U.S. Occupation Stirs the Fire of Civil War in Iraq

by Gerry Foley / April 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

While the growing sectarian conflicts in Iraq are playing to the hand of the U.S.-led occupation, Washington’s balancing game is also becoming more intricate. Thus, U.S. military casualties in March declined, while Iraqi deaths multiplied. The latest slaughter of Iraqi civilians was an attack by three suicide bombers on a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, April
6, that killed about 80 people – the largest such bombing in recent months.

But the sharpest conflict between the U.S. and its Shiite allies since the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr led uprisings against the occupation forces in April and August of 2004 came when U.S. military with Iraqi allies attacked a center of al-Sadr’s group in Baghdad
on March 26, killing 18 people.

Al-Sadr deputies said that the military had stormed a mosque and massacred peaceful worshippers. Photos showed a mosque floor strewn with bodies. U.S. military spokespersons claimed that the attack had been on a terror cell and that the photos were staged. But few in the international press and political groups in Iraq believed their statements. It was noted that it would have been very difficult to stage such a scene.

Not only the al-Sadr group but the ruling Shiite bloc as a whole protested the attack, suspending negotiations (briefly) to form a government and raising the demand that the U.S. turn over security to Iraqi forces.

The Iraqi client government and the U.S. military has tried to defuse the outcry by promising an investigation. In fact, the assault raised some very big questions unlikely to be addressed by any official inquiry.

Al-Sadr is an outspoken advocate of unity against the occupation. He is strongly identified with radical Islamic movements hostile to the Western imperialist powers, the Shiite Hezbullah in Lebanon and the Sunni Hamas in Palestine, as well as the Islamic Republic of
Iran. But there have been persistent attempts, mainly by the U.S. government and media, to blame his militia, the Mahdi Army, for sectarian attacks on Sunnis, including multiplying execution-style murders. Al-Sadr has said that many of the killers mascaraded as Mahdi Army fighters. He even went to the length of calling on his militia to abandon their black clothing in order to make it more difficult for the killers to disguise themselves as Mahdi Army men.

So, was the raid on the al Sadr center a deliberate provocation or an attempt to throw some bones to sectarian Sunnis? Obviously, the U.S. occupation forces would like nothing better than to get a chance to attack al-Sadr under the pretext of combating sectarian violence against Sunnis.

Moreover, the U.S. authorities have claimed that it was Iraqi army troops that did most of the fighting in the assault. But the Iraqi army is predominately Shiite and viewed as sectarian killers by the Sunnis. So, this incident seems to suit U.S. interests too well to be merely an accident or an excess. Its potential benefits for the occupation far outweigh some temporary strains with its Shiite allies. At the same time, if it is exposed as a U.S. maneuver, the
backlash against the occupation forces would be devastating.

In the long run, the U.S. is going to have to break al-Sadr’s movement if it is going to get the sort of neocolonial client state that it wants in Iraq. This can hardly be done without risking conflicts with broader Shiite forces.

But it will be a tricky business. The polls of Iraqi public opinion cited by John Murtha, a conservative congressman but a critic of the Bush administration’s policy, indicate that 88 percent of Sunnis approve of attacks on the U.S. forces and 41 percent of the Shiites. Obviously, the tactical alliance of the U.S. with the Shiites is precarious. A majority of the
Shiites could easily tip toward supporting the insurgency, leaving the occupation facing the
overwhelming and active hostility of the population. Big U.S. papers, like the Christian Science Monitor, have been carrying articles raising alarms about how much influence al-Sadr is gaining in the Shiite bloc and in the government. He has been credited with being
the power behind the present premier, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, since al Sadr’s group of deputies provided a majority of one for al-Jaafari in the leadership contest in the ruling Shiite bloc.

Since that vote, the U.S. has been pressing al-Jaafari to resign the premiership, at the expense of incurring more strains in its relationship with its Shiite allies. Jaafari and other Shiite leaders have responded by condemning U.S. interference. One Shiite religious leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Yacoubi, called on the U.S. to replace its ambassador, who is
being accused of favoring the Sunnis, the Kurds, and the secularists.

But Yacoubi criticized the U.S. rulers in terms that can only have been music to their ears. The Los Angeles Times reported April 1: “The United States should not yield to terrorist blackmail and should not be deluded or misled by spiteful sectarians,” he [Yacoubi] said in a statement read at mosques, according to the Reuters news agency. Yacoubi apparently called for the U.S. to take a harder line against the Sunnis.

One effect of the multiplying mysterious execution-style murders is the springing up of militia
groups on a wide scale. (The religious leaders have been calling on the people to arm themselves in self-defense.)

This threatens to fuel sectarian conflicts and foster a dynamic of self-destructive violence similar to that seen in the Lebanese civil war, that is, a pattern that can only exhaust and demoralize the population in the long run. But in the interim, it means that the population is becoming very largely armed, and could turn its weapons against the occupiers if an effective
leadership appeared. That makes the balancing game still more precarious for the U.S.

On the other hand, if the sectarian warfare continues and becomes endemic, the U.S. forces could conceivably withdraw to the sidelines and continue to dominate the country by manipulation and targeted interventions. In recent weeks also, there has been a series of
articles in the U.S. press revealing the construction of what must be intended to be major permanent bases in Iraq. Associated Press reported March 20: “BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq – The concrete goes on forever, vanishing into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet of it, a
mile-long slab that’s now the home of up to 120 U.S. helicopters, a ‘heli-park’ as good as any back in the States.

“At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq’s western desert, the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and a car dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers clogging the roads. … At a third hub down south, Tallil, they’re planning a new mess hall, one that will seat 6000 hungry airmen and soldiers for chow.

“Are the Americans here to stay? Air Force mechanic Josh Remy is sure of it as he looks around Balad. ‘I think we’ll be here forever,’ the 19-year-old airman from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., told a visitor to his base.” The article went on to note that most Iraqis believe that the U.S. intends to keep major permanent bases in the country. “Strong majorities tell pollsters they’d
like to see a timetable for U.S. troops to leave, but believe Washington plans to keep military bases in their country.”

Given the scale of the base building, it is hardly surprising that most Iraqis think that. The AP article pointed out: “In 2005-06, Washington has authorized or proposed almost $1 billion for U.S. military construction in Iraq, as American forces consolidate at Balad, known as Anaconda, and a handful of other installations, big bases under the old regime.

“They have already pulled out of 34 of the 110 bases they were holding last March, said Maj. Lee English of the U.S. command’s Base Working Group, planning the consolidation.

“’The coalition forces are moving outside the cities while continuing to provide security support to the Iraqi security forces,’ English said.

“The move away from cities, perhaps eventually accompanied by U.S. force reductions, will lower the profile of U.S. troops, frequent targets of roadside bombs on city streets. Officers at Al-Asad Air Base, 10 desert miles from the nearest town, say it hasn’t been hit by insurgent mortar or rocket fire since October.”

The article noted that while U.S. officials deny plans to maintain bases in Iraq, there is no reason to believe them. It also quoted a George Washington University expert, Gordon Adams, to the effect that if long-term basing is, indeed, on the horizon, “the politics back here and the politics in the region say, ‘Don’t announce it.’” ‘That’s what’s done elsewhere,’
Adams said, ‘as with the quiet U.S. basing of spy planes and other aircraft in the United Arab

And, of course, continuing sectarian warfare in Iraq would provide the perfect excuse for keeping the bases. According to the article, “The Shiite Muslims, ascendant in Baghdad, might decide they need long-term U.S. protection against insurgent Sunni Muslims.” In this situation, there is every reason to think that despite its public espousal of reconciliation among the different Iraqi communities, the U.S. wants the conflict to continue and is probably stirring the pot with the considerable means at its disposal. So, there is going to be a lot of intrigue and propaganda.

But one thing is absolutely clear. The U.S. rulers are going to lie about their aims and policies both to the Iraqi people and to the American public. That is because their policies have been and will continue to be disastrous for both the Iraqi and the American people.

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