U.S. promotes sectarian violence to divide Iraq

Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, who called for Sunnis and Shiites to hold joint prayers.
Photo: Reuters/Atef Hassan

From the ANSWER Archives:

March 19, 2014, marks the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. During the next six weeks the newsletter will feature key articles from the ANSWER Coalition archives that ANSWER and associated groups published before and during the invasion, and throughout the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This is a critical period of U.S. history and the voices of those who led the mass anti-war and anti-occupation movement during this period are largely erased from the U.S. mainstream media. Please read and share this important article originally published in April 2006 about a key moment in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Share it with young people who were not yet teenagers when the Bush administration invaded Iraq in one of the greatest war crimes in modern history.

By Richard Becker
Originally published on April 2006

 The destroyed Golden Dome mosque in Samarra.
Photo: Reuters/Stringer 

“Maybe the war was wrong, but now that we’re there, we have to finish the job.” So goes a common justification by liberal commentators for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. By “finish the job,” they presumably mean the establishment of a U.S.-style system in Iraq. But based on what they have suffered during a decade and a half of U.S. intervention, the average Iraqi couldn’t be faulted for thinking that the real aim of “finishing the job” is to finish them off altogether.

The outbreak of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite communities in Iraq in late February has only added to that sentiment—and for good reason. The reality, ignored by the corporate media propaganda machine here, is that U.S. policy for many years has been to promote conflict between different national and religious groups in Iraq.

It’s not just the policy of the U.S. imperialists but one used by all colonizing powers. Without divide-and-conquer, it would have been impossible for the small island of England to rule much of the world, including Iraq. Today, the British are back as junior partners in the U.S.-led occupation, and there is recent evidence that they are up to their old tricks.

In a highly publicized but still unexplained September 2005 incident, two British soldiers were arrested by Iraqi police in the southern port city of Basra. When arrested, the soldiers were dressed in traditional Iraqi clothing and carrying explosives. The British army launched an all-out assault on the Iraqi police station where they believed the soldiers were being held, despite the fact that the Iraqi police inside had been trained by British advisors.

What were the arrested soldiers doing? Were they caught in the middle of carrying out what was intended to look like a sectarian bombing, for the purpose of whipping up hostility between Iraqis?

That question took on even greater relevance six months later, after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine, sacred for Shiite Muslims, located in the city of Samarra. The destruction of the Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Dome, was followed by outbursts of violence in many parts of Iraq. Over 100 Sunni Muslim mosques were damaged or destroyed, and more than 1,300 people were killed in the following days.

While a majority of the Islamic world is Sunni, Shiites are the majority in Iraq. About 60 percent of Iraqis are from Shiite Arab backgrounds, around 20 percent are Sunni Arabs, 16 percent are Sunni Kurds and the rest are Turkomans and Assyrian, the latter being mainly Christian. The cities of Iraq have diverse populations, with much intermarriage between peoples of different religious and national backgrounds.

Imperialist intrusion and sectarian conflict

The capitalist media promotes the false and racist notion that everyone in Iraq and the Middle East has been fighting and killing each other for thousands of years.

Over the past 150 years of western intrusion into the Middle East, it has been the colonizing powers that have repeatedly instigated and inflamed conflicts between national and religious groupings. The pattern has been repeated in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere down to the present day.

As of this writing, no organization has claimed responsibility for the Askariya bombing. Regardless of who detonated the explosives, it is no mystery who stands to gain from this crime.

The main beneficiary of fighting between Iraq’s religious or national groups today is the U.S. occupation. As Daniel Pipes, a right-wing analyst known to be influential with the Bush administration, put it in an ABC interview on March 2, “I don’t think from the point of view of the coalition it is necessarily that bad for our interests... In the first place, there would be fewer attacks on our forces in Iraq as they fight each other.”

Pipes expressed his hope that the religious conflict would spread. “More broadly outside Iraq, there would be fewer attacks on us as the Shiites and the Sunnis attack each other.”

While the Bush administration officially decries “sectarian conflict” in Iraq, there is no doubt that both military and civilian officials share Pipes’ hopes that inter-Iraqi fighting will diminish the level of armed resistance to the occupation.

Since the first U.S. war on Iraq in 1991, every U.S. administration—Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr.—have sought to encourage division, conflict and the weakening of Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 war, Bush I urged the Shiite and Kurdish populations to rise up against the central government headed by Saddam Hussein and the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, which had just suffered a catastrophic defeat. The revolts were crushed. Bush Sr. had never intended to give material support to these uprisings. Washington wanted to cause the maximum amount of conflict within Iraq.

In 1996, Clinton extended the “no-fly zones” in the country. All of Iraq above the 33rd and below the 35th parallels was off limits to Iraqi aircrafts. The “no-fly zones” were patrolled night and day for 12 years by U.S. and British warplanes, which dropped bombs with increasing frequency whenever and wherever they wanted. The clear aim of the zones was to weaken or end Iraqi sovereignty over most of the country.

In October 1998, Clinton signed the “Iraq Liberation Act,” stating openly that the objective of U.S. policy was to overthrow the Iraqi government.

Frank Ricciardone was appointed as director of “transition” in Iraq. Asked by the Turkish newspaper Milliyet in 1999 if the U.S. policies were leading to a partition of Iraq and possibly civil war, Ricciardone replied that Iraq “could hardly be considered a unified country today, given the no-flight zones over the north and south.”

A large part of northern Iraq, with a majority Kurdish population, became an autonomous U.S.-UN protectorate following the 1991 war, and maintains that status today.

In December 1998, Clinton forced the United Nations to withdraw all weapons inspectors from Iraq in order to unleash a massive bombing campaign between Dec. 16 and Dec. 19, 1998, known as “Operation Desert Fox.” Contrary to the myth promoted in the U.S. mass media, Iraq did not expel the inspectors. More than one thousand bombs and missiles were dropped on Iraq during this three-day period, and it inaugurated what turned out to be the almost daily bombing of Iraq until the “Shock and Awe” invasion of March 20, 2003.

The U.S.-authored 2005 constitution transfers power and revenue from the future central government to regional or provincial control.

The entire U.S. policy over the past 15 years, including the deadly sanctions, were aimed at making Iraq a weak, divided and thus easily exploitable country for many years to come.

Sunnis and Shiites speak out

On March 5, it was reported that commandos from the Interior Ministry attacked a Sunni mosque in west Baghdad, killing three people and injuring seven others.

The Associated Press refers to the Interior Ministry as “Shiite-controlled.” This formulation, repeated throughout the media, is really another propaganda falsification intended to exacerbate religious conflict.

It is a well-documented fact that occupation forces did not turn the Interior Ministry over to “Shiites” in general, but to one particular organization, the Badr Brigade—an infamous paramilitary death squad. The Badr Brigade is the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The SCIRI leaders, like most of those today in leadership in the Iraqi client government, had been in exile from Iraq and only returned alongside the U.S. invading army in 2003. A spin-off of the Badr Brigade is the Wolf Brigade, noted for its extreme brutality, including against Palestinian refugees in Iraq.

Under the direction of former U.S. ambassador John Negroponte—now elevated to director of national intelligence—the Iraqi Interior Ministry became the new secret police, organizing torture and death squads against Iraqi resistance forces that the United States could not defeat. Negroponte had plenty of previous experience with death squads. In the early 1980s, as U.S. ambassador to Honduras, he was a key operative in creating a reign of terror against the peoples of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.

The Interior Ministry death squads have almost exclusively targeted Sunni political, religious and resistance-connected leaders and activists. In the fall, hundreds of tortured and starving people were discovered imprisoned in the basement of the ministry. But very little, if anything, has changed since that discovery.

At the same time, the Al-Qaeda organization in Iraq has reportedly called for war against the Shiite population, and has taken responsibility for many deadly bombings aimed at Shiite mosques and people.

The danger of such developments is clear to many in Iraq. On March 5, a group of Sunni and Shiite clerics, including the Shiite religious and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr, made a joint appeal for Muslim unity and the protection of religious sites.

The statement read in part, “Extinguish the flames of the sectarian treachery... Every drop of blood shed is a waste.” (AP, March 5, 2006) The signers, like most Iraqis, place primary responsibility for the violence on the occupation.

The vast majority of Iraqis are in favor of national unity and opposed to both chauvinist violence and foreign occupation, all key elements throughout the history of modern Iraq.

Anti-colonial revolts, 1920 to today

In May 1920, the Arabs of Iraq, Syria and Palestine rose in mass revolt when they discovered that rather than achieving independence after hundreds of years of Ottoman (Turkish) rule, they had instead been incorporated into the largest colonial empires of the day, the British and the French.

Syria and Lebanon became French colonies, according to the agreement signed in San Remo, Italy on April 24, 1920. Iraq, Palestine and Jordan were taken over by Britain. All of this was done under the cover of “mandates” from the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations.

As part of a backroom deal, U.S. oil companies were given a 23.75 percent share of Iraq’s oil, with equal amounts awarded to Britain, France and the Netherlands. Iraq owned exactly zero percent of its vast oil resources.

The British approach in Iraq, which it militarily occupied in 1918, was similar to that employed throughout its empire. It aimed to secure its domination by pitting different sectors of the colonized people against each other, while seeking to co-opt the elites of each community or nationality. In Iraq, this meant fomenting antagonism between Shiite and Sunni, and between Arab and Kurd.

But to the surprise of the British, something took place that was very unusual for the time. The Marxist historian Hanna Batatu wrote of the 1920 revolt, “For the first time in many centuries, Shiites joined politically with Sunnis, and townsmen from Baghdad and tribesmen from the Euphrates made common cause.

“Unprecedented joint Shiite-Sunni celebrations, ostensibly religious but in reality political, were held in all the Shiite and Sunni mosques in turn ... the proceedings culminating in patriotic oratory and poetic thundering against the English.

“Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that with the events of 1919-20, and more particularly with the bond, however tender, that was created between Sunnis and Shiites, a new process set in: the painful, now gradual, now spasmodic growth of an Iraqi national community.” (“The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq,” Princeton University Press, 1978)

It took the powerful British military several months to put down the 1920 revolt. In the struggle, 2,000 British troops were killed, including their commander, and 10,000 Iraqis perished. Tens of thousands more were wounded at a time when the population was barely 3 million people. Winston Churchill, then in the British colonial office, ordered the development of poison gas bombs to be used against the revolt. In 1925, British forces dropped those bombs on rebelling Kurds in northern Iraq.

The history of Iraq under British rule from 1920-1958 was the history of one rebellion after another in which the people of all communities and religious affiliations joined.

On July 14, 1958, a military revolt led by nationalist officers turned into a country-wide popular revolution, putting an end to British domination and establishing Iraq as an independent country.

Iraq’s existence as an independent state was terminated by the U.S.-British invasion in 2003. It is that independence that the resistance forces are fighting to restore.

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