The inability to talk about Iraq in an appropriate context has been one of the greatest setbacks to the anti-war movement here in the United States of America, and to describe Iraq solely in terms of being in civil war contributes to this problem. Iraq is under occupation and the current rivalry between what are indeed Iraqi factions has to be interpreted within this context. The possibility of civil war in Iraq is not the result of mismanagement on the part of the Bush administration or some inherent hostility in Iraqi society; civil war, rather, is and has always been the favored alternative should the United States fail to dominate Iraq politically. The pirates of both the Right and Left side of the establishment agreed before hand that if they could not steer the ship they would sink it.
As early as 2002 prominent Americans made civil war part and parcel of the ideology leading up to war in 2003. As the Bush administration prepared for war, figures like the Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, both former members of the Clinton administration, helped establish “acceptable” possibilities for the war’s outcome. Both Albright and Holbrooke belabored the point that Iraq is an “artificial” country, a product of British colonialism, and as soon as Saddam Hussein was toppled, the US would face the sectarianism and racism supposedly inherent in Iraq’s composition (it must be noted that the assertion of Iraq’s artificiality is simplistic). Implicit and at times explicit in Albright and Holbrooke’s analysis is that when all was said and done Iraq should be broken up into three parts. After the British (and French) plan to divide the Muslim world into small dependent states after World War One was going to be adjusted by the US’s plan to divide Iraq into even smaller and more dependent oil rich states, similar to the Gulf states, an irony apparently lost on all. Or was it?
As soon it was clear that the Bush administration was going to invade Iraq back in 2002, the voices of the mainstream Left were busy insuring that the option to break up Iraq was firmly embedded in American discourse rabout the war. The implication that Iraq is an artificial country established the possibility that it could be broken up if things were not to go as planned, i.e. if the country could not be dominated easily. The breaking up of Iraq is useful in several important ways: First, it is easier to dominate the oil of smaller weaker states than larger ones and, secondly, Iraq has always posed the greatest threat to Israel. The breaking up of Iraq would facilitate many of the long-term visions of Israel, not to mention the most important one, which is of course shared with the United States-the effort to definitively eradicate the residues of Arab nationalism and put to an end the emergence of Islamism.
Whatever the reader may think of these two overlapping political trends, they share a common aspiration for Arab independence from Western neo-imperialism and Iraq is the most important Arab-Muslim country in this regard. Baghdad was seen, indeed up to the war, as one of the cultural capitals of the Arab world, a perennial home to Arab nationalism and an open minded Islamism. Whereas the American Left was citing Iraq’s diversity as a point of weakness, it has traditionally been a matter of strength. Iraq is the only country in the Muslim world that can speak to Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Whereas Saudi Arabia and Iran have produced little more than sectarian ideologues, Iraq has always harbored a greater mosaic of intellectuals. It is true of course that Saddam Hussein suppressed intellectual freedom, but the predictable dictatorship of Saddam has now been replaced by the capricious tyranny of mysterious government-backed death squads and corrupt, US-backed, ministers. Imprinted on the rubble of a ruined Iraq are the footprints of her intellectuals fleeing the country-a brain drain of enormous magnitude. It is no accident that one of the main targets of the death squads has been Iraq’s professional class, including scientists and professors. Iraq is not yet in civil war; the violence we currently see in the country is, rather, an indication that the option to destroy Iraq is constantly being cultivated for activation.
With the dismemberment of Iraq’s bureaucratic, economic and security infrastructures, the practical experience of Iraqi civil society has been rendered inaccessible and by extensions is brusquely being removed from civil consciousness. With the infrastructures of Iraq absent, what once held up a sense of civic society is now being replaced with of a sectarian nature. The average Iraqi is no sectarian. What we have rather is the importation of sectarianism along with ex-patriots, many of whom had not been in the country for thirty years. Politicians such as Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, Ibrahim al-Jafaari or even the secularist Ahmed Chalabi had little to do with Iraq when they came in with the Americans, without possession of any practical representative power they all took recourse in the realm of abstract sectarianism.
As Mike Whitney has recently pointed out in an excellent piece in Counterunch the discussion of civil war in Iraq has been a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” The American backed members of the current Iraqi government have played a vital role in this self-fulfillment. By continually emphasizing sect and ethnicity these politicians have compensated for their lack of political experience and, furthermore, sought to substantiate the political parties to which they belong. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq had been operating outside of the country for decades. The longer it remained in Iran, the more it ascended towards abstract sectarian ideological polemic and the further away from the more complex reality of Iraq. As we can see Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the current leader of SCIRI, is one of the most divisive figures in the country. Hizb’Dawa is a more complicated case, begun in Iraq with the guidance of the great philosopher and theologian Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr (an uncle to Muqtada as-Sadr), this party has always been more inclusive of various legal schools; although largely Shi’ite in composition, the Dawa party has boasted Kurdish and Sunni members as well, including members who fought the Americans in Falluja. The current split in the Dawa party can be traced along the historical path of its members, the lower-level activists who remained and operated in Iraq against Saddam Hussein continue to be staunchly opposed to the US occupation and sectarianism. The higher levels of the party, personified by figures like al-Jafaari (who fled to Iran), simply became more disconnected from actual Iraqi society. Having little actual political resonance, al-Jafaari, like al-Hakim, relies on sectarianism to carry forth his supposed ability to represent a large segment of Iraqi society.
This dynamic is replicated by the fighters coming in from across the Muslims world who relate to the conflict in more purely ideological terms rather than the simple instinct to defend one’s land from foreign invasion, an instinct readily evident amidst both Sunnis and Shiites of Iraq. The mainstream media has focused on the closed circle of elites, who are linked by an affiliation with the Americans, atop the current Iraqi government or more fantastic figures like al-Zarqawi, a figure whose actual influence is highly in doubt, at the expense of the many nationalistic figures opposed to the occupation and who represent all facets of Iraqi society.
It is true that personal attacks of a sectarian type are now beginning to emerge in the country, however these in no way, at least as yet, represent a large scale social trend. When we consider the political dynamic just described in conjunction with the menacing insecurity introduced and perpetuated by the Americans it is perfectly natural that the ideology of sectarianism will be affective, and effective, to some extent. This does not mean, however, that it is inevitable. What we have are two opposing ideological forces currently in operation, on the one hand a government that depends on sectarianism for its justification and on the other, non-Iraqi fighters who make up only 2 to 5 per cent of the armed opposition anyway. In the middle is actual Iraq personified by figures like al-Khalassi, as-Sadr, al-Dhari and al-Kubaysi, all of whom command far greater respect amongst Iraqis, staunchly defend Iraq’s unity and are conveniently ignored by the media.
Opponents of the war must be sensitive to what it means to say Iraq is in civil war. It means that Iraqis are an enemy to themselves, not the occupational forces. Until recently, every time the possibility of civil war in Iraq has come up it has never been in conjunction with a discussion about an American withdrawal, but rather as a reason for the Americans to remain. So long as we describe Iraq in terms of civil war we miss the more fundamental point that Iraq is under an illegal occupation. The civil war premise can only elicit two possible political outcomes: First, the premise asserts that the Iraqis are enemies of one another, thus the US occupation must continue to keep the peace. This absurd suggestion not only fails to acknowledge how we arrived at the current level of violence but also actually absolves the Bush administration of its heinous crime of invading Iraq in the first place. The occupation is presented as more of a peace keeping mission that what it actually was, a blatant act of greed and destruction. The other political outcome is to suggest that Iraq should ultimately be broken up, an option that has persisted beneath the surface of American policy and also seeks to satisfy imperial ambitions. Dividing Iraq into three countries helps eliminate a potentially independent Arab-Muslim state and, I would argue, the most important such state, as greater economic independence in the Middle East and North Africa could actually develop around it.
Iraq is not in civil war; Iraq is under occupation. Some parties have acquiesced in American dominance and cooperated with the American authorities in an effort to gain power, others have not and have violently opposed Iraqis who have. What there is in Iraq is a political spectrum where at one hand there are those adamantly opposed to the occupation and at the other those who support it, a tension that becomes more entrenched the longer troops remain. With the increased emphasis on a “civil war” in Iraq the narrative is taking a momentous turn and casting a shadow on the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of occupying troops; meanwhile casting greater light on the supposed tensions within Iraqi society. Equally shaded by the new narrative of civil war are the ideologues and politicians, lifted to power by the US, who have been imposing a sectarian framework on the country from above since the beginning. The dichotomy between continued occupation and civil war leaves the anti-war movement speechless as neither alternative is desirable. It must be remembered, however, that this dichotomy is as much a fiction as the many others that have sought to justify the American occupation. It must be remembered that the root of current developments in Iraq is the illegal invasion and occupation of the country; the occupation must be eradicated if one sincerely hopes to keep the peace in Iraq.
LAITH AL-SAUD is a college lecturer in the social sciences.