On Christmas Day 2006 around 1,000 British troops reduced the Al-Jamiat police station in Basra to rubble. Their intended targets, members of the city’s Serious Crime Unit, had already fled but the soldiers of the 19 Light Brigade blew up the building anyway. According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) verbose press release, the police station “erupted in a tower of debris and dust, removing a powerful symbol of oppression and corruption from the Basra skyline”. The Serious Crime Unit, British commanders claimed, ran death squads and kidnapping gangs.
These days MoD press officers are kept busy writing breathless accounts of daring raids into lawless Basra on the trail of rogue cops and militia masterminds. Back in 2004 the picture was rather different. Shortly before the first anniversary of the invasion I was at a meeting given by a former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Southern Region. He talked about how British efforts had created a “virtuous spiral” with “quick impact projects” to rebuild the emergency infrastructure, and complained that the foreign media had not been interested in how coalition forces helped to save the winter tomato crop in Maysan province nor in the reopening of refurbished water works.
Towards the end of the meeting someone asked about the militias which were already a prominent feature of life in Basra. British troops were sometimes faced with the scenario of private armies claiming complete control of an area’s security, the official explained: “They say to you, ‘We’ll guarantee security here. Just leave it to us.’ It is very tempting, but this raises the spectre of chaos and civil war.” Instead, he went on, particular districts, such as the area in Basra known to the British as the “Shia Flats”, had their own “night-watchmen”. The Coalition licensed young men, nominated by their elders, to patrol under the supervision of the military forces. “By doing this we are working with the grain to enhance security,” he concluded.
Patrick Cockburn understands better than many why the “night-watchmen” did not simply remain under the occupiers’ “supervision”. He crossed the Syrian border with Iraq secretly in February 2003 and has covered the war ever since, watching as US and British officials have come and gone – along with a constantly changing carousel of “sovereign” Iraqi governments.
“Iraq is full of networks of loyalty that have nothing to do with the state,” he argues. “This is true of the Middle East in general. A government is easier to overthrow than to conquer a village. The Americans hadn’t really got a grip on what it would be like. They were astonished at the beginning to see that everybody was armed. I remember in the early 1990s Saddam had a buy-back programme for heavy weapons – and they gave money to people who turned up. Iraqi officials told me that a tribe in south east Iraq turned up with three tanks, asking if the government wanted to buy them back.”
Yet the failure of the occupation is not fundamentally about US officials’ lack of knowledge of Iraq, Cockburn insists. “One of the basic and most important things about the occupation was that it created a reaction. Occupations create a reaction in all countries, particularly when they are as crude as this. But if it had been less crude I don’t think it wouldn’t have made that much difference.
“It could have been modified, let’s say there’d been more US troops. Some 20,000 to 30,000 extra troops sounds like a lot of people, but you put them in Baghdad – greater Baghdad has six million people – you would then see that it’s like a drop of water in the ocean. But also the more people you send the greater the reaction. Some things in Iraq are very complicated but some are very simple. In the summer of 2003 whenever there was an attack on a US patrol or a humvee was blown up, I’d drive there immediately and I’d always find cheering crowds. You didn’t have to think too much about what the feeling of the people was.”
Opposition to the occupation unites Iraqis. According to the report prepared by a team of US researchers led by James Baker, 61 percent of Iraqis support armed attacks on US-led forces. As Cockburn points out, this means that the figures are even higher outside the Kurdish provinces – over 90 percent in Sunni areas and about 75 percent in Shia areas. Yet the occupation also deepens divisions between Sunnis and Shias, and Arabs and Kurds.
Cockburn believes that the occupation exacerbated, rather than merely exposed, existing sectarian tensions. “One of the justifications for the US troops to stay was to prevent civil war but they are clearly not preventing civil war. From a distance it appears that US control is far greater than it is on the ground. When you’re in Iraq – and this has been true for the last three years – it is much more like islands of US control surrounded by a hostile Iraqi sea.
“Was it inevitable, to ask another question, that we were going to have the present bloodbath and a terrible civil war in central Iraq? I don’t think that’s true. I think that you had sectarian differences. On top of that you had an imperial occupation and suddenly a Sunni is divided from a Shia, not merely by their existing sectarian differences but by the fact that the Shia may be joining the police or the army, or is cooperating with the occupation and the Sunni is fighting it.
“So let’s say I’m a Sunni former army officer and looking at my Shia neighbour who belongs to a different community from myself, but suddenly if he’s joined the police he is not only a Shia – he’s also a traitor to Iraq. After all, this has historically always divided people more perhaps than anything else.
Are you for or against the foreign invader? When the British had control of Iraq they made use of one minority, the Assyrians. When the British handed over some but not all power to an Iraqi government in the 1930s almost the first thing that happened was that minority was massacred.”
The US policy of dismantling the Baathist state in the immediate aftermath of the invasion played an important role in encouraging sectarianism, Cockburn believes. “Whatever the Iraqis called a state, the US had largely dissolved or taken over its functions. It dissolved the army, it dissolved the Baath party, it dissolved the institutions to which all Sunnis and Shias belonged.”
Ironically, the failures of the occupying forces were partly a result of the success of the US and British policy of imposing sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s. “The sanctions really destroyed Iraqi society and the Iraqi economy. Consequently there was a vast mass of people who had had jobs in the state, in the government, and had a middle class standard of living who were suddenly impoverished, were pushed down into a great mass of people living just on the edge of starvation.
You could see that in the initial looting after the invasion, almost a sort of social rage of people from Sadr City who had nothing, suddenly bursting into the rest of the city.” It is from this mass of unemployed and semi-employed people that the militias recruit and the army and police replenish their ranks, despite the numerous attacks on recruiting centres.
The intersection of class and sect is one factor which makes sectarianism in Iraq so potent, Cockburn believes: “The great majority of Shias are very poor, it’s a social identity. In the 1950s many Shias were members of the Communist Party. Now you have social radicalism and religious identity that go together. I can’t see that breaking down. The US were trying to promote people who would appeal to the moderate middle class. But the middle class is largely in Jordan and Syria and they probably aren’t too moderate anyway. I think the building block of the future will be the sectarian communities – it may not have been inevitable before the invasion but it is now.”
The state itself has been parcelled out between political factions, mostly those allied to the US. “The ministries have now all become party patronage machines and belong to one community or another.” The Badr organisation of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) dominates the interior ministry. In November, interior ministry troops launched an attack on the ministry of higher education which is controlled by a Sunni party.
“You can’t be more divided than when one ministry launches an attack on another. The health ministry is controlled by the Sadrists, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and I’ve interviewed refugees who were kicked out because they weren’t Shias or they weren’t part of the Sadrist organisation. Sunnis in Baghdad are reluctant to go the main city morgue to identify relatives’
bodies, as it comes under the health ministry, and the guards are mostly from the Mahdi Army, so they also worry about being killed themselves.”
Meanwhile the capital city is being reconstructed along sectarian and party lines: “Baghdad has become a dozen little cities, each with its own militia driving out the minority. East Baghdad with the exception of Al-Adhamiyah is now Shia, north Baghdad is now Shia, west and south west Baghdad is a solid Sunni area with links to the Sunni towns and villages further out in the countryside. In Mosul – I was there a couple of months ago – about 70,000 Kurds have left from west Mosul which is primarily Sunni Arab. And many Iraqis have fled to Syria and Jordan – between 1.6 to 1.8 million people in those two countries alone – while internally displaced people represent probably around 1.5 to two million.”
Despite current talk of US and British “exit strategies”, Cockburn is sceptical of claims that the occupying forces are intending to leave Iraq in the near future: “What they’d like to have is a strategy whereby they don’t suffer any more political or military losses in Iraq, and somehow come out smelling of roses with their international position undamaged. They have a wish list but it has nothing to do with reality any more.
“There are some building blocks they’re trying to put in place, debating should they talk to the Iranians, should they talk to the Syrians? They are talking to the insurgents and have been for some time. Maybe they could split the Shias. But it’s still the very early stages and it doesn’t even make up even the first glimmerings of a strategy.”
For Cockburn, the really interesting question is, why did the US military machine fail? Despite the power of its technology, the greatest army on earth has been unable to impose its will on Iraq. “People see that the US is less powerful than they supposed. The Americans have been fighting for the last three and a half years the five million strong Iraqi Sunni community. What would have been the situation if they didn’t have the Shias half on their side? Or the Kurds?
“So this demonstration of strength turned into a demonstration of weakness. Jack Straw used to go on about how the reason for Britain being allied with the US was that they had this wonderful military machine, but this has been exposed by the war. They can’t even conquer a few villages in western Iraq.” The disaster in Iraq points to a deeper systemic problem at the heart of US society, Cockburn argues: “This is not just about Iraq – after all, they couldn’t do Baghdad, but they couldn’t do New Orleans either.”
Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation: War And Resistance in Iraq is published by Verso, £15.99. It is available from Bookmarks bookshop, 020 7637 1848.
“I don’t accept that US withdrawal will make the problem of sectarianism worse. We mustn’t forget that most of the violence is generated by the occupying forces”
I wouldn’t agree that Iraq is experiencing a civil war in the way it is described in the mainstream media. There are Iraqis who are working with the US and they are part of the overall conflict. But if one thinks of Vietnam, the Vietnamese Liberation forces were fighting the South Vietnamese government as well as the US forces which backed them. So on one level it was a form of civil war and on the other it was a conflict against occupation.
I think that within an Iraqi context the main conflict remains between the Iraqi people and the US-led occupation. There are rising tensions and contradictions between various Iraqi political forces, some of which are pro-US, others are opposed, others have almost a dual character – one day with the US, another day against the US. This includes Iyad Allawi and his supporters, who are making anti-occupation noises because they are out of the main circles of power now.
However, part of the rising tension is between religions and sects, and I think the occupation has succeeded in making religious, ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq worse. Differences between these groups have existed for hundreds of years, but have never in Iraq’s history led to communal civil wars. There were chauvinist wars against the Kurdish people, and there were wars conducted against this or that sect. But these were all state-inspired, state-led rather than communal in the sense of people in the street targeting each other based on any of these differences.
The US has followed a conscious policy of elevating these differences by using death squads and financing sectarian political forces. US generals are on the record admitting the existence of US personnel in death squads belonging to Special Forces.
Historically there have been sectarian tensions within Iraq – both within and outside the state – so one cannot possibly deny the existence of sectarianism within Iraqi society. But one cannot characterise the modern Iraqi state as being a Sunni state, oppressing a Shia majority, because Iraq was for much of the 20th century a feudal society.
The Tribal Law
Outside of Kurdistan – where feudalism has ancient roots – the British authorities under the first occupation in the 1920s privatised much of Iraqi land and gave it to tribal leaders who became like the classic feudal lords. These feudal lords were Shia and Sunni. Much of the south of Iraq, where many of the Shia population live, had its Shia feudal lords with their own private armies which were sanctioned by the state.
In fact there was a law administered by the landlords called the Tribal Law which ran parallel to the rest of Iraqi state law and applied only in the countryside. This law lasted until the 1958 Revolution when it was abolished. Most of the peasants were landless because Britain made the communal land which belonged to the tribe into the private property of the tribal chief. The landlords ruled Iraq in alliance with the richest merchants in the cities, such as the Chalabi family.
The south and parts of Baghdad historically had the poorest sections of Iraqi society, and this was where left wing and radical groups were strong. The south was where the Iraqi Communist Party was born. Even before the first British occupation these areas had a history of rebellion and were therefore also subjected to more state violence and state oppression than other parts of Iraq. Quite often this is seen superficially as a campaign against Shias, while really it had a distinct political character – it was about working class demands, peasant uprisings and student protests.
I don’t accept that US withdrawal will make the problem of sectarianism worse. We mustn’t forget that most of the violence is generated by the occupying forces themselves. They conduct huge military campaigns across Iraq, using tanks and helicopter gunships while Phantom jets bomb areas of Baghdad and elsewhere. This generates another type of violence – the violence against the occupation.
A third type of violence is generated by the activities of US-sponsored death squads and militias. Then there is violence between political forces competing for power in alliance with the US itself. The US is playing the role of the “godfather” in some situations, trying to hold the balance of power, dishing out favours to various political forces. So much of the violence is not deeply entrenched, communal civil war-type violence that might erupt once the occupation forces leave. That does not mean that once they leave there will be peace overnight.
Most of the time we simply do not know for sure who is behind the sectarianism. The people who come to the houses of Christians, Sunnis or Kurds and ask them to leave their house are masked, unknown men. They might leave a letter or make a phone call, and it is often the neighbours who will try to protect the targeted family.
The activities of these faceless men, who are presumably members of various gangs, whether politically motivated or simply operating to make a profit, all take place under the watchful eye of the occupying forces.
Finally, I don’t believe that Saddam Hussein’s execution will have a big radical impact. There is some disgust that they chose the first day of the Eid festivities to carry it out. Only Sunnis had begun celebrating the feats, as the Shia clergy did not announce Eid until the following day. There is a strong tradition that you should not kill anyone during the “holy months”.
On the other hand, people felt that when Saddam was hanged, all the secret dealings with the US went with him. He was not tried for his major crimes, his mass murders in the south and in Kurdistan, or for the killing of hundreds of Baathists.
If the government wanted Iraqis to unite against Saddam they could have tried him first for killing the founders of the Baath Party in Iraq. I don’t think people will shed a lot of tears for Saddam – he is hated overwhelmingly. But it was also noticeable that there were no mass demonstrations either way, in support or opposition. The vast majority of the population was subdued, thinking of the tragic situation engulfing the country – the violence in the streets, unemployment, the return of hunger, the collapse of health and education systems.
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