Sectarian Violence in Iraq Fanned by U.S. Occupation

by Gerry Foley / March 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The response of the anti-American Shiite Islamic leaders to the Feb. 22 bombing of the Al Askariya mosque in Samarra—such as the Hezbullah in Lebanon and the leaders of the Islamic republic of Iran—was to blame it on the United States and Israel. That accusation obviously resonated with their followers and also with a large section of the Iraqi public.

The resentment caused by the ruin of the country at the hands of the U.S. and its occupation by U.S. military forces is so deep and so widespread that apparently most Iraqis instinctively blame the U.S. rulers for every blow they suffer. It is certainly evident that the only gainer from the desecration of the Shiite shrine in Samarra was the U.S. rulers and by extension their Zionist clients.

Despite the attempts of Islamic leaders to blame the U.S. for the desecration of the shrine, the provocation resulted in a wave of reprisals by Shiites against Sunnis and their mosques. Sunni leaders estimated within two days after the bombing that almost 200 mosques had been attacked and over a hundred of their coreligionists murdered, including more than a dozen clerics.

Since then sectarian murders have continued—in particular, indiscriminate bombings and executions of groups of Shiites. A recent example took place near the town of Nahrawan, just east of Baghdad, where dozens of commandos stormed a power plant and executed dozens of Shiite workers. In fact, such ruthless attacks on Shiites, including car bombings and suicide bombings, indicate that there is an element in the resistance that does want to provoke a sectarian civil war.

Even in the context of their resentment of the U.S. occupiers, Shiite and Sunni community leaders vied for the support of U.S. troops against the threats they faced from hotheads on both sides.

For example, in the Feb. 23 New York Times, correspondent Edward Wong quoted a leading Sunni politician, Mahmoud al-Mashhadany of the Consensus Front, the major Sunni political bloc, as follows: Mr. Mashhadany also accused the American military of standing aside as Shiites slaughtered Sunnis. ‘The security portfolio is in the hands of the Americans, but yesterday we didn’t see any Humvees,’ he said. ‘We didn’t see any military reaction.’”

In the Feb. 24 British Guardian, Simon Tisdall noted: “But, perversely, Shias blamed the US yesterday for failing to protect Samarra. Sunnis accuse the allies of turning a blind eye to [Shiite] militia death squads.”

Samarra is a city wrecked by the American military. It was a guinea pig for the devastating assault on Falluja, which drove out nearly all the population. In the case of Samarra, about half of the population have fled the city. It is a majority Sunni city, although it is also the site of one of the main Shiite shrines. Actually, it appears that the shrine was in the custody of Sunnis, according to Raed Jarrar, a local Iraqi blogger, interviewed by the Pacifica radio
program “Democracy Now” on Feb. 24.

An AP dispatch reported Feb. 22 that Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, the leader of one of the principal Shiite political organizations—the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, which has its armed wing—denounced the U.S. ambassador for criticizing Shiite militia men and members of the armed forces and police for sectarian attacks on Sunnis. Al-Hakim said, “These
statements were the reason for more pressure and gave green lights to terrorist groups. And, therefore, he shares in part of the responsibility [for the bombing of the Askariya mosque].”

A spokesman for the [Sunni] Muslim Clerics Association denounced the Shiite leaders for calling mass protests against the bombing, which he said encouraged reprisals against Sunnis and Sunni holy places. A Feb. 23 Reuters dispatch quoted him as saying: “‘Why didn’t I see these people rise up against the Americans when they attacked the shrine of Imam Ali?’ he added, referring to a Shi’ite shrine in Najaf damaged in 2004 fighting between U.S. forces and those of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Many of the attacks on Sunnis and Sunni mosques in Baghdad and in some other Shiite centers have been attributed to the militia led by Moqtada al Sadr, who has been a vociferous advocate of the unity of Muslims against the Western imperialist powers.

Al Sadr was out of Iraq at the time of the Samarra bombing and the Shiite protests that followed it. He put the blame for the outrage on the occupiers. But it seems that his followers spontaneously went on a rampage against Sunnis, although that must have been the last thing that al Sadr wanted.

In April 2004, preceding the uprising referred to above, he led an uprising against the occupiers in Najaf that coincided with a major confrontation between the U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents in Falluja. Some Sunni spokesmen pointed to that in their response to the Shiite reprisals against their sect and its holy places.

Al Sadr, in fact, spoke out against reprisals against Sunnis. But the press accounts and interviews with local Shiites in the areas where attacks occurred indicate that the actions of al Sadr’s Mahdi Army were spontaneous local actions not controlled by any central command. This militia organization is made up mainly of very poor and frustrated urban youth and does not have the means for a strong organization. Mahdi Army members have guns and rocket launchers but little else.

Moreover, al Sadr claims that attacks on Sunnis were carried out by provocateurs mascarading as members of the Mahdi Army. And that would fit in with other indications that there is an element in the resistance that is deliberately stoking the fires of sectarian

On the other hand, The New York Times of March 3 gives a detailed report of a takeover by the Mahdi Army in Baghdad of a mosque previously held by Sunnis. It notes that this was a former Shiite mosque given to Sunnis by Saddam Hussein, so Shiites thought that they had a legitimate claim to it. But in the wake of the conflict touched off by the bombing of the Al Askariya mosque, it was the worst imaginable time for a confrontation with Sunni clerics on any pretext.

The Mahdi Army has been caught between two fires. It has called for the unity of Sunnis and Shiites against the occupation, but it has assumed responsibility for defending Shiites against attacks by Sunni insurgents. The Samarra bombing was in fact the culmination of a
long series of attacks on Shiites, apparently carried out by the al Qaida wing of the resistance. These attacks have typically been murderous bombings of crowds of Shiites, pilgrims, worshippers, mourners, and laborers, designed simply to kill as many people as possible without making any distinction.

The al Qaida leadership has justified attacks on Shiites on the grounds that the Shiite religious leaders are allies of the U.S. occupation and that the Shiites are traitors to Islam. The U.S. and Iraqi authorities have claimed that al Qaida has a deliberate policy of trying to provoke a civil war between Shiites and Sunni. Even though such a policy would play totally into the hands of the occupiers, there are more and more indications that this is the line that al Qaida is following.

The worst atrocity in the violence that immediately followed the bombing of the Al Askariya mosque was the execution on the outskirts of Baghdad of 47 people, both Sunnis and Shiites, who were returning by bus from a united Sunni-Shiite demonstration to protest
the desecration. They were stopped by men dressed as police, taken from the bus, and executed with shots at close range to the head.

In human terms, this was a far greater outrage than the destruction of the tomb of legendary saints dead more than a thousand years. And it seems to be a political outrage, a deliberate punishment of Sunnis and Shiites who tried to demonstrate against sectarian conflict. And the modus operandi seems to point to al Qaida, which has been carrying a long series of
well-organized attacks in which their operatives have been dressed in Iraqi police or army uniforms.

Iraqi government leaders and U.S. officials have blamed al Qaida for the bombing of the Al Askariya mosque. Al Hakim, for example, has said that the blame has to be placed on this largely non-Iraqi organization, not Iraqi Sunnis. But al Qaida in Iraq has not claimed the attack. One press dispatch has claimed that a website used by al Qaida declared that the Shiites themselves bombed the shrine to have an excuse to attack Sunnis. But this report is still to be confirmed.

In any case, it clear that there are serious reasons to believe that al Qaida was responsible for the outrage and for the sectarian conflict it provoked. Unless, the leaders of al Qaida in Iraq repudiate hostility to Shiites or unless they are effectively subdued by forces in the insurgency devoted to uniting the resistance to the occupation, sectarian conflict is likely to continue to worsen and serious weaken the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation.

Of course, the capitalist press has been commiserating with the U.S. authorities who claim that the sectarian conflict is complicating the tasks of their operation in Iraq. Representative John Murtha, who has been calling for a partial U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, has responded to the recent conflict by saying that the U.S. forces are caught in a civil war and that they should withdraw from it.

It is undoubtedly true that the U.S. is playing a very a high risk-balancing game in Iraq. (Murtha has cited a poll showing that 88 percent of Sunnis approve of the resistance’s attacks on U.S. forces, and that 41 percent of Shiites do.)

However, the effect of these sectarian conflicts has been to impel Sunni politicians as well as Shiites to appeal for protection to the U.S. forces. This is a clear indication that it is precisely such conflict that is the best justification for the imperialists maintaining their forces in Iraq.

And there is evidence that the U.S. wants to keep a foot in Iraq for a long time, despite its claims that it intends to withdraw as soon as Iraqi forces can “maintain security.” That is indicated by the huge investments by the United States in building massive military bases there.

The political problems of the resistance are obviously becoming more and more complicated. If it is going to defeat the imperialist project for establishing a dependent regime in the country it is going to need to come up with a formula for a movement and a government that can effectively represent all Iraqis.

Such a formula will have to be based on the material interests of the masses—and not any religious identifications, much less religious enthusiasms—and on a program that can offer the masses clear goals so as to make them less susceptible to counterproductive spontaneous explosions. Hopefully, the disastrous events of Feb. 22 and the following days will impel thoughtful elements in the resistance to seek such a formula.

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