Wednesday, May 09, 2007
A different view of the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq
Patrick Cockburn, correspondent for The Independent, is back in Iraq and has written a summary of current conditions there that should be read by everyone.
His understanding of the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq is a bit different from the common wisdom and makes more sense than anything I've read on the topic—
Many Iraqis ... see sectarianism as the work of the Americans. This is not entirely fair. Sectarian differences in Iraq were deeper under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors than many Iraqis now admit. But in one important respect, foreign occupation did encourage and deepen sectarianism. Previously a Sunni might feel differently from a Shia but still feel they were both Iraqis. Iraqi nationalism did exist, though Sunni and Shia defined it differently. But the Sunnis fought the U.S. occupation, unlike the Shia who were prepared to cooperate with it. After 2003, the Sunni saw the Shia who took a job as a policeman as not only a member of a different community, but as a traitor to his country. Sectarian and national antipathies combined to produce a lethal brew.
To suggest an offended nationalism (or patriotism) as a major contributor to the conflict contrasts sharply with the typical portrayal of Sunni aggression toward the Shias: (1) Ancient enmity reaching back to the death of Mohammad when Islam bifurcated into Sunni and Shia, (2) the anger of a ruling minority at the loss of privilege, and now (3) a proxy war between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Instead it places disagreement over the presence of occupying troops as the principal root of the Sunni-Shia conflict.
If Cockburn's thesis is correct, it may also illuminate the Shia conflict between SCIRI (Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and Moqtada al-Sadr. SCIRI's leaders fled to Iran during the regime of Saddam Hussein while Moqtada al-Sadr remained in Iraq. SCIRI accepts the American occupation for now while Sadr has resisted it from the start.
Based on this analysis Cockburn concludes—
The U.S. occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability will not return until the occupation has ended.
Iraq through the tea leaves
Over a year ago I suggested that if the U.S. announced a timetable for withdrawal, it would "leave the Iraqis so stunned, at least temporarily, that they might be able to find some unity at the prospect...."
I still believe that, though the formulation was a great simplification. Of course, to be more specific is to hold a tea-leaf reading on the future of Iraq—or at least of that geographic area currently masquerading as a country.
But someone's gotta to do it, so here's a possible scenario if the U.S. should make a speedy (and complete) withdrawal from the land:
- The Iraqi "government" will collapse and Sadr's Mahdi Army will again be the mainstay of social services in Baghdad and in the Iraqi south.
- Moqtada al-Sadr will attempt to reconcile his forces with all Iraqi Sunni forces (other than al-Qaeda) that have been fighting the Americans.
- If Sadr is successful in forging such a coalition, the primary struggle to emerge in the non-Kurdish portion of the country will be between this non-aligned coalition1 and the SCIRI forces.
- SCIRI, weaker in the face of such a coalition, might then join to avoid further Arab conflict. If so, an Iraqi Arab coalition would be formed.
- This Iraqi Arab coalition would then have to contend with the Iraqi Kurds.
- The Arab-Kurdish facedown could result in a two-state division of Iraq or in a very loose two-state federation.
In short, it looks like everything the Bush administration has been trying to avert.
Naturally regional and global interests will attempt to control, or at least influence, this process. Although they aren't likely to be any more successful than the Americans, they could repeat the American mistake of disrupting it.