Divide and Rule Goes Awry in Iraq


Inherent in the policy of Iraqization is the traditional strategy of an occupier–divide and rule–as it means some Iraqi collaborators will be put in the employ of the occupier in an effort to control other Iraqis. Thus, Iraqization naturally means turning Iraqis against each other. And, having Iraqis fighting between themselves–rather than uniting in opposition to the occupation of Iraq–benefits the United States.

‘Divide and rule’ seems to be central to the U.S. strategy to controlling Iraq. The U.S. has used this strategy in other conflicts, and the closest ally of the United States perfected ‘divide and rule’ during its history as a colonial power. The British typically played one tribe or ethnic group against another to maintain control of their colonies with a minimal number of British troops. For example, the British used ‘divide and rule’ strategies to gain control over India, keeping its people divided along lines of religion, language, and caste. The divisions created or enhanced by Great Britain still cause problems in some of its former colonies.

Indeed, in the 1920 Mandate of Iraq, the British worked to check the Shia majority’s power by keeping Sunni Arabs in senior positions in government and the armed forces. And, created a country that had divisions, Sunni, Shia and Kurd–divisions that still exist today.

It is hard to believe that the Bush Administration did not realize the likely sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shia. Not only die Saddam Hussein check the Shia majority during his rule of Iraq, but the dispute between these two sects dates back to the death of the prophet Mohamed in 632. Sunnis are the majority sect in the Muslim world, but Shias form as much as 60% of Iraq’s population, whereas Sunnis make up 35%, divided between ethnic Arabs and Kurds. This demographic dominance of the Shia has not resulted in economic and political power, until the U.S. occupation.

Indeed, during Saddam’s rule, the Shia community were particularly persecuted, especially after the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in 1979. Saddam executed Ayatollah Mohamed Baquir Sadr (the uncle of Moqtada Sadr a leading cleric in Iraq today) after an attempted assassination of his deputy prime minister in 1980 by Shia political activists. During the war between Iraq and Iran, Saddam further cracked down on the Shia community, expelling thousands to Iran or imprisoning them as well as restricting religious pilgrimages to holy shrines.

Despite these historic divisions and simmering rivalries Shia and Sunni in Iraq lived together. There are mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad. And, there was intermarriage between Sunni and Shia.

When the United States overthrew Saddam in 2003 and began the occupation of Iraq one of the first acts of the U.S. was de-Baathification–large numbers of the Sunni elite were ejected from government and banned from politics. They were replaced by Shia leaders. Of course, this was resented by the Sunni population and not surprisingly led many into resisting the occupation. And, as Shia took control of government and roles in the police and military they became targets of the insurgency against the occupation.

And, there have been numerous reports of death squads operating within the Iraqi police force. Sunnis have repeatedly claimed that uniform Iraqi police were raiding homes and taking people who later turned up handcuffed and shot in the head. More than 1,600 people have been killed in this way according to Sunni leaders. There have also been reports of abuse in Iraqi run prisons where Shia guards held Sunni prisoners. These are classic ‘divide and rule’ strategies giving those oppressed by the previous regime, official clothing and the opportunity for revenge while in uniform. Of course, there have been Sunni reprisals and a cycle of violence has grown to what is now becoming a sectarian war.

None of this is a surprise. As John Walsh recently wrote:

“Top analysts in the CIA and State Department, as well as large numbers of Middle East experts, warned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could result in a violent ethnic and sectarian conflict. Even some of the war’s intellectual architects acknowledged as much: In a 1997 paper, prior to becoming major figures in the Bush foreign policy team, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith predicted that a post-Saddam Iraq would likely be ‘ripped apart’ by sectarianism and other cleavages but called on the United States to ‘expedite’ such a collapse anyway.”

Not only did the abuses of the Shia police forces add to the divisions in Iraq, but so did the Bush Administrations push for democracy on the U.S. timetable and U.S. terms. The elections and Constitution in Iraq were not about issues like socialism vs. capitalism–the United States had already determined Iraq would be a free market especially for foreign corporations. The elections were not even about whether the occupation should end–that is something all the parties supported. Rather, the elections were primarily about whether a party or candidate was a Shia, Kurd or Sunni. And the outcome of the election was measured by which ethnic or sectarian group gained more power. In other words Bush democracy highlighted and expanded the divisions in Iraq.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has appealed for calm among Iraqi Shiites following bomb attacks in Baghdad. Sadr said Iraq was now in a state of civil war, but he said he would order his Mahdi army militia not to respond, the Journal of Turkish Weekly reported March 13. Sadr blamed U.S. military forces for letting attacks happen and was particularly critical of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who said last week that U.S. forces would not intervene if civil war broke out in Iraq, “May God damn you, Sadr said of Rumsfeld. “You said in the past that civil war would break out if you were to withdraw, and now you say that in case of civil war you won’t interfere.

On February 25, 2006, Iraq’s Defense Minister,Saadoun al-Dulami, warned of a “civil war that “will never end. And, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the “potential is there for sectarian violence to become full-blown civil war describing the U.S. invasion as opening a “Pandora’s box of sectarian violence. The escalating violence–potential civil war–has become an excuse for the United States to continue the occupation with Khalilzad warning that if the U.S. leaves violence will escalate.

Thus, the U.S. occupation escalates long simmering conflicts between Muslim sects to the point of sectarian war and then uses the violence, that the occupation creates, as an excuse to stay in Iraq. As Dahr Jamail wrote in a series of columns during the recently escalating violence–who benefits? Quite clearly, he points out, the occupiers benefit. Or, as Walsh concludes “The fact is that the neocons who control U.S. strategy have no interest in preventing a civil war but only in inciting one.

On March 5th, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps’ General Peter Pace said in a televised interview claimed that things in Iraq are “going very, very well, from everything you look at. To most eyes the escalating violence was bad news, but maybe the general knows ‘divide and rule’ is working out as planned.

More Information:

A Photo Essay of what ‘Divide and Rule’ looks like in Iraq, photos American’s don’t see in the U.S. Press can be viewed at: http://www.infoshop.org/inews

KEVIN ZEESE is Director of Democracy Rising and a candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland.



Kevin Zeese is an organizer at Popular Resistance.