from a demonstration in Baghdad protesting at the destruction of the Golden Dome mosque in the northern city of Samarra.
Were they killed by Sunnis, or was this the work of the Badr Brigades – the US backed sectarian militia that runs Iraq’s interior ministry?
We will probably never know the truth behind these murders, or the attacks on shrines, religious gatherings and villages that have come to plague Iraq. What is clear is that there are forces attempting to tear the country apart operating with the blessing of the US and Britain.
Unity between Shias and Sunnis has always been a barrier to the success of the occupation.
In the months following the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Shias and Sunnis joined a growing revolt against US rule. This revolt reached a peak in April 2004.
Across Iraq tens of thousands rallied to Fallujah when the Sunni town became the focus of opposition to the occupation.
That summer major revolts broke out in the Shia heartlands of Sadr City in Baghdad and Najaf.
The insurrection engulfed the new Iraqi army. Shia soldiers mutinied when they were ordered to crush the uprising in Sunni towns, while growing cooperation between Shia and Sunni resistance fighters alarmed the US military.
With the occupation facing disaster, fostering sectarianism became the only strategy left open to the US and Britain.
US troops would storm into Sunni towns backed by Kurdish peshmerga fighters or the notorious Badr Brigades. These militias would leave behind a trail of destruction and resentment.
Sectarianism has never been a defining feature of Iraq’s history. Even at the height of Saddam Hussein’s rule, major cities such as Baghdad were integrated. Kurd, Arab, Sunni and Shia lived in mixed districts and many families and tribes have Shia and Sunni branches.
Opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime emerged in Sunni towns like Fallujah and Ramadi as well as Shia cities in the south.
Systematic sectarianism is a direct result of the occupation and its supporters. The Iraqis have a term for them – the “dark forces”. These include masked gunmen, death squads, self serving politicians and special forces.
The majority of Iraqis understood that these forces were unleashed to divide them.
In 2005 the US strategy of dividing Sunni against Shia and Arab against Kurd was paying dividends.
A trickle of stories emerged of Shias fleeing Sunni areas and Sunnis leaving Shia areas.
In the north of the country Arabs, Kurds and the minority Turkmen were pitted against each other in a struggle over land and oil. Even in Baghdad, where many families are mixed, stories began to emerge of marriages splitting along sectarian lines.
But this strategy of fostering sectarianism backfired.
After the November 2005 elections the US discovered that they could no longer rely on one sect alone.
The biggest winners in the elections were Shia opponents of the occupation, while other groups in the parliament owed their allegiance to Iran. One of the first items of the parliament is a motion demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops.
The US responded by courting Sunni groups and encouraging them to form their own sectarian militias.
The destruction of the Golden Mosque and the wave of sectarian attacks it unleashed are a direct result of this strategy.
In the days after the attack on the shrine, sectarian mobs attacked Sunni mosques.
Often these attacks took place as the interior ministry police looked on. Gun battles between neighbourhoods, bomb attacks and random killings threatened to spiral out of control.
Leading Sunni opponents of the occupation were assassinated, and as Iraq hovered dangerously close to a civil war, US troops took the opportunity to fan out across Sunni areas in a new offensive against the resistance.
By last Friday a groundswell of solidarity between Sunnis and Shias began to turn the tide.
The Sunnis were the first to go to demonstrations in Samarra to condemn the mosque bombings. Demonstrations of solidarity between Sunni and Shia took place in much of Iraq – in Basra, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Kut and Salah al-Din.
Thousands of Shias marched shouting anti-US slogans through Sadr City and in the city of Kut, south of Baghdad.
Muslims in Baghdad held joint prayers following announcements by Shia religious leaders not to attack Sunni mosques.
Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, warned his followers that were involved in sectarian attacks, “Do not forget the plotting of the occupation, for if we forget its plots, it will kill us all without exception.”
Sadr has called for united demonstrations against the occupation.
Across the Middle East thousands poured into the streets to condemn the desecration of the shrine. In Bahrain and Lebanon – Arab countries with Shia majorities – Shia demonstrators swelled the streets condemning the US, Britain and Israel.
Sectarianism threatens to tear Iraq apart. Nevertheless solidarity between Iraqis is still a powerful force.
Yet at every turn the occupation is fanning the flames of division. Far from keeping Iraq together the US and Britain is sowing the seeds of hate and division. This can only be stopped by ending the occupation.
A long line of colonial methods that have caused havoc across the globe
Divide and rule was the central plank of Britain’s imperial control from Bombay to Belfast, and from Nicosia to Nairobi.
The British pioneered the use of “pseudo gangs” —military units posing as guerrillas in order to discredit the opposition to colonial rule—in Malaya and Kenya. In Northern Ireland security forces initially encouraged Loyalist murder gangs to terrorise the Catholic population and then used agents to target republican opponents.
The US picked up and developed the tricks of dirty war.
US journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, revealed how the US has set up “action teams” in Iraq and elsewhere which can be used to find and eliminate “terrorist organisations”.
He quoted one former high level intelligence officer explaining, “Do you remember the right wing execution squads in El Salvador?
“We founded them and we financed them. The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.”
Since the invasion of Iraq, masked killers, private contractors, special forces (including the British SAS) and US backed militias have been spreading fear and stoking the flames of sectarianism.
We have had glimpses of the forces involved in this. Last September British soldiers dressed as members of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army were arrested in Basra.
The soldiers had arms and explosives in their vehicle. They were revealed to be members of the SAS involved in targeting members of the Mehdi Army.
Attempts to question the men ended after British tanks freed them from their Iraqi jail cells and flattened the police station where they were held.
The American Civil Liberties Union has uncovered documents relating to two secret military units. The revelations about Task Force 626 and Task Force 20 (see Brutality of the US reign of terror, 25 February) showed part of the shadow war.
Other key players involved in fermenting sectarianism involve the militia belonging to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri). Its 10,000 strong militia, known as the Badr Brigades, was accused by a United Nations investigation of murdering opponents of the occupation.
Throughout 2005 thousands of mutilated bodies were turning up in canals, by the sides of roads or in rubbish dumps. These were overwhelmingly Sunni victims of the US backed Badr Brigades.
Shia Muslims opposed to the occupation were also targeted. Chief among them were supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr.
The Badr Brigades dominate the ministry of the interior and used the opportunity of the attack on the shrine to storm into Sunni districts to spread their terror.
The US has also been depending on the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The peshmerga originally emerged out of the Kurdish national liberation struggle, but since the occupation has allied itself to the US.
Peshmerga fighters have been involved in ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkmen in northern Iraq and joined US troops in their assault on Sunni Arab towns along the Euphrates valley.
Sectarian Sunni groups have also flowed into Iraq. Numbering a few hundred, they seized the opportunity to target Shia Muslims.
The US and Britain claim such groups are part of the insurgency, but they often clash with the resistance and enjoy very little support among Iraqis opposed to the occupation.