JERUSALEM - Iraq may slowly be emerging from a month of the most intense bloodshed
since the declared end of the war almost a year ago. But a lull in the fighting
in the bloodstained Sunni town of Falluja, west of Baghdad, and a tentative
deal with the Sadr Shia militia in the south seem exceedingly fragile. If there is
a pause, nobody expects it to last very long.
It now becomes crucial for the international community as well as the U.S.-
dominated coalition that occupies Iraq to quickly formulate some policies that
may avert the next round of fighting.
From other conflicts, notably the Palestinian Intifadah against Israeli
occupation, it is clear that everything must be done to avoid a cycle of
bloodletting that acquires its own dynamic the longer it goes on. Considering
the number of casualties over the last month in Iraq, it may already be too late
In the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere too, casualties from fighting
create a spiral that is very hard to stop. Most of the Sunni and Shia fighters
who have been killed over the last couple of weeks, it can be assumed,
belong to close-knit, extended families.
Brothers, cousins and fathers may not all share the same political
allegiance, they may even have opposed the politics of a family member who
gets killed. But that becomes often irrelevant once the killing has taken place.
The call for revenge sweeps up people far beyond the political beliefs of the
This does not always have to be so. If the family or the tribe is faced with
overpowering opposition, it may choose to accept blood money rather than go
for revenge. This also depends on the overall political climate. In this context
the unease about an occupation by 'infidel' powers may play a role.
Both British and U.S. troops have in many cases been able to prevent a
cycle of bloodletting by paying blood money to families in Iraq. One notable
exception from the very beginning has been Falluja, where close to the
beginning of the war a disputed number of local people died in a
confrontation with U.S. troops.
In order to formulate a response to the fighting now, the United States will
have to take into account the growing unease with the presence of its troops
in Iraq. Commanders have made it clear that despite the planned handover of
political power on June 30, the military could stay on indefinitely.
Most Shias, who form the majority in Iraq, initially welcomed the U.S.
deposing their arch-enemy Saddam Hussein. They even were ready to
tolerate the presence of foreign troops for a transition period until order was
That does not mean that they were ready to accept open-ended occupation,
especially now that Saddam Hussein has been caught, which was the main
reason for the Shias tolerating continued U.S. presence.
It would be a mistake to ignore earlier comments by apparently moderate
Shia leaders such as grand ayatollah Sistani that the U.S. troops should not
overstay their welcome. Sistani and a large segment of the Shia population
are eager to assume what they regard as their rightful place as the ruling
majority in Iraq.
But this goes against two other U.S., and possibly international interests.
First, the United States has a commitment to the Kurdish minority in the north,
which under no circumstances will again allow a central government to rule it.
Then there is also the restive and radicalized Sunni minority in the center of
the country, many of whom had a stake in the old Ba'athist regime. In order not
to completely alienate the Sunnis, the United States has to be seen to
guarantee their rights to an extent.
These contradictory pressures came to a head during negotiations over the
Iraqi interim constitution under which the country is to be ruled after the June
Sistani was especially opposed to the clauses that gave the two ethnic
minorities separate guarantees that seemed to interfere with the Shias' claim
to overall power.
The fighting in the south broke out soon after Sistani was forced to back
down, and the constitution was signed after all. It is not unthinkable that the
paramount Shia cleric then gave the green light to the young firebrand
Moqtada al Sadr to flex the Shia muscle, even though the two are not said to
be on good terms.
Circumstances also contributed to the timeliness of such a demonstration of
might. The Shias were shocked by the attacks in March during the holiest day
of their religious calendar, the Ashura, when more than 170 people were
The attack demonstrated once again that the coalition was failing in its role
as protector of the people in the land it is occupying. Many Shias have been
increasingly angry with the United States for not allowing their own militias to
After the attacks in Kerbala and Baghdad during the Ashura, Shia anger
was for the first time clearly aimed at Westerners.
Sunni insurgents who have kept up a steady stream of attacks on coalition
forces throughout the year may have seen this as an opportunity to pull the
Shias into their struggle.
Attacks against coalition forces were expected to rise anyway as the date for
the handover neared. The apparently increasing chaos in the rest of the
country may have encouraged Sunni fighters around Falluja to redouble their
What emerges is a picture with at least four main elements that affect the
violence in Iraq.
The heavy-handed U.S. response to attacks raises the number of victims in
a dangerous way. Secondly, there is a perception of now open-ended
occupation by the United States and its close allies. Thirdly, the coalition is
seen as incapable of providing security for the population. Finally, it exposes
the jockeying for political position among different ethnic, religious and
political groups in Iraq in the context of the June handover.
While some segments of Iraqi society may keep fighting the United States
and its allies come what may, addressing these issues may help at least for
the time being to subdue the largest part of the population.
The ceasefire in Falluja and the indications of a deal with Al Sadr go some
way towards addressing the first issue. In general, though, the United States
would have to be much more targeted and restrained in its response in the
future. And if it does have to go in, it would help if it had a clear goal and is
able to finish the mission.
The questions over the future of Iraq and the fear of permanent occupation
can only be addressed by involving the United Nations, and finding a formula
under which foreign troops will remain in the country under an international
The last two of the four issues are the hardest to address because they
involve the internal Iraqi dynamic. Security will probably not be fully restored
unless Iraqi forces are involved. Over the last couple of weeks they have
shown themselves incapable or unwilling to play a strong role. Clearly much
more work needs to be done in rebuilding Iraqi forces.
On the other hand, despite much criticism of the Coalition Provisional
Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council, this structure provided the
first attempt for Iraqis to jointly run their country on relatively democratic
The CPA's failures are manifold -- its abolition of the Iraqi army, its failure to
quickly restore utilities, its lack of democratic spirit in its approach to the Iraqi
population. Even so it is hard to see how the different political, ethnic and
religious groups in Iraq can find common ground outside the political
framework that the CPA has initiated. That is why it is important to stick to the
June 30 deadline and to the interim constitution that has been negotiated so
Copyright © 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service.