Robin Yassin-Kassab

Very Guarded Optimism

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The level of violence in Iraq is still remarkably high, and still nothing works. Compared with the situation a year ago, however, when there were hundreds of killings daily, Iraq today seems like a brave new world. In this very relative oasis of peace it has become possible to glimpse the kind of democracy which could conceivably work in Iraq. A successful democratic system would involve cooperation between local communities (not between sects), with the government a council of councils rather than a powerful centralised state apparatus holding the country together by force

Whenever they have had a chance, local communities have proved their mettle. Remember the role of the early Mahdi Army in stopping the looting triggered by the 2003 invasion, and in establishing basic services for the people. It was mosque committees, Sunni and Shia, which collected money in their neighbourhoods and paid teachers to return to the classrooms, and which organised work teams to repair local infrastructure. This was reminiscent of Hizbullah at its best: people in extremis relying on themselves, and doing what no external authority was willing or capable of doing.

But as we know, it all went horribly wrong. Society fragmented and the logic of violence took over. Local communities were silenced and then splintered by sectarian militias. In my post http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2007/08/end-of-arabs-part-one.html I wrote about how the American destruction of the state was the major factor catalysing the civil war. Specific American actions led directly to the disaster: the initial unwillingness to countenance Iraqi rule followed by a sectarian approach to ‘representation’, the use of central-American style death squads to fight the Sunni resistance (the expert John Negroponte was imported for this), the dissolution of the army and the police so that criminal and sectarian gangs filled the void.

There was also of course an internal Iraqi dynamic motivating the conflict. Sunni-Shia tensions have bubbled for centuries, which is not to say that they are as essential and timeless as some orientalists would have us believe. The ostentatious Shia revival that followed the invasion, bursting forth like steam from a pressure cooker when the lid is suddenly removed, came as a result of the years of Ba’athist persecution. A frightened and dispossessed Sunni community made the fatal mistake of allowing al-Qa’ida and other Wahhabi nihilists to penetrate the resistance. If Shias preferred to wait to see what the new dispensation would bring them in terms of political power, most of them sympathised with the anti-American resistance. Al-Qa’ida’s bomb attacks, however, targetted first the new police, and then Shia civilians, in mosques and marketplaces, in their tens of thousands. After the April 2006 destruction of the dome of the Askari shrine in Samarra’, sacred to Shias as the burial place of the 11th Imam and as the place where the Imam al-Mahdi went into occultation, Shia militias responded with brute force. A mutual orgy of ethnic cleansing wrecked the country’s ancient fabric. Iraq became a kind of Lebanon, not only in the ferocity of its communal hatreds but also in its transformation into a battleground for regional rivals: Saudi Arabia versus Iran, and America in the paradoxical position of fearing Shia power more than the Sunnis, who were attached by their Saudi ties to the illusory ‘arc of moderation’ even if they housed al-Qa’ida.

In the summer of 2007 things started to improve. It would be unfair not to recognise that new American tactics have had a measure of success in calming Iraq. By putting thousands more American soldiers on the streets, the ‘surge’ concedes the idiocy of Donald Rumsfield’s military theories. But much more important than the surge has been the Sahwa or the ‘Awakening’ movement of Sunni tribes and resistance fighters reclaiming their towns from nihilist thugs. Just as the American invasion was the greatest gift to al-Qa’ida, the clear demonstration of al-Qaida’s brutality and sectarianism in areas where it took control demolished the illusion of its revolutionary purity in the eyes of Iraqis and the wider Muslim world. Sunni communities turned on those they’d previously sheltered and, with al-Qa’ida on the defensive, it became possible for the Shia to reach out to the Sunnis. Simultaneously, popular revulsion with the Mahdi Army’s excesses led Moqtada Sadr to declare a six-month suspension of activities, and to purge his organisation of the more criminal, more Sunni-murdering elements. There are signs too, especially since the farcical Annapolis ‘peace’ summit, of the Arab client states realising that America won’t rescue them from their crises of domestic credibility and regional destabilisation. Only a good working relationship with Iran can do that. Regional peacemaking may be reflected in internal Iraqi peacemaking.

It’s still far too early to be optimistic. Many of the Sunni ‘sahwa’ militias may have calculated that a period of peace, and of getting into the Americans’ good books, will provide them with training opportunities and weapons so that they succeed in round two of the civil war. Hating the excesses of al-Qa’ida does not mean loving the new Shia power structure. The government, consisting mainly of politicians sponsored by Shia and Kurdish militias, has so far agreed to employ only 6% of Sunni volunteers in the state security forces. So it may be that the worst is still to come. Beyond the Sunni-Shia conflict, the battle between Muqtada Sadr’s Iraqi-nativist Mahdi Army and the currently pro-American, traditionally Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council seems to be on temporary hold. And militia forces are only conducive to peace and order to the extent that they represent local people, not the politics of a local strong man.

But I’ve been reading reports not only of cooperation between Sunni and Shia militias in neighbouring areas, but of mixed militias, and even of mixed militias negotiating the reversal of ethnic cleansing. In some areas of Baghdad, families are actually returning to their homes in areas where the other sect dominates.

This is something to thank God for. If against the odds the trend towards peace continues, a large number of the educated professionals that Iraq has lost may return home. Iraqis will then face two huge challenges: to expel the American occupation, which is digging in for the coming decades, and to either remove the corrupt and failed political elite which arrived with the American tanks or to impress upon it the necessity of non-sectarian national politics and real economic and political sovereignty. These challenges can only be met by a unified Iraqi people. A democracy based on community action could lead to unity. Is good news possible in Iraq?

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 26, 2007 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Iraq

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