Loulouwa al-Rachid, an expert in Iraqi politics, discusses the surge of sectarian violence in Iraq.
How did sectarian violence emerge in Iraq ?
Sectarianism in Iraq did not appear overnight. The Intifada in 1991 was a key event and encouraged sectarian feelings amongst Iraqis and the Iraqi Diaspora. As it developed, sectarianism was exploited by all sorts of entrepreneurs like Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi PM, who had little experience as political activists.
Political leaders used the mounting sectarianism, speaking in the name of their group or community, to gain personal support. Iraq as a national entity started to disintegrate in the 1990’s. The sanctions accelerated this process, and in 2003, the country exploded. All the tensions, everything that the Iraqi society had repressed, re-emerged and could readily be expressed in the absence of a central power and institutions capable of shoring up the violence.
And today, how do the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni communities relate?
Today, when you speak of “communities”, you have to be very careful. We readily speak of the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shias, but none of these communities can boast a unified leadership. Each of them is divided under competing leaders. The Kurds are rarely mentioned today, but they are weary of their two main political parties who try to monopolize power and resources. More and more Kurdish journalists speak up against corruption and nepotism and end in prison. The Sunni camp is in turmoil. Their leadership lacks unity and is incapable of speaking for their communities. At one point, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq tried briefly – without success - to impose a religious leadership. The Islamic Party, which had integrated the political process, also tried to foster a political leadership. And lastly, the US forces are now trying to promote tribal leaders such as Abu Risha [killed in an al-Qaeda attack on Sept. 13] who posed next to President Bush during his surprise visit in Iraq.
How would you describe the US stance on sectarianism ?
The Americans have tried everything since 2003. They started by completely excluding the Sunni communities who were branded as followers of the old regime. The dissolution of the Iraqi army and the debaathification laws accelerated their exclusion. In 2003 and 2004, the Americans only worked with Kurds and Shias because these were perceived as the winners of the post-Saddam era.
But the US forces soon ran into fresh difficulties. Firstly, the Sunnis started to resist the US invasion and launched an insurrection in the regions west of Baghdad, in the “Sunni triangle” and in the north, the Mosul province. Secondly, the Americans very quickly realized that their Shia partners lacked unity and that radical actors such as Moqtada al-Sadr were gaining strength.
What is Moqtada al-Sadr’s strategy in Iraq?
Moqtada al-Sadr is the most powerful Shia politician today. He boasts a broad popular support, an active malice and he is well-established in Baghdad and in certain southern regions. He has enormous sway and tries to use it to his best advantage. But under Nuri al-Maliki, ministers belonging to Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement would, one day, suspend their participation, resign or leave the government. Today, Moqtada al-Sadr ability’s to control his own movement is uncertain. That’s why he decided to freeze the activities of his movement to regain control over it because he is increasingly threatened by younger leaders who are becoming more and more independent and powerful.
What is his political programme?
It’s difficult to define. His speeches are demagogical and his movement is clearly linked to the Islamist movement. His followers are divided between Iraqi nationalists who are hostile to the US occupation of Iraq, and who would cooperate with Sunnis, and Shia sectarians whose priority is to defend the interests of their community and seek revenge against the Sunnis. The sectarians are to a certain extent responsible for the surge of violence following the explosions at Samarra.
How do the Shia parties and the militias relate ?
With the exception of Nuri al-Maliki’s party, the Dawa party, which does not have a militia, the two main Shia parties, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq and the Sadrist bloc, both have active and armed militias. Today, a political movement which does not have a militia is powerless. That’s why it’s pointless when analysts and US policy-makers shout out that we must “disarm the militias”. They are in fact asking their political partners to disarm the groups they finance on the streets of the country's main cities.
Are neighbouring countries using Iraq as a battleground to further their own interests?
Yes, the Iraqi conflict is clearly becoming a regional one. All neighbouring countries now intervene on Iraqi politics. The Bush administration has singled out Iran and Syria, but Saudi Arabia also finances Iraqi political parties which explains some of the changes of alliances in the government.
Iran funds a wide range of political parties and Shia activists inside Iraq, and its influence on Iraqi internal politics is great. Some observers even say that Iran lets jihadists infiltrate the country. And as long as the US is at loggerheads with Iran, Iraq is a key card in Iran’s possession. For even if the main Shia parties say they are independent, Iran has a few key pawns in these parties. The Iranian regime can therefore destabilize Iraq and indirectly confront the US.
It’s said that the Shias are somewhat tolerant of the US presence in Iraq. But today, the Americans’ decision to include Sunnis in the political process could alienate their Shia partners.
Date created : 2007-10-01