Vol. 5 Num 630 Tue. March 07, 2006  

Spotlight On Middle East
Civil war in Iraq

CIVIL war started in Iraq on February 22. Those of us who study the Middle East situation and Iraq in particular predicted it long ago. It was bound to happen. Saddam kept it under control. His downfall which was, of course, necessary under any definition, but that unfortunately came in the hands of the US and not by the people of Iraq, has paved the way for its eruption.

The attackers, presumably Sunni rebels dressed as paramilitary forces went to the Askariya Shrine known as the Golden Mosque in Samara, some 60 miles from Baghdad, handcuffed four Shia guards and put bombs under the dome of the mosque and detonated them.

The dome of the shrine which was built some 1,200 years ago and seen by the Shia community of Iraq as one of their holiest ones, was reduced to rubble in no time. As it seems, there was no human casualty within the mosque; the casualty was only the structure of the mosque, but that came as a mortal blow to all Shias in Iraq.

The Sunnis' problem was mainly their political grievances against Shia domination, as they were left out of the government because of virtual election boycott by the Sunnis even in the last general election which was an American sponsored one. The Shias, being in majority, and as a mark of revenge after Saddam's downfall, participated in large numbers in the general election and captured most of the seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Thereafter, in collaboration with the Kurds, the Shiites wanted to form the government, which was opposed by the Sunnis. The American administration also wanted an inclusive government, as without Sunnis there was no chance of a successful government in Iraq and the insurgency was bound to continue. This was fully reflected in various statements made by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. There is a view that Khalilzad, being an Afghan Sunni, insisted on inclusive government and some Shia leaders made Khalilzad partly responsible for the sectarian strife. Anyway, the inclusive government was also the formal American position and the ambassador was simply following his government's official position. In the present context of Iraqi politics, the inclusive government seems to be the only right option.

Whatever may be the reason, the sectarian strife emerged in deadly form. The sectarian killing and destruction of mosques of each sect gave the full picture of an imminent civil war. Even repeated day curfews had to be imposed to stop people coming out in the street for revenge killings. In five days more than 1,300 people were killed, and the Sunnis suffered the most. Several dozens of Sunni mosques were also demolished and three Sunni clerics were killed. Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army had under virtual control many areas of Iraq including Basra. They openly violated curfew and controlled the streets of Basra and Sadr City near Baghdad. Younger clerics took control of the situation.

During the first three days the religious clerics of the sects encouraged their para-military forces to go for revenge attacks. But later the political leaders of all three sects called on the religious leaders to come forward and work together to stop violence which was in nobody's interest. Moqtada al Sadr also joined the other leaders and called for calm. They apparently went for an understanding that they all should work for a national government and seek early withdrawal of American forces. Moqtada al- Sadr said: "We got rid of the accursed Saddam only to replace him by another dictatorship of Britain, America and Israel." The Sunni leaders who were initially opposed to any form of negotiation with Shiites later agreed to go for a national government. Sunni leader Mashhadany said: "We should hurry up and form a national government, to change this hopeless government. In the new government, everyone will handle responsibility." He gave some strict conditions for negotiations including compensation for the demolished mosques and recognition of those who died in the violence.

If this trend of political sagacity and behaviour continue (unfortunately, there again appeared some serious differences between Shia and Sunni leaders immediately after the initial understandings), full scale civil war is likely to be averted. The danger of civil war should be known to all leaders of Iraq and of the region. This was indeed the idea behind all that happened with Iraq. So, all political and religious leaders of the region should lend their support to the immediate end to religious strife in Iraq. Shia-Sunni strife can benefit only those who want to see the downfall of Muslims all over the region. Indeed, America and Europe should also do everything to stop the present religious violence as it would facilitate their working with people in the region. They have their own political and strategic interest in the region. After all, they are dealing with Iran on a major issue of possible nuclear bomb.

If the religious violence continues and takes the shape of a civil war, Iraq would be divided into three pieces and this will have serious political and strategic effect on the region as a whole. The Shias would obviously align with Iran and thus strengthen Iran's hand which will be bad not only for the west but also for the Arabs as Arabs would not like the emergence of Iran -- the old Persian empire. The emergence of a Kurdish state would be opposed, if necessary militarily, by Turkey. The Sunnis would have a good number of friends in the Arab world as most of the other Arab countries have overwhelmingly large Sunni populations. Thus the Sunnis' hands are likely to be strengthened.

This three dimensional development would be ruinous for the region as a whole, but benefit only Israel. It has been reported that President Bush personally telephoned several leaders of all sects and emphasized on working together to form an inclusive government. Indeed, this is the only option the Iraqi leadership has if they want to keep the country together. It seems to be in the US interest, too, to keep Iraq together as otherwise the Bush administration would be blamed for the break up of a UN member. This will also create serious political and strategic problems for the US and the west.

It is also generally believed that the Iraqis -- whether Shias, Sunnis, or Kurds -- are first Iraqi nationalists and their differences in terms of religious sects take the second position. This is probably due to their ethnic ties coming through generations. Saddam was probably depending on that tie too and this is why he could fight the Iranians with only small opposition from the Shia community in Iraq. Now everything depends on how Iraqi leaders -- both political and religious -- deal with the present situation.

The political and religious should sit together and go for an understanding on sharing of the governance responsibilities. Shia leaders should understand the gravity of the situation. They have to take into account the problem of insurgency which is so far mainly against American occupation -- something Shias share with Sunnis. In case the religious violence continues, the insurgents would also turn their guns and bombs against the Shia community and that would be terribly dangerous; the sheer number of Shia population who are not really involved in open insurgency, would not be able to withstand Sunni insurgents attacks against them. The Sunnis are also likely to get support from other Sunnis in the region.

Civil war in any form is dangerous and terribly destructive. This must be avoided at all costs and only then both political and religious leaders would be able to work on the common agenda of having American military occupation vacated. This seems to be the American agenda, too, as both Congress and the people of America want to take their troops back home as quickly as possible as they cannot continue to bear the human losses any more.

But occupation of some sort would continue, it's a disease that once it afflicts a country does not go away that easily. Iraqis are very unlucky. They had Saddam's political occupation -- his dictatorial rule -- for nearly 30 years; now it's foreign occupation -- occupation of another kind, probably not deadly in terms of human lives once the war is over, but certainly deadly in terms of Iraq's sovereignty.

Muslehuddin Ahmad is a former Ambassador.