Are the attacks sectarian in motive and a reflection of sectarian hatred on the streets, or are they designed to create sectarian entrenchment and animosity, and ignite street conflict.
By Sami Ramadani
23 December 2011
Baghdad, the city of my childhood, is again being terrorised by cowardly attacks aimed at spilling the blood of as many workers, students, shoppers and bystanders as possible.
As I write, the facts are becoming clearer: the hundreds of murdered and injured men, women and children are Shia, Sunni, Christian, Arab, Kurd, Turkuman – a cross-section of the mosaic of peoples who have inhabited Mesopotamia for more than 1,000 years.
So, who is killing the innocent in Baghdad today, and why? In the rush to provide an explanation for the nihilistic violence, the same old simplistic mantra is trotted out. Thursday's co-ordinated, simultaneous attacks are invariably described by the media as sectarian.
Few pause to ask why a "sectarian" attack would be aimed at all sects and ethnicities equally. Only a handful raise the possibility that these attacks are not sectarian in motive, or a reflection of sectarian hatred on the streets, but are instead designed to create sectarian entrenchment and animosity, and ignite street conflict.
Similarly, analysts are quick to conclude that both the power struggle within the political elite, and the explosions are the result of the withdrawal of US troops. They portray the US forces as the good Samaritan who prematurely left the scene. Too few examine the legacy of the occupiers' poisonous presence at the heart of Iraqi society for nearly nine years, or ask why the US has built the biggest embassy in the world in Baghdad, staffed by 15,000 personnel and spies.
Today's bitter power struggle can be traced back to the measured 2003 decisions made by Paul Bremer . Bremer, a Bush "civilian" appointed to rule Iraq, continued the military occupation under a different guise. Faced with massive popular opposition and armed resistance to the US-led invasion, the US recognised in 2003 that the occupation of Iraq could not continue without a prominent Iraqi component, so Bremer formed the Iraqi governing council while retaining control of all levers of power.
The mix of the 25-member council was carefully calibrated, with quotas to reflect Iraq's sectarian and ethnic makeup. That sectarian formula was to be mirrored in all Bremer's appointments. Far from preventing sectarianism, it introduced it to all the political and military institutions created by the occupation.
For the US, such divide-and-rule tactics remain the only viable weapon they have to control or influence the Iraqi political scene. Another example is the plan by the US vice-president, Joe Biden, to divide Iraq into three autonomous regions based on ethnic and sectarian divisions.
The Biden plan is now backed in Iraq by supporters of factions opposed to the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, grouped in a political bloc led by the self-confessed former CIA asset, Iyad Allawi, and the vice-president, Tariq Hashimi. This is taken as evidence that Iraqis themselves want their country to be divided in this way. But few media analysts have questioned the ramifications of such an approach.
There is today no part of Iraq that is purely Shia, Sunni, Christian, Arab, Kurd or Turkuman. In Baghdad, where more than a quarter of Iraq's population live, you will still find Iraqi people in all their multi-layered social complexity. Not even Bremer's concrete walls that so disfigure the city have succeeded in creating sectarian hatreds there. Instead, they quickly became one of the most hated symbols of the occupation. The Biden plan, if implemented, could almost certainly lead to large-scale ethnic cleansing to create religiously and ethnically demarcated lines.
Such is the anger at the occupation that many Iraqis think the US was behind Thursday's attack. This belief is dismissed as conspiratorial, but it is widely held. There is a reason for this.
Apart from the horrific violence committed directly by the occupation forces and Pentagon-contracted mercenaries, the US also created Iraqi secret militia, and smuggled tens of thousands of weapons and tons of explosives into Iraq through private firms in Bosnia. Bremer was unable to tell a congressional committee how he spent an unaccounted-for $8.8bn dollars, but many Iraqis suspect that it was used to fund violent sectarian forces. Indiscriminate killings and terrorist attacks were a permanent feature of the US-led occupation, and to many ordinary Iraqis, Thursday's bloodshed is just more of the same.
Similarly, ordinary Iraqis see their current rulers, who arrived with the occupation, as self-seeking, corrupt politicians who use religious and ethnic differences to perpetuate sectarianism as a means of creating power bases. Though no angel himself, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr spoke for many when he described the current so-called sectarian divisions as "a conflict of the powerful", and the terrorist attacks as the product of "continued US influence and presence in Iraq".