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Iraq: The Mess Is Getting Harder to Clear
Published on Wednesday, April 14, 2004 by the Inter Press Service
Iraq: The Mess Is Getting Harder to Clear
by Ferry Biederman
 

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 for that.

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 victim.

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 restored.

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 30 handover.

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 killed.

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 restore security.

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 own efforts.

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 mandate.

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 principles.

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 painstakingly.

Copyright © 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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