· It remains unclear who was responsible for the attack on the golden-domed Askariya Shi’a mosque in Samarra. In the two days following the bombing over 200 Iraqis were killed, and the country was put under a day-and-night curfew.
· The spike in sectarian violence does not reflect a sudden danger of civil war. Rather, if it continues to escalate it may lead to a shift from the existing low-intensity political civil war between supporters (reluctant or not) of the U.S. occupation and opponents of that occupation, to a civil war identified largely along sectarian lines.
· The bombing and the spike in violence afterwards provides the latest proof of the failure of the U.S. military occupation to bring security, let alone “democracy,” to the people of Iraq. The declared U.S. strategy of training an Iraqi counter-insurgency military force to replace U.S. and “coalition” troops (not to mention the U.S. effort to enforce “security” in Samarra by surrounding it with a huge earthen wall) is a failure. A Congressional decision to pass the administration’s latest supplemental spending bill authorizing about $62 billion for the Iraq war (especially for training Iraqi troops) would represent a complete acquiescence to this utterly failed policy.
· The presence of U.S. occupation troops in Iraq remains an aggravating provocation to all sides and continues to foment more violence. In recent polls 82% of all Iraqis want an end to the U.S. occupation; 47% of all Iraqis support attacks on U.S. troops. Much of the popular anger following the bombing of the Askariya shrine, among both Sunni and Shi’a, targeted the U.S. occupation. Shi’a cleric and militia leader Moqtada al Sadr, speaking on al Jazeera television, called on the new Iraqi parliament, which includes 32 of his followers, to vote on a request for “coalition” forces to leave Iraq.
· The undemocratic political process imposed by the U.S. occupation has exacerbated sectarian divisions in Iraq, a country with a long history (despite ethnic and sectarian tensions) of secularism and strong national identity. Negotiations over creation of a new Iraqi government have now collapsed, as has any potential interest in eliminating sectarian militias or bringing them under government control.
· U.S. military officials and the Bush administration are all eager to deny that this escalation heralds a “civil war” in Iraq because that would undermine their claim that only the presence of U.S. troops is preventing such a civil war. A top U.S. general said “we’re not seeing civil war igniting. We’re seeing a capable Iraqi government using their capable forces.” President Bush said it was not a civil war, and claimed those responsible for the Samarra bombing were “not internal” to Iraq, but were those from outside who were “trying to stop the advance of freedom” in Iraq. Britain’s Tony Blair, similarly, denied this was a civil war, but rather “democracy versus extremism and terrorism.” Congressman John Murtha, who has called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, said it is a civil war, and that “our troops are caught in between.”
· While the Askariya bombing has engendered a serious escalation in sectarian divisions and violence, and some sectarian militias seem to be gaining renewed power, there have also been significant cross-sectoral, unitary and secular responses. Influential religious leaders have called for calm, while urging their followers into the streets to protest the violence. In largely Shi’a Basra, for example, a large joint Sunni-Shi’a protest called for defending Iraqi national unity, opposing sectarian violence, and an end to the U.S. occupation, chanting “No to America.”
· This is a new moment. U.S. and global anti-war forces should respond to the latest escalation of violence in Iraq with renewed energy for demanding an end to the occupation and bringing all the troops home now. The deteriorating conditions in Iraq and escalation in Iraqi deaths, along with the approaching third year anniversary of the U.S. invasion and especially the current congressional debate over the new multi-billion dollar supplemental spending bill, require new urgency for mobilization, education and advocacy on local, national and international levels. While incremental U.S. troop withdrawals may be announced soon after the current spike in violence subsides, we must be very clear that partial withdrawals (even if large scale) are not sufficient. Rather, our priority demand must be for a complete end to the occupation including withdrawal of all U.S. and “coalition” troops as well as foreign mercenaries, plus the closing of all U.S. military bases in Iraq.
Phyllis Bennis’ new book is Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power, just published by Interlink. It is available from IPS or from Interlink.