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The road from Iraq and ruin

With the Democrats' victory in the US elections offering the chance of a change of direction on Iraq, Kamil Mahdi argues that the growing sectarian violence is a product of the occupation - and that only by fixing a firm date for the withdrawal of foreign troops will it be possible for a more peaceful political process to emerge. Interview by Oscar Reyes

December 1, 2006
17 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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What are the main strands of the political resistance to the occupation in Iraq at the moment? And what have been the main turning points in the post-2003 period?

All sectors of Iraqi society now share a general and utter rejection of the occupation, with the possible exception of people in the Kurdish region. This opposition manifests itself in a variety of forms, ranging from armed to political resistance, but it is difficult to imagine a unified political opposition crystallising at present. This is, in part, the result of an absence of any real open space for dialogue. There is no public space in which citizens can participate with a measure of security and some reasonable freedom to create this kind of movement. In the current context of extreme violence, it is dangerous even to engage in public activities.

If we look back to the beginning of the occupation, there were many attempts to create that kind of space – lots of demonstrations, movements to organise groups of people at local level and on the basis of professional or cultural activities, for example. There was an atmosphere that could have yielded a more active and organised civil society. But that was cut short by the way the occupying powers allowed widespread lawlessness and crime to spread unpunished; and by the brutal and humiliating manner in which the occupation forces themselves dealt with people, which quickly gave rise to an armed resistance.

The occupation did not allow for free and open political organising. To start with, the occupying powers accused anyone who resisted the occupation politically of wanting to bring back the old regime. It banned the Ba’ath party and excluded large numbers of people associated with that party from political activity – although not all of them were necessarily willing participants in that organisation.

The occupation also created a political framework which encouraged sectarian division, and which compromised those who participated in it. For example, there was initially a strong movement demanding elections under the old laws that had pre-existed the Ba’athist electoral restrictions – since this was an institutional arrangement that was still nationally acknowledged and recognised.

But the occupation insisted on bringing in the transitional administrative law, which was really a transitional constitution, before allowing elections, and insisted on parties acknowledging it and working within it.

In other words, the occupying powers demanded considerable compromises before allowing elections, with a view to trumping the political process rather than allowing for the formation of new political forces.

For example, the whole country was considered as one constituency. So unless a party or group of parties had a national presence, it had no chance of getting anywhere in the elections. The electoral framework favoured broad alliances cobbled together without a clearly articulated social or economic programme – simply alliances of convenience.

Iraq’s religious leaders legitimised the process and, despite their opposition to the transitional administrative law and their demands for early elections while the occupying powers still rejected such a process, they ultimately compromised. The resulting elections, in January 2005, brought in a clerically-sanctioned list with many openly pro-occupation politicians, and helped to create an atmosphere where sectarianism prevailed.

To what extent is the sectarianism in Iraq religious-based? What other social and economic factors are at play? And what are the main traditions of nonsectarian political organising?

Iraq has a long history of political movements that were never sectarian at the mass level, even though the country’s political elites had played with sectarian politics in the 1920s and 1930s and some continued to do so. There remained an unwritten sectarian bar in the higher echelons of the army, and Saddam Hussein subsequently used that to try to divide the population when he was under a lot of pressure.

But sectarianism has always either been encouraged by Iraq’s elites, when they felt their privileges to be threatened, or by the state itself, when it was trying to repress political opposition. It was not discernible at a mass level, and the country’s mass political movements were invariably non-sectarian.

This is not only true of the Communist Party, which was the largest organised party over a long period, but also of the Ba’ath party itself, which was nonsectarian.

Its earliest founders were in fact mainly Shia, and it also had many Christians in its ranks, even though it was not national, in the sense that, by definition, it excluded non- ‘Arabised’ Kurds. Iraq’s other political parties, the liberals and social democrats, were also far from sectarian. Mass movements generally transcended sectarianism, which was only really a factor of elite competition. And sectarianism had, in fact, become far less relevant as political institutions were stabilised, and as urbanisation and industrial growth developed in the country.

So Iraq has an extensive history of nonsectarian politics and social action. That said, some of the factors underlying the conflict that is now taking a sectarian form could be looked at as having socio-economic roots. Capitalist development never delivered for the wider population and resulted in various dislocations, which set the basis for the current divisions, although it is the destruction of any development process through war that remains key to understanding Iraq’s current predicament.

Under British colonialism, you had a situation where the land system became extremely inequitable. Around 75 per cent of rural households owned no land at all, while one per cent of the people owned over 55 per cent of the land. This iniquitous system, which also resulted in the breakdown of old traditions of economic and social solidarity, forms part of the British colonial legacy. It also contributed to a large rural to urban migration of poor farmers – a process which began in the 1930s and continued through to the 1950s, and then, in fact, accelerated after the land reform of 1958. Shanty towns were created around the main cities, particularly Baghdad, and to a large extent these retained strong regional characteristics.

The political movements of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s worked to bridge these kinds of social divides – particularly the left, which managed to mobilise those who were dislocated from the rural areas in ways that bridged the urban-rural, religious and tribal divides, and to focus attention on economic deprivation. The 1958 revolution also led to considerable economic growth, which helped to incorporate much of the population into the economic system, and into the expanding educational system. This dynamic was leading towards a different kind of society, where social divisions were becoming less visible.

The failure or, rather, the destruction of this process is to a large extent responsible for the recent growth of social divisions in Iraq.

This has been the cumulative result of successive wars from the 1980s onwards, the sanctions of the 1990s and, subsequently, the virtual destruction of the state and a whole range of social and economic activities under the occupation.

Was there any qualitative shift after the 2003 war?

What could have happened differently?

The regime had already sought to play on sectarian divisions during the Iran-Iraq war. The destruction of the economy through sanctions accentuated these divisions. The crucial distinction here is that, in the earlier period, it was possible for mass movements and political movements to bridge these divisions – be they religious, rural-urban or tribal.

Had there been an attempt to reform the state in the period after the 2003 war, and to maintain a strong state with a national identity acknowledged and accepted by a vast majority of the population; and had there been a genuine process of economic regeneration, we would certainly not be where we are now. But there was none of that.

There was instead an attempt by the occupation to try to dismantle the state very quickly, to undermine its legitimacy, to undermine its identity, the common identity of Iraqis. Most importantly, there was an attempt to undermine any kind of politics that could bridge divisions. There was no attempt to allow a free, open space for a new politics to emerge that could transcend the politics of the cliques that are tied to the occupation and its military and security presence.

Despite this, it is only now that sectarian violence is taking root and becoming even more dangerous. For the first two or more years of the occupation, there was violence of a sectarian nature or with a sectarian dimension, but it was practised by tiny groups that could not readily be identified, many of which were probably not Iraqi. For two years or more, these violent groups attempted to stir up wider sectarianisms without much success.

It is not just the fact of occupation that has led to this situation, but the prolonged occupation and the extreme measures taken by the occupation authorities, which are dividing the population.

One can look for turning points, but this is not a process that has moved in one direction. There is a lot of resistance to sectarianism, and Iraq’s social divisions are of a complex nature. For example, the established urban Shia communities in parts of old Baghdad are politically quite different from those in the satellite areas where the later waves of the migrant population now reside. But that really comes down to a question of property ownership, social networks and economic activity.

You paint a fairly bleak picture, but you also mention resistance to sectarianism. Are there still civil society initiatives that are trying to organise politics in a different way? And how strong are these at present?

It depends on where you are. Obviously, in situations of extreme conflict there is a problem as to how people can mobilise. But even in that case, people have to carry on with their normal lives. One significant difference from before is that people are now faced with multiple dangers, not one danger alone. People have to live with a very high level of danger. In this context, they still meet and engage in public discourse where possible. Many of them do organise politically, and arrange anything from workplace activities to professional unions and small literary groups – but, of necessity, this is on a small scale.

The only group that is able to organise large mass demonstrations at the moment are the Sadrists. No one else can organise such gatherings, because actions of this kind also need some protection and links with the state and police – which, to some extent, through infiltration, the Sadrists have.

The bleakest aspect of the current situation is the rise in forced population movements. Everything else can be overcome. People will find other ways of organising. At the local level, there remains a certain amount of public spiritedness and some kind of social protection. But even this solidarity has been ravaged and is being twisted in a sectarian direction.

This has begun to undermine mixed areas, which are really very numerous in Iraq. There are mixed communities everywhere. To the extent that these local areas are no longer able to contain the activities of the thugs who terrorise sections of the population and start forcing people out, this is an extremely dangerous development.

What is the extent of these forced population movements?

They are very extensive, but they are not only sectarian. Large sections of the middle class have been forced either to relocate to safer areas, not always for sectarian reasons, or to leave the country. Hundreds of thousands of people – most likely, well over a million – have left since 2003.

It is not difficult to see why. There are dangers of every kind, but people still have to work. In Baghdad, for example, there are six million people and the dangers are everywhere.

Intellectuals are targeted; people are targeted for their ethnicity or sect, or social attitudes, for their wealth or whatever. Many people are targeted because of the nature of their work. So there is a very considerable population movement.

This has led to economic paralysis and the breakdown of basic services in many areas. This is not a sustainable situation. It has created a type of war economy, with economic actors whose interests lie in the perpetuation of war. Even if this situation burns itself out in the short term, there is a good chance that it will recur in the long term unless it is countered by a political solution.

There seem to be increasing calls for the break-up of Iraq. How do you respond to that?

Those who are now advocating the break-up of Iraq have done so for some time. They have always viewed Iraq in sectarian terms and it reflects on their own mentality rather than any kind of social analysis of Iraq or assessment of the current situation.

Iraq is not the Balkans, or even Lebanon. Some of those who advocate its break-up are associated with the Israeli view, which tries to normalise the Zionist model of a religious identity-based state in the region, where supposed ‘ethnic’, religious and sectarian identities are the building blocks of states. These people seek to remake the Middle East in such terms – which is, of course, extremely dangerous.

The other groups who have advocated the break-up of Iraq for some time are the Kurdish nationalists, who are now dominant in northern Iraq. Many progressive Iraqis and Kurdish nationalists have long called for recognition of the special status of the Kurdish region within Iraq – a recognition of Kurdish cultural distinctiveness. But the militia-led Kurdish groups no longer adhere to this model, and now believe that cultural autonomy and local self-government for the Kurdish region can only be achieved if Iraq is broken up.

Added to these tendencies are new moves in the United States to present Iraq as such an intractable problem that it should be shunned, without the US appearing to have been defeated in a conflict. The basic premise is that if Iraq sinks into constant bloodshed, then the blame can be shifted onto Iraq and Iraqis as opposed to the failure of the US military mission. This is a way of displacing the failure of US policy and representing it as a failure of Iraqi society.

The problem is that this does not solve anything. It will sink the whole region into insecurity and conflict for a very long time and no doubt exacerbate many other problems internationally. And, most importantly, it is utterly idiotic to think that it will be possible to create three neat geographical units. What it will do, instead, is create constant turmoil and fragmentation.

There is no effective project for any of these communities, even in the Kurdish area. The Kurdish parties were fighting each other through much of the 1990s, and are still unable to unify their administration effectively now.

There is enormous corruption in that administration at the moment, and growing social protest and popular resentment could easily rip open the facade of unity between the two militias.

The prospect of creating alternative, acceptable structures in the rest of Iraq is even more far fetched. Up and down the Arab sections of Iraq, the project that people still look towards is an Iraqi national project.

Iraq, like all of the countries in the region, has a very diverse and mixed population. But the failure of Arab nationalism to offer a political identity, and to build modern states that offer equal citizenship to all members of these populations, cannot be countered by dividing the population among themselves. It should be countered by an alternative programme of electoral politics in the region.

What, if any, changes do you foresee arising from the US mid-term elections, which have led to the Democrats’ control of the US Congress, Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and the likely removal of John Bolton as the US ambassador at the UN?

I’m sure it will have an impact, but we should not lose sight of the fact that, with or without the election, the occupation has failed. US policy had to change anyway. But perhaps it will change faster now with the elections.

Where is it likely to go? The removal of John Bolton will probably mean that the UN will be involved more effectively. The US has always wanted the UN to be part of its project in Iraq, rather than the source of an alternative, genuinely international approach to Iraq. But genuine internationalism would take more than the involvement of the UN. It would need significant initiatives from elsewhere, and a willingness to stand up to the US both within and outside the UN. It would require the engagement of other countries in the region and, perhaps, a wider approach looking at the politics of the whole region.

The most dangerous possibility, in terms of the US extracting itself from Iraq, is that it may actively attempt to encourage sectarian divisions. Some US politicians have clearly been advocating this, including some Democrats. That would be extremely dangerous, not to mention criminal and racist. It is also a stupid policy, because the likely effect of more mayhem would be to draw in the US even further in Iraq and possibly to spread chaos elsewhere in the region.

Beyond that, the main issue is: will the US abandon its present political course and try to co-opt other groups within the political process? This is possible, because the current political process has largely failed. But such an alternative means engaging far greater numbers of people and a broader range of players than the US has dealt with to date.

Calls for an end to the occupation are growing ever stronger, but there remains a question of how best that withdrawal could be managed. What are your expectations for a postoccupation Iraq?

If the occupation suddenly comes to an end, there is probably going to be more violence in the short term. This is to be expected. But I think if the US was to set a date for withdrawal, an unambiguous one, there would be a good chance of a political process emerging to try to find from within Iraq a way of managing conflicts in the post-occupation period.

It is now clear that there are a number of forces in Iraq engaged in a war between themselves. There are a number of sectarianbased parties, as well as violent forces, that are associated with the new institutions. There are all kinds of militias – not just the sectarian militias we hear about, but also lots of so-called security companies, which have a largescale armed presence in various parts of the country and are probably responsible for a lot of the violence.

Then there are the many security arms of specific parts of the state. Virtually every ministry has its own separate security force. These have been nominally coordinated and controlled by the US occupation, but in general they have not been well controlled and have even been used by the occupation for its own violent purposes. They certainly provide very little security for the population. Some of these forces will clearly disappear with the end of the occupation. The foreign mercenaries have to go, as do the foreign bases. No Iraqi will accept foreign mercenaries in Iraq, and it is really a blight on civilisation to have these thugs and criminals renamed as ‘security consultants’.

The conflict is being accentuated while there remain so many outside players that can disturb the political process, as is the case now, and while the country remains under an occupation that is completely incapable of controlling security and is fuelling further fragmentation. But looking at the range of political forces in Iraq, it remains possible to conceive of a political process that might lessen the military conflict. Of course, this is not what Iraqi democrats aspire to. We don’t aspire to a state of fewer armed groups fighting a little less among themselves. But at least this would open the way for some economic regeneration and political change – and, perhaps, help lead the country towards a genuine peace. Kamil Mahdi is a political exile from Iraq, a lecturer in the economics of the Middle East at the University of Exeter, secretary of the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies and a fellow of the Transnational Institute

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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