Global Policy Forum

The Battle for Iraq is About


By Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar*

September 10, 2007

This week, we'll be buried under a crush of analysis about an Iraq that's being ravaged by a religious civil war -- an incomprehensible war between "militants" of various stripes and "the Iraqi people." But Americans will be poorly served by the media's singular focus on Iraq's "sectarian violence." It obscures the fact that sectarian fighting is a symptom -- a street-level manifestation -- of a massive political conflict over what kind of country Iraq will be, who will rule it and who will control its enormous oil wealth.

And it obscures the great irony of the American project: that in that defining conflict over the future of the country, the Bush administration, with the support of Congress, has taken the same side as Iran's hardliners and the same side as the Sunni fundamentalist group called al Qaeda in Iraq. All are working -- separately, but towards the same ends -- against the wishes of a majority of Iraqis, who polls show want a united, sovereign country in control of its own resources and free of meddling by Washington, Tehran and other foreigners.Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died violent deaths since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many of them as a result of the civil conflicts that have pitted Iraqi against Iraqi. But those conflicts have nothing to do with the differences that distinguish the different branches of Islam -- Iraq isn't struggling with a religious civil war.

Iraqis are fighting over fundamental questions about the future of their country. They're fighting over whether it will have a strong central government or be a weak confederation of semiautonomous states, over how soon and to what degree it will be independent of foreign influence, over who will control its massive energy reserves and under what terms they will be developed -- all of these things are tangible, concrete issues that are crucial in determining Iraq's future.

We refer to this central political conflict as one between Iraqi separatists and nationalists. Loosely speaking, separatists favor a "soft partition" of Iraq into at least three zones with strong regional governments, similar to the semiautonomous Kurdish "state" in Northern Iraq; they are at least willing to tolerate foreign influence -- meaning Iranian, U.S. or other powers' influence, depending on which group one is discussing -- for the foreseeable future; they favor privatizing Iraq's massive energy reserves and ceding substantial control of the country's oil sector to regional authorities.

Nationalists are just the opposite: They reject any foreign interference in Iraq's affairs, they favor a strong technocratic central government in Baghdad that's not based on sectarian voting blocs and they oppose privatizing Iraq's oil and natural gas reserves on the extraordinarily generous terms (to the oil companies) proposed by the U.S. government and institutions like the IMF. They favor centralized control over the development of Iraq's oil and gas reserves.

That's not to say that ethic and sectarian violence isn't real, or isn't a significant problem in Iraq. The point is that violence based on religious or ethnic identity -- Shiite or Sunni or Christian, Arab or Turkman or Kurd -- is an extension of these fundamental disputes over what the future of Iraq will hold. Sectarian and political tensions overlap in a fluid, shifting dynamic. The Iraqi parliament began as an institution of largely sectarian coalitions, but over the past two years, as the occupation has continued to grind on, sectarian-based politics have become overshadowed by divisions between nationalists and separatists. The result of the media's singular focus on sectarian conflict is that most Americans are unable to grasp the changing terrain of Iraq's political landscape with anything approaching a sense of the context in which events occur.

Consider a recent development of some significance. At the end of August, five Iraqi parties -- representing Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds -- signed a "unity accord" or a "five-party manifesto" that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed was a sign of new movement towards national reconciliation. The White House said it was "an important symbol of unity in Iraq," and congratulated "Iraq's leaders on the important agreement." A spokesman for the Iranian government called it "productive and positive." The truth, however, was that it was an agreement among parties that had long agreed -- among five Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish separatist parties that had been loosely allied since at least 2000, when all belonged to the London-based Iraqi exile group called the "Independent Iraqi Democrats." All five parties were strategic allies in the 2002 "London Conference," preparing and justifying a U.S.-led invasion. The five parties have long supported al-Maliki's regime. In fact, they are al-Maliki's regime, but the commercial media never took note of that fact.

Similarly, most Americans remain largely unaware of the political tensions that have created an almost irreconcilable impasse within the Iraqi government. The U.S.-backed al-Maliki "government" -- the Iraqi cabinet -- is dominated by separatists, including Shiites like Abdul Aziz Al-Hakeem, leader of the pro-Iranian group SIIC (formerly SCIRI), and al-Maliki himself, representing the al-Dawa Party; Sunnis like Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi of the Islamic Party, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish autonomous government, representing the the Kurdistan Democratic Party. (Yes, these are exactly the same five parties that met last month and repackaged their old alliance as a new political victory.)

At the same time, Shiite (al-Sadr Movement, al-Fadhila Party), Sunni (the National Dialogue Council and the People of Iraq's Council) and secular (the National Dialogue Front and the Iraqi National list) nationalist groups -- along with a few Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi representatives -- have a slight working majority in the Iraqi Council of Representatives. The division between Iraq's governing coalition and a majority of its legislators explains why so many resolutions are accepted by the cabinet in one day, but spend months without being acknowledged by the parliament and vice-versa. Also obscured by the media's focus on sectarian conflict is the massive divide between U.S. interests and the desires of most Iraqis on the most important issues facing the nascent state. Reached in Finland last week, Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the secular National Dialogue Front, said, "What we're facing in Iraq is a political war in which the U.S. is taking one side."

The clearest but not sole example of that is the controversial oil laws that the Iraqi government has struggled with for over a year. While the White House puts relentless pressure on Iraqi lawmakers to pass a law that throws Iraq's energy sector open to foreign investors, a recent poll found that almost two out of three Iraqis would "prefer Iraq's oil to be developed and produced by Iraqi public sector companies rather than foreign companies."

Reached by phone this week in Amman, Jordan, Khalaf al-Ulayyan, head of the National Dialogue Council, one of the key Sunni groups that pulled out of al-Maliki's cabinet last month, described a conflict that was anything but religious. "My party is one among many different Iraqi groups -- Sunnis, Shias and seculars -- who are working together inside the parliament to block the law," Ulayyan said. "This oil and gas law is a major threat to Iraq's future."

His comments were almost indistinguishable from those of Shiite nationalist Nadim al-Jaberi, the head of the al Fadhila Party, who told us by phone from Baghdad that his party favors a public referendum "regarding the oil law to prove that the majority of the Iraqi people are against this law." He added, "The U.S. is putting maximum pressure to pass the law."

On the issue of federalism, key lawmakers from both parties in Washington, along with a host of foreign-policy think tanks and media pundits, have called for partitioning Iraq into three semiautonomous regions in a loose federation. Iraqi separatists are happy with that for the obvious reasons: The strongest pro-Iranian groups want to have their Shiastan just as most of the Kurdish leadership want to keep their Kurdistan. The Islamic Party, the lone Sunni group in the bunch, is a staunch supporter of the occupation, opposes any talk of a U.S. withdrawal and supports Kurdish and Shiite separatists' aspirations.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is thrilled with the idea as well. The fundamentalist group, which had no presence in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, announced that it planned to build an exclusively Sunni "Islamic State" in the middle of Iraq; a "Sunnistan." And while the United States is claiming that its military operations in Anbar province have cut down on the violence there, the truth is that Sunni chieftains and other nationalists in Anbar only turned on the militants after they called for the creation of a separate Islamic state. That was months before the additional U.S. troops were on the ground.

Here, too, the separatist position backed by the United States is unpopular among Iraqis; a poll conducted last September found that majorities of all of Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian groups favor a strong central government in Baghdad (although even the most hard-core Iraqi nationalists understand the importance of the unique status of the Kurdish autonomous areas and don't object to the current system).

Of course, the most important issue facing Iraq is when and if Iraqi sovereignty will be restored. According to the poll cited above, "seven in ten Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to commit to withdraw within a year. An overwhelming majority believes that the United States military presence in Iraq is provoking more conflict than it is preventing." That view is shared by a (slim) majority of Iraqi lawmakers -- remember, nationalists have the upper hand in parliament -- but rejected by the al-Maliki government.

The contours of these very real and very important conflicts are vital to understanding where the American project in Iraq is and where it's heading. But Americans aren't being given the whole picture. Consider how a few recent stories out of Iraq look in the context of a political rather than religious civil war:

The Petraeus report's "progress"

Although many are already skeptical of general Petraeus' widely anticipated testimony about the supposedly improving security situation in Iraq, understanding the full range of conflict that afflicts Iraq makes the White House's claim that its troop "surge" has reduced violence even more dubious. As Paul Krugman noted last week, only sectarian killings count in the Pentagon's books:

Apparently, the Pentagon has a double supersecret formula that it uses to distinguish sectarian killings [bad] from other deaths [not important]; according to press reports, all deaths from car bombs are excluded, and one intelligence analyst told the Washington Post that "if a bullet went through the back of the head, it's sectarian. If it went through the front, it's criminal." So the number of dead is down, as long as you only count certain kinds of dead people.

So it's a "progress report" that ignores the fact that the thousands of Iraqis who were killed, and other millions who have lost their homes are victims of a separatist political agenda that had one major obstacle during the last years: the millions of Sunnis living in "Shiastan," Shia living in "Sunnistan," and Arabs living in "Kurdistan." Even the so called "sectarian deaths" are about implementing a political agenda.

Why "start over" with the Iraqi police, but not the army?

Last week, a U.S. commission studying the situation in Iraq suggested that the Iraqi police force "be scrapped" -- presumably putting 26,000 heavily armed men out of work -- and that a new force be built from scratch. The reason: It's infiltrated by "sectarian militias" and can't be trusted, according to the commission.

Sharp observers must have been dumbfounded: Analysts agree that the Iraqi army is just as deeply infiltrated with militia forces and, like the police, they are also Shiite militias accused of "sectarian violence." Among Iraqis, the two institutions are ranked similarly -- about six in 10 have confidence in both the police and the army PDF .

What's really going on is a mystery to most news consumers: The Iraqi police force is deeply infiltrated by Shiite nationalists -- specifically members of the Mahdi Army -- and the army is essentially controlled by Shiite separatists, specifically the Badr Organization Linked to SIIC. This U.S. bias, supporting the Iraqi Army against the Iraqi police, is not new; in May, U.S. warplanes dropped leaflets on Al-Diwaniya, a Southern Iraqi city, asking the local police to "stay home" while the Iraqi army was attacking militia fighters in the city. The U.S. military didn't just threaten to kill any policemen who left their homes, it launched airstrikes against local police buildings when members of the Iraqi Army called for backup.

Factions battling in the "power vacuum" in Basra

Of the Shia-on-Shia conflict in the southern provinces, a conflict in which British defense officials estimate 5,000 people have been killed over the past two years, most reporting has been of a vague battle between generic Shiite "factions" over "power." That's true, but lacking the vital details: it is a civil war between Shiite separatists -- pro-Iranian parties led by SIIC and backed by al-Maliki's coalition and the United States -- and Shiite nationalists from the Al-Fadhila party allied to one degree or another with the fiercely nationalistic Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Najaf, SIIC and the Dawa Party seem to have the upper hand, but not in Iraq's eight other southern provinces. Separatist governors have been assassinated in two of those provinces in the past month, along with their bodyguards, and in both instances Sadrists were suspected of having carried out the attacks. They're members of the same Muslim sect fighting over earthly issues -- power, national identity, sovereignty and control of wealth. But the media won't tell the story in its complexity, as it doesn't fit the sectarian civil war narrative.

Political impasse, not sectarian divide, has brought al-Maliki's government to standstill

The media has made much of the fracturing of al-Maliki's governing coalition, but for the most part hasn't explained that his government has come apart along political lines -- with Iraqi nationalists of every sect and ethnicity distancing themselves from al-Maliki, a Shiite separatist. One of the first parties to abandon the coalition was al-Fadhila, a Shiite nationalist party that draws strength from the poor in the south of the country. It pulled out of the Shia coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, in March, joining other Sunni and secular nationalists. Reached by phone this week in Baghdad, the head of Fadhila, Nadim al-Jaberi, said that his party "was the pioneer in breaking up the sectarian-based coalitions in the parliament and government, and in calling for a new regrouping that's politically based regardless of sects and ethnic roots."

The Islamic Party, a Sunni separatist party, made a similar move. In joining other Shia and Kurdish separatist groups, the Islamic Party effectively broke up the largest Sunni block in the Iraqi parliament, the Accord Front. None of this fits into the neat sectarian conflict that's become the conventional wisdom about what's going on in Iraq.

Crazy ragheads

The frame of a religious civil war not only obscures the fact that the United States is backing a deeply unpopular side in Iraq's political strife -- that America is in fact an enemy of the Iraqi people, not of its "extremists" -- it also plays into the popular but profoundly wrong notion that the conflict in Iraq is based on an age-old and perfectly irrational dispute over Islamic theological issues. In the West, it's widely believed that religious wars are "primitive" -- something Europeans shook off during the Age of Enlightenment -- while the kind of struggles over land, wealth and power that are raging in Iraq, while unfortunate, are believed to be a necessary component of statehood. By ignoring the political divides that ultimately fuel the violence plaguing Iraq -- by focusing on the violent symptoms and ignoring the underlying disease -- the conventional wisdom plays perfectly into the widespread belief that the bloodshed in Iraq is being carried out by fanatical savages beyond our understanding.

That, in turn, diverts responsibility for the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion away from American imperial hubris. After all, how could rational, Western war planners in Maryland or Virginia possibly predict an orgy of sectarian violence when they decided to dismantle the Iraqi government and security forces and replace them with an occupation force with a "light footprint"?

But more importantly than that, the religious civil war narrative obscures the fact that the United States is not working towards political reconciliation in Iraq. As we've detailed before, Iraq's nationalist groups -- groups representing the majority of Iraqis -- have reached out repeatedly in a series of attempts to reach a peaceful, negotiated end to the occupation and have been rebuffed. Instead of supporting the very groups that aspire to an independent Iraq where Iranians would not interfere and groups like al Qaeda would find no shelter, we are riding the wrong horse.

About the Author: Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer. Raed Jarrar is Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. He blogs at Raed in the Middle.

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