IRAQ: Is there a threat of civil war?


Doug Lorimer

A series of bombings outside mosques in and around Baghdad during the week prior to and on the day of the festival of Ashoura, the holiest day of the Shia year, has been seized upon by the US press to promote the idea that only the presence of US-led occupation troops is stopping Iraq from being plunged into a religious civil war.

After a February 11 car-bomb attack on a Shiite mosque near Baqubah, 70 kilometres north of Baghdad, the February 13 Los Angeles Times reported that the attack had "raised fears that Sunni Muslim insurgents are increasingly targeting the Shiite community", adding the claim that the "US government is trying to control sectarian violence to keep the country from plunging into a full-fledged civil war".

Continuing this theme, the LA Times article argued that the "divide between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq has become more pronounced in the wake of the January 30 elections, which Shiite blocs are expected to win when final results are made public in the coming days. Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq's population.

"For the first time in modern Iraq's history, Sunnis, who largely boycotted the vote, are expected to have a minority role in the government. Embittered and threatened, Sunni groups are divided over whether to fight the Shiite ascendancy or participate in the drafting of a new constitution for the country, an exercise that will follow the selection of a president and prime minister."

A spate of bombings outside mosques took place on February 18 as worshippers assembled for the traditional Friday evening prayers. The February 18 New York Times reported that "a car bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque in the town of Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, killing at least seven people, local officials told news agencies. Earlier, at least 17 people died when suicide bombers attacked two mosques in the southern and southwest areas of the capital."

Sadr supporters attacked

At another mosque targeted by a suicide bomber attack on February 18 — the al Baya mosque in west Baghdad — most of the worshippers, the February 19 London Observer reported, were "followers and militia members of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr". Sadr is an outspoken opponent of the US-led occupation and its Iraqi puppet regime. He led an armed revolt last year that forced Washington to abandon its publicly stated order to US commanders to "kill or capture" him.

The next day, after a further series of bombings outside Shiite mosques, Associated Press reported that "Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, the national security adviser for the [US-appointed] interim government, accused the Jordanian-born [Abu Musab] al Zarqawi and former Baath party members of trying to provoke a sectarian civil war".

Rubaie's attempt to imply the nationalist mainstream of the Iraqi armed resistance — largely led by former Baath party members and officers of the disbanded Iraqi Army — was responsible for the mosque attacks is at odds with the views of ordinary Iraqis.

The February 19 San Francisco Chronicle reported most Shiite worshippers blamed the attacks on the small group of al Qaeda-linked terrorists rather than the mainstream resistance. It cited as typical of their views the comments of Sari Abdullah, a worshipper at Baghdad's al Khadimain mosque who was injured by shrapnel from the previous evenings explosion. "Those infidel Wahhabis, those Osama bin Laden followers, they did this because they hate Shiites", Abdullah said. Wahhabism is the dominant Islamic sect in bin Laden's native Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps reinforcing this view was the fact that the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) has condemned previous attacks against Shiite worshippers. An organisation of 3000 Sunni clerics, the AMS is closely associated with the mainstream armed resistance and spearheaded the highly successful campaign to have Sunnis boycott the US-engineered January 30 elections.

"We won't remain silent over those crimes which target the Iraqi people — Sunnis or Shiites, Islamic or non-Islamic", AMS leader Sheik Harith al Dhari told a news conference in Baghdad on February 19. Iraqis, he said, should unite "against those who are trying to incite hatred between us".

That same day, Sadr told Aljazeera: "I think they are a series of attacks against the Iraqi people in general and are not targeting a specific religious group."

This was borne out by the fact that, as the February 19 San Francisco Chronicle reported, "the string of blasts [at mosques on February 18] started when a suicide bomber walked into a tent outside a Sunni mosque in western Baghdad and blew himself up, killing at least three people and injuring 10".

"I ask all parties to show patience and not to be dragged into the plots of the West which aim to destabilise the country and justify the presence of the occupation", said Sadr. Sadr is collaborating with the AMS in a campaign demanding the United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most seats in the January 30 parliamentary election, stick to its election call for a definite timetable for the withdrawal of the US-led occupation forces. UIA dropped the call two days before the election.

Civil war 'threat'

Even before the February 18-19 spate of attacks on mosques, Australian Prime Minister John Howard used the "civil war threat" to defend the continuation of the US-led occupation.

"I think the most likely scenario for a civil war in Iraq would be a premature withdrawal of coalition forces", he told Channel Nine's Sunday program on February 5.

Picking up this theme the day after Howard announced that his government had decided to double the number of Australian troops in Iraq, Australian Defence Association director Neil James wrote in the February 23 Australian: "The insurgency in Iraq is mainly fuelled by Sunni fears of what will happen to them when the Shiites take charge and perhaps revenge. Even critics of the US-led intervention in Iraq should be willing to admit that it is better that such civil strife is supervised and ameliorated by the international community rather than the Iraqis just being left to get on with a civil war unmolested."

This argument turns reality on its head: It is the US-led occupation forces that are seeking to foment a civil war in Iraq by recruiting Iraqis to act as proxies for the occupiers to fight Iraqis who are resisting a US takeover of their country and its vast oil reserves.

While Washington has succeeded — largely due to the enormous amount of unemployment its invasion of Iraq has produced — in getting large numbers of Iraqis to join its puppet army and police, it has had little success in winning their loyalty.

The February 13 British Independent reported that while the Pentagon claims "that it is half-way to meeting the target of training almost 270,000 Iraqi forces, including around 52,000 troops and 135,000 Iraqi policemen... [t]he reality, according to experts, is that there may be as few as 5000 troops who could be considered combat ready".

According to a December report on the Iraq war by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the only reliable pro-US "Iraqi" troops are those recruited from the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia controlled by the two main pro-US Kurdish parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani.

Secret talks

Washington's inability to crush the Iraqi insurgency has led it to open secret talks with representatives of the mainstream, nationalist, resistance, according to a report in the February 28 edition of Time magazine.

"While US officials would not confirm the details of any specific meetings", the US newsweekly reported, "sources in Washington told Time that for the first time the US is in direct contact with members of the Sunni insurgency, including former members of Saddam's Baathist regime.

"Pentagon officials say the secret contacts with insurgent leaders are being conducted mainly by US diplomats and intelligence officers."

Time reported that the talks were initiated by US diplomats through "Sunnis known to have influence with the insurgents, such as Harith al Dhari, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

"Insurgent sources say that last [northern] summer a loose amalgam of nationalist groups — Mohammed's Army, al Nasser al Saladin, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and perhaps even the Islamic Army of Iraq — met to discuss forging a common political platform...

"What do the insurgents want? Top insurgent field commanders and negotiators informed Time that the rebels have told diplomats and military officers that they support a secular democracy in Iraq but resent the prospect of a government run by exiles who fled to Iran and the West during Saddam's regime. The insurgents also seek a guaranteed timetable for US troop withdrawal, a demand the US refuses."

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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