Iraq has just gazed into the abyss and recoiled — for now.
Last Wednesday’s destruction of the beautiful golden dome of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the four most important Shi’a shrines in the world and final resting place of two of the twelve Shi’a Imams, brought Iraq closer to civil war than it has been since 1991, when a major popular uprising imperiled Saddam’s regime.
Over 150 people have been killed in acts of sectarian reprisal, dozens of Sunni mosques damaged or occupied by Shiites with several Sunni imams killed (early numbers may have been inflated), and further attacks launched on lesser Shiite sites. Perhaps the worst act of violence was the killing of 47 people at a fake checkpoint, Sunni and Shi’a, many of them returning from a Shi’a-Sunni unity demonstration against the destruction of the shrine.
The violence was only brought under control with an emergency curfew in Baghdad and three central provinces, combined with vehicle bans in some areas.
With some discordant notes, major political figures have generally spoken and acted against this rising tide of sectarian violence. Although Sadrist militia members were implicated in some of the early attacks on Sunni mosques, once Moqtada asserted control, he actually sent militias to protect some Sunni mosques; Sadrist clerics also joined Sunni imams at a nationally-televised prayer service on Saturday broadcast from the Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque.
Sistani called for Shi’a to hold their patience, as he has been doing for two years of savage sectarian attacks carried out by Salafi extremists.
Early on some important Sunni figures played a negative role, with a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party decrying the “Shi’a rabble” that attacked his party’s offices in Basra and Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars calling for other Arab countries to intervene to protect Sunnis. Others, especially from Samarra, had condemned the destruction of the shrine from the beginning.
Although Iraqi figures took the lead in the various on-the-ground reconciliation attempts just mentioned, Zalmay Khalilzad and the United States also played a significant role. As mentioned in earlier commentaries, last fall, the United States made a major strategy shift, exposing and denouncing torture and killings by the Badr and other Shiite militias, and beginning to reach out to the Sunni insurgency.
Although the shrine bombing seriously imperiled the new U.S. strategy, in particular the formation of a new government that includes representatives of all sectarian and ethnic groups, the basically rational response of Iraqi political figures has also presented the United States with a unique opportunity, on which it has already capitalized, managing to pressure the Sunni Iraqi Consensus Front to return to talks on forming the new government.
An article in the Boston Globe quotes U.S. diplomats who mention casually that all sides see the United States as “honest brokers,” a term that should be familiar to observers of another long-term Middle East occupation.
This is exactly the role the United States wants to play. In that other conflict, its honesty means unconditional support for Israel. In this one, its honesty will manifest in the steady building and consolidation of lines of U.S. influence and control. The most important of those is to be U.S. training and joint operations with a new Iraqi army in which the United States hopes to break down soldiers’ loyalty to their own militias and replace it with loyalty to a U.S.-dominated Iraqi military. Another line, though much less significant in terms of control, is economic austerity, with severe IMF conditionalities and a complete cessation of reconstruction aid at a point when Iraqi services are no better than they were before the invasion, and in many ways worse.
The third leg of the strategy is to keep all the sectarian groups in the government together, without outbreaks of open violence — which could draw the United States back into the old trap of attacking Sunni areas while Shiite parties run the government and align more closely with Iran — but with a constant need for an “honest broker.”
This is certainly better for Iraqis than the previous plan of unending U.S. counterinsurgency combined with an increasingly dirty war carried out by Iraqi government-affiliated militias. At times of potential sectarian crisis, the United States may even temporarily play a somewhat positive role. In the long run, it will just be a recipe for ongoing U.S. influence, a worse life for ordinary people (their food ration may be on the block next), and a lack of any permanent solution to the sectarian problem. That permanent solution can come only through the efforts of Iraqis to negotiate with each other, with no “honest brokers” concealing ulterior motives.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared on Empire Notes on Feb. 27, 2006.