Oh, Those "Disappointing" Iraqis

It may be months before we know the final tally of Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary elections. But one thing is already clear. As The New York Times editorial page put it today, “Beyond the closeness of the race, the new results—disappointingly—show Iraqis once again voted mainly along sectarian and ethnic lines.”

Oh, those disappointing Iraqis. You would never guess from the Times piece that sectarianism in Iraq, whether expressed in voting or in violence, is a direct outcome of US policy.

Remarkably, in a country with almost no history of communal violence, US actions, from the invasion of 2003 to the present, helped transform a doctrinal difference between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam into a dangerous political divide. The US dismantled Iraq’s largely secular state bureaucracy in favor of a system that allocated seats in parliament, jobs and other resources according to ethnic and religious divisions.

That system produced the so–called “Shiite list” that swept the first national elections held under US occupation in January 2005. It also produced a civil war.

In the name of defeating the anti-US insurgency, the Pentagon armed and deployed openly sectarian Shiite and Kurdish militias to fight Sunnis and police Sunni neighborhoods. The State Department acknowledged in 2005 that this policy had “greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines.” After setting the stage for civil war, the US continued to fuel violence by giving one side—the Sunni–based insurgency—its raison d’être, while giving the other side—the Shiite-controlled state security forces—money, weapons, and training. By 2007, the US was arming both sides.

In the legal arena, the same provisions of the US–brokered constitution that sanction gender discrimination (Articles 39 and 41) also lay the groundwork for sectarianism. Long before sectarianism turned to violence, MADRE warned that, “the new constitution could allow unelected clerics and Islamist politicians to determine a person’s legal recourse based on sex and religious affiliation [emphasis added]. Due to varying interpretations of religious law, tensions between Islamic groups with differing rules about personal status issues would be exacerbated. The resulting civil strife will further endanger Iraqis, undermine prospects for democracy, and foment a dangerous sectarianism in an already destabilized society.” The decision to apply separate laws on the basis of sex and religion has reinforced both discrimination against women and sectarian conflict; arguably the two greatest impediments to real democracy and reconciliation in Iraq.

This weekend marks seven years since the US invasion of Iraq. The elections that preceded this grim anniversary are very much a product of US policy. In effect, the US forced Iraqis to compete for scarce resources on the basis of sectarian identity and reoriented Iraqi citizenship on the basis of religion instead of nationality. So if you feel “disappointed” by the Iraqi elections, you know who to thank.