What is the US role in the upsurge in violence that is tearing Iraq apart?

Iraq Sunni army

Iraqi anti-government gunmen from Sunni tribes in western Anbar province march during a protest in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, January 2014

The tendency in the United States to blame “sectarian conflict” and “long-simmering hatreds” for the violence in Iraq is effectively blaming the victims and avoids acknowledging the US role in the ongoing tragedy.

The tragic upsurge of violence in Iraq in recent months, including the temporary takeover of sections of two major Iraqi cities by al-Qaida affiliates, is a direct consequence of the repression of peaceful dissent by the US-backed government in Baghdad and, ultimately, of the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

At the end of December, Iraqi forces violently attacked a protest camp on the outskirts of Ramadi, killing 17 people. Human Rights Watch noted how the government’s raid “seemed intended more to provoke violence than prevent it.” Indeed, al-Qaida, despite lack of popular support even within the Sunni heartland, was able to take advantage of public anger at the crackdown to launch its unprecedented assaults on major urban centers in the Anbar province. The Obama administration responded by expediting additional military aid to the Baghdad regime.

This was the fifth major incident during 2013 in which security forces fired upon and killed peaceful protesters. A recent Amnesty International report noted how during the past year thousands of Iraqis were detained without credible charges, hundreds were sentenced to death or long prison terms after unfair trials, and “torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained rife and were committed with impunity.” Even parliamentarians are not immune from imprisonment on dubious charges, and extrajudicial killings have made Iraq the second most deadly country in the world for journalists.

The US-backed Iraqi regime is dominated by sectarian Shia Muslim parties which have discriminated against the Sunni Muslim minority. The combination of government repression and armed insurgency resulted in the deaths of nearly 8,000 civilians last year alone.

Until the 2003 US invasion and occupation, Iraq had maintained a longstanding history of secularism and a strong national identity among its Arab population despite sectarian differences.

Prior to the US conquest, top analysts in the CIA and State Department, as well as large numbers of Middle East experts, warned that an invasion of Iraq could result in violent ethnic and sectarian conflict. Even some of the war’s intellectual architects acknowledged as much: In a December 1996 paper, prior to becoming major figures in the Bush foreign policy team, David Wurmser, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith predicted that a post-Saddam Iraq would likely be “ripped apart” by sectarianism and other cleavages but called on the United States to “expedite” such a collapse anyway.

Not only did the US invasion and occupation fail to bring a functional democracy to Iraq, neither US forces nor the successive US-backed Iraqi governments have been able to provide the Iraqi people with basic security. This has led many ordinary citizens to turn to armed sectarian militia for protection.

Much of Iraq’s current divisions can be traced to the decision of US occupation authorities immediately following the conquest to abolish the Iraqi army and purge the government bureaucracy — both bastions of secularism and national identity — thereby creating a vacuum that was soon filled by sectarian parties and militias. In addition, the US occupation authorities encouraged sectarianism by dividing up an interim government authority based not on technical skills or ideological affiliation but ethnic and religious identity. This has resulted in virtually every political question debated not on its merits, but on which group it potentially benefits or harms. This has led to great instability, with political parties, parliamentary blocs and government ministries breaking down along sectarian lines.

Theologically, there are fewer differences between Sunnis and Shiites than there are between Catholics and Protestants. In small Iraqi towns of mixed populations with only one mosque, Sunnis and Shiites worship together. Intermarriage was not uncommon. Thanks to the US invasion and occupation, however, this harmony has largely unraveled.

Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, have a clear hierarchy. (Ayatollahs, for example, are essentially the equivalent of Catholic cardinals.) As a result, the already-existing, clerical-based social structures in the Shiite community were among the few organizations to survive Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime and were therefore more capable of organizing themselves politically when US forces overthrew the government in Baghdad in 2003. Sunni and secular groups, then, were at a relative disadvantage when they suddenly found themselves free to organize.[Full article]