Shia and Sunni Muslims scholars condemn sectrarian attacks as civil war threatens Iraq

Tim Holmes examines the Iraqi insurgency and discovers it is not driven by foreign fighters but by ordinary Iraqis who oppose the occuptation

With the bombing of the al-Askari “golden” mosque in Samarra on the 22nd of February, Iraq seemed to have taken a step closer to civil war. Over the following week, according to Baghdad’s main morgue, the ensuing sectarian violence claimed 1,300 lives – making it “the deadliest of the war outside of major U.S. offensives”, The Washington Post reported, most of the killing coming “at the hands of self-styled executioners”.

The aftermath of the bombing also saw significant calls for unity between Shiite and Sunni leaders – and a good deal of condemnation directed at the occupation. Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded an end to attacks on Sunni mosques, even sending members of his Mehdi army to protect Sunni mosques within 24 hours of the attack.

“We are not enemies but brothers,” he said, “And he who assaults sacraments and mosques shall get his just punishment.” He also called for a peaceful demonstration in Baghdad, “involving Shiites, Sunnis and others, in which you will demand the withdrawal of the Occupying forces”. On the 26th of February, Representatives of Al-Sadr later met with members of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, widely seen as the most significant public voice of the Sunni insurgency. Both groups condemned attacks that might lead to civil war.

The aftermath of the bombing has demonstrated an underlying tension in the nature of Iraq’s insurgency between sectarian conflict and popular resistance to foreign occupation.
The occupation of Iraq is opposed by a substantial majority of Iraqis. Last October, for instance, The Telegraph reported the results of a secret Ministry of Defence poll of Iraqis, which concluded that 82% of Iraqis were “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops; indeed 67% felt less secure because of the occupation.

It is not difficult to see why: Human Rights Watch’s 2006 report on “the absence of basic precautions by the U.S. military to protect civilians, including at checkpoints”. One marine lieutenant, cited in the Economist, summed up the characteristic trigger-happy attitude: “If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them; it’s kind of a shame, because it means we’ve killed a lot of innocent people.” Torture of detainees, HRW report, is also far from unusual, U.S. Military personnel attesting to “routine and severe beatings of detainees”.
A more recent poll by the Project on International Policy Attitudes found similar attitudes among Iraqis: 87% of Iraqis want a timeline for withdrawal of troops. 64% that the number of violent attacks would decrease; 61% that inter-ethnic violence would decrease; 67% that the availability of public services would increase.

There can also be little doubt that the occupation is the root of the Iraqi insurgency. According to a recent report, U.S. intelligence agencies informed the U.S. Government as early as October 2003 that “the insurgency was fuelled by local conditions – not foreign terrorists – and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.” The insurgency, they warned, “was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war.”

Despite this, the Bush administration has continued to portray the insurgency as constituted by “former supporters of Saddam Hussein, criminals and non-Iraqi terrorists,” the report notes, “even as the U.S. intelligence community was warning otherwise.” As a study last September by the Washington-based Centre for Stategic and International Studies concluded, the US government has been “feeding the myth” that foreign fighters form the backbone of the insurgency: the real percentage of foreign fighters is “well below 10%, and may well be closer to 4% to 6%.”

But whether popular discontent does ensure an end to the occupation, or its replacement with UN peacekeeping forces, most Iraqis, it seems, would be glad to see the back of it.

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