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While the majority of Iraqis know that the current Sunni-Shiites tension did not exist before 2003, no one can deny that after five years of U.S. occupation, sectarian tension is now a reality. Sectarianism is another disaster that was brought to Iraq by the war and occupation of Iraq.
The U.S.-led invasion did not only destroy the Baath political regime, it also annihilated the entire public sector including education, health care, food rations, social security, and the armed forces. The Iraqi public sector was a great example of how millions of Iraqis: Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular, all worked together in running the country. The myth that the former Iraqi government was a "Sunni-led dictatorship" was created by the U.S. government. Even the Iraqi political regime was not "Sunni-led," let alone the rest of the public sector. A good way to debunk this fairy tale is through a close look at the famous deck of cards of the 55 most wanted Iraqi leaders. The cards had the pictures of Saddam, his two sons, and the rest of the political leadership which most Iraqis would recognize as the heads of the political regime. What is noteworthy is that 36 of the 55 were Shiites. In fact, the two vice presidents were a Christian and a Shiites Kurd.
Sometimes I feel like Iraqis and Americans are analyzing two different wars happening in two different countries. In one narrative, there is a civil war based on ancient sectarian hatred where a U.S. withdrawal will cause the sky to fall. In the other, there is a country struggling under occupation to get its independence back where the occupation is not welcomed and it is causing political, not sectarian, splits and violence.
According to the Iraqi mainstream narrative, the foreign occupation is the major reason and cause for violence and destruction. Foreign intervention is not only destroying Iraq's infrastructure, but it is also splitting Iraq's formerly integrated society. In addition, Iraqis are fighting among each other over fundamental questions about the future of their country, but the central conflict is not between Sunnis and Shiites, it is between Iraqi separatists and nationalists. Unlike other countries in the region such as Lebanon, the Iraqi sectarian tension is still reversible, because it just started five years ago. More importantly, it isn't main driver fueling the Iraqi-Iraqi conflict. This "hidden" conflict is between separatists and nationalists.
The "Hidden" Conflict: Separatists vs. Nationalists
Loosely speaking, separatists favor a "soft partition" of Iraq into at least three zones with strong regional governments, similar to the semiautonomous Kurdish "state" in Northern Iraq; they are thriving on foreign intervention (Iranian, U.S. or other powers' influence); they favor privatizing Iraq's massive energy reserves and ceding substantial control of the country's oil sector to regional authorities. Nationalists reject any foreign interference in Iraq's affairs and they favor a strong technocratic central government in Baghdad that is not based on sectarian voting blocs. They favor centralized control over the development of Iraq's oil and gas reserves while keeping them nationalized.
This Iraqi-Iraqi conflict is in many ways similar to the U.S. civil war: Iraqis who are for keeping a central government are fighting against other Iraqis who want to secede. But the major difference is that the United States was not under a foreign occupation that was destroying nationalists and funding and training separatists. Numerous polls that were conducted over the past few years in Iraq show that a majority of Iraqis from all different backgrounds tend to be more nationalist than separatist. A majority of the population are for a complete U.S. withdrawal, for keeping a strong central government in Baghdad, and against privatizing and decentralizing Iraq's natural resources.
More surprisingly to U.S. audiences, this nationalist-separatist conflict is apparent inside the Iraqi government itself. The Iraqi executive branch (the cabinet and the presidency) are completely controlled by separatists (including Shiitess, Sunnis, Kurds, seculars and others). But the legislative branch (the parliament) is controlled by nationalists (including Sunnis, Shiitess, seculars, Christians, Yazidis, etc.) who enjoy a small but crucially important majority.
The last couple of years witnessed numerous examples of how the Bush administration systematically took the side of separatists in the Iraqi executive branch against nationalists in the elected legislative branch, repeatedly bypassing the Iraqi parliament. In each of these cases, there was the potential for reaching compromises that would have satisfied both nationalists and separatists. However, the aggressive support of the U.S. government for the separatist executive branch against the parliament has made it impossible for Iraqis to settle their differences.
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