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Iraq: Beyond Sectarianism

Ewa Jasiewicz
Date Published: 
January 01, 2007
    Contact with the grassroots of Iraqi society is harder now then it ever has been. Trying to fathom who really has power in Iraq and where spaces exist for grassroots power to emerge can be confusing. Furthermore, assessing which progressive forces on the ground we can ally ourselves with as an anti-war movement is a difficult task. Understanding the dynamics and ever-present economic and social legacies of the Baath regime remain crucial to understanding the resistance and the future in Iraq.

At the beginning of the occupation in May 2003, when anybody could have their own political party, militia, or NGO, many Baathists who profited from the previous regime and had the capital to form their own NGOs did so. They ended up reproducing the old Baath class system of privilege and social power in the process.

Regime loyalists were rewarded with the freedom to organise under the occupation, to run and participate in regime-approved ‘civil society’ organisations. This became a source of gnawing injustice for many poorer, excluded working class onlookers. The former Baathist officials were regaining privilege and power in the social sphere and in civil society.

Repression as usual

With this perpetuation of privilege and influence came a revisionism and justification of the old regime and its crimes. This process re-affirmed for many Iraqis the blindness and ignorance of the west and even the anti-war movement in relation to the previous dictatorship and its dynamics. This revisionism perpetuated the invisibility of the effects of the regime—the social psychosis it entrenched, the daily theatre for survival, collective punishment, Saddam TV, false history, denial, silence, the rainstorm in the living room.

For US imperialism, the Baath dictatorship has been one of its most potent weapons for the past 40 years in Iraq. Its current use by the occupation is evident in the employment of occupation government ministers, civil servants, and managers for the sake of business as usual. To meet the requirements of repression-as-usual, the occupation has employed former high-ranking Baathists as death squad leaders, military commanders, torturers, expert interrogators and agents. The dictatorship’s apparatus of repression has been key to the occupation’s military and economic survival. Meanwhile, the occupation-run media portray the armed resistance as solidly Saddamist, playing on and re-generating the trauma of the population in order to discredit and alienate the resistance.

In addition to this reliance on the old forces of repression, the occupation has orchestrated institutional sectarianism. From the original ethnicity/religion-enshrining governing council set up in June 2003 to the stage-managed Interim Governing Councils (IGC) where dissenters were weeded out and replaced with Washington protégés—the seeds of sectarianism were cultivated.

Millions of dollars were pumped into creating pro-occupation civil society organisations, NGOs, and trade unions—all in an effort to impose social peace, a top-down exile- and occupation-led whitewash over bloodshed and state terror.
As unbelievable and disempowering as this top-down creation of the state apparatus of an imposed government before the eyes of the population, so too was the US and UK’s attempt to grow a grassroots civil society out of terrain devastated by sanctions, war and a dictatorship of their own making.
Ismaeel Dawood, the founder of Al Messalla Human Rights Organisation in Baghdad argues that:

    “A Saddamist strategy appears to be in place, as with the past where one group of people were granted the power and money. The Baath still have power. We are always speaking about this in our daily life. People who had the power in the past are returning. Civil society, the place for people to come together, is very limited now. It’s not easy to win trust, people fear they can be targeted for being Sunni, Shia or Kurdish. You cannot declare what you do; it’s not like before when NGOs had press conferences and demonstrations.”

Institutionalizing division

The violence of the occupation, concentrated on the ‘Sunni centre’ has alienated and displaced not just the inhabitants of towns like Fallujah and Ramadi. It has also pushed them into desert refugee camps, controlled their movement with retina scanners and ID cards, and isolated them from the rest of Iraq. This is a conscious strategy of physical division to prevent human relationships, alliances, and solidarity from forming between people. This solidarity was alive after the first siege and massacre of Fallujah in April 2004, when Shia and Sunni inhabitants marched together on the devastated town with water, food, medicine, and blankets chanting slogans of unity and resistance to the occupation.

Exile, teacher, and writer Sami Ramadani, sees power in the common history of diversity and tolerance within Iraqi society. Its potential is inherent:

    “This cultural and social mosaic—Kurds, Assyrians, Christians, Jews, Shia, Sunni, and Turkmen—is a story of tolerance, with no one nationality or religion crushing the other. That’s the strength of Iraq, the historical intermarriage, intermix, the secular, the atheists, and the religious.

This strength though can become a weakness under occupation. In order to achieve [the occupation’s] aim, they need to divide the people to facilitate their rule. This tactic has been obvious in the imposition of sectarian organisation in all the institutions they have set up—the original governing council, local government councils, and ministries.”

From the beginning, the engineering of sectarianism was accompanied by a co-optation and reproduction of the hierarchies of authority and repression within the tribal and governmental systems in Iraq. An Iraqification of the occupation, a tried and tested tactic by the British in the 1920s was deployed.

Sami describes this strategy, “The instinct of the occupation is not to unite people, it is to divide people, so they did not go to the poor, they went to the Tribal leaders, the former officers, the torturers, the victimizers of the people. Because you can threaten them easier, buy them off easier, co-opt them easier.”

So where are the spaces for creating alternative, representative power structures in Iraq? According to Sami, the mosque is one place which was traditionally independent of the regime and is now also independent of the occupation. Other spaces are the market place and the hospital:

    “The market is an important place for expression—a political space where both the poor and middle class people go and can converse in both open and camouflaged ways. I don’t believe it was an accident that the occupation used to target these places. Hospitals too have traditionally been politically autonomous. Saddam tried to force doctors to cut off the ears of dissenters and army deserters; hundreds threatened to leave the country as a result, they rejected political interference. And hospitals have been attacked now in Haditha, Qaim and Fallujah.”

As well as being spaces for witnessing and documenting the crimes of the occupation, it is the nature of hospitals as a service to save life and heal it in a non-discriminatory way that cuts across class, religious and political boundaries. Supporting Iraqi NGOs providing medicines and humanitarian relief in Iraq is key to supporting not just the physical survival of individuals but communities and their cultures too.

Overcoming sectarianism

An initiative based on Western models of solidarity and accompaniment has emerged to challenge sectarian divisions in Iraq. The Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT) was founded in November 2004 by Iraqi-born American citizen Sami Rasouli. Rasouli now lives in Kerbala and has been organising delegations of Shia volunteers from Najaf and Kerbala to visit Fallujah (until now on 5 occasions) to help to reconstruct the city and in the process, relations between the two communities and religions.

The MPT follows the pacifist techniques and strategies of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, a faith-based long-term accompaniment organisation active in Palestine, Colombia, Mexico, and Iraq. Inspired by their methods, Rasouli remembers:

    “They awakened in me the deepened roots of peace and the message of peace in the Arabic and Islamic culture. Since September 11, the stereotype is that Islamic teaching is violent and teaches violence. I was inspired by the Ayatollah Sistani when in 2004 during the battle between the US Forces and Mehdi Army, he called upon all the Muslims of Iraq to march in unity to Najaf and merge with the fighters there. This created an agreement and negotiated an end to the violence.”

Mass, open, collective actions and the human relationships they generate and consolidate is a key space for building unity and overcoming sectarianism. Spaces generated through processes where people act together for their collective interests make them aware of their collective power. The low-profile, local relationship-building delegations to Fallujah create a similar dynamic.

Rasouli recalls one example of breaking barriers between Sunnis and Shia:

    “On May 6, 2005, we implemented our first action in the city of Fallujah. We were 18 men and women from Najaf and Kerbala and 3 CPT-ers. When we got there we started to clean up the waste and the rubble. People were surprised to see us; they had never seen garbage collectors. When they asked us who we were, and we said ‘We are your brothers and sisters from Kerbala and Najaf,’ they cried.”

Organized antidote

The Iraqi National Foundation Congress (INFC) was formed in May 2004 as a nation-wide alliance of tribal authorities, mosques, Islamic scholars, parties, and civil society organisations. It encompasses every creed within Iraq, including secular and communist forces, and links together progressive social forces on the basis of demands for an immediate end to the Occupation and opposition to the former regime.

Led by Sheikh Jawad al Khallassi, the INFC represents a growing organised antidote to the imposed structures of occupation government, and Baath-style repressive power in Iraq. Arkam Al Baghdadi, Al Khallassi’s representative in Baghdad explains:

“We are not a political party and we don’t want to be the government. Our goal is to liberate Iraq. We the people have the potential to administrate our own economy and we will organise ourselves to do this. We will organise a real form of government with real elections and get rid of the structures of the Occupation including Bremer’s Orders.”
Arkam explains the means used by the INFC to build unity in Iraq:

    “We organise visits, private meetings, open public meetings—in universities and mosques and public spaces—where our problems are discussed and we try to solve them collectively. We meet with students and discuss sectarianism and conflict in their universities and we mediate between conflicting groups to reach reconciliation. We do this between tribes too and with those who have been kidnapped.”

Oil wealth

Most people can accept that the war on Iraq was waged for US corporate control of the country’s oil wealth. But it is crucial to remember that those who waged the war have not gotten what they came for. Iraq’s oil has not yet been privatised. A space still exists to defy the logic of the war and occupation. Within that space exists the potential for the people of Iraq to reclaim and defend this resource. This resource, if managed in their interests, could alleviate poverty and rebuild the country. It is within this space of un-sealed fate and this un-fought battle that mass-participatory power exists.

The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), formerly known as the General Union of Oil Employees is the most powerful trade union in Iraq. It prides itself on its political independence—refusing to join any of the existing trade union federations in Iraq due to their strong ties to either the government and occupation or political parties.

As the backbone of the economy, the oil industry was the only industry which carried on functioning throughout the decades of war, occupation, sanctions, and dictatorship. This enabled workers to keep working in contact with one another, seeing each other on a daily basis. This created a form of civil society in a country where there was no civil society.

The strategic economic importance of the oil industry not only to the Baath regime but for the economic imperial ambitions of foreign powers, is deeply known by all who inhabit and animate that industry. The collective social responsibility and significance of working in the oil industry in Iraq create a unique physical and psychological space—creating the conditions for a grassroots social movement. A movement catalysed by those who are in a position—physically, strategically and historically—to defeat the theft of Iraq’s oil.

Hassan Jumaa Awad al Assadi, President of the IFOU, sees the struggle to defend Iraq’s oil as a catalyst to create unity throughout the country and undermine sectarianism:

    “Iraq has nothing but oil and America wants to control it. But we in the Union will destroy the plans of the capitalists and colonialists. It is impermissible for anyone to sell any part of Iraq’s public sector—this belongs to the people. We built it and it represents the collective efforts of generations of Iraqis. We in the union will fight to defend our common wealth, from the north to the south, because it represents our common interests and destiny which know no religious, tribal or ethnic boundaries.”

Another politics

At a time when spaces for open social organisation are receding into sectarianism or occupation-perpetuating agendas, spaces for organising and social resistance become any place where human beings come together to meet common economic, social, and physical needs—from the street markets to the mosques and hospitals. As politics comes to mean an imposed government, fractious elitism, and sectarianism-stoking parties, another politics pushes up from the grassroots to shatter the divisions being plotted from above. And it is rooted in the shared experience and lived reality of common ground and history.

The divisions in Iraq are not about religion or politics, they are the same divisions in existence all over the planet and their demolition is the story of liberation struggles all over the world. They are about who has power—economic and social, the power to decide the future, the power to control and benefit from a collective resource, the power over life and death. Equalisation of power means justice. In Iraq, this power is still being heavily contested. We have reasons to hope.