The Myth of Sectarianism

The Policy is Divide to Rule

If the US leaves Iraq, the violent sectarianism between the Sunni and Shia will worsen. This is what Republicans and Democrats alike will have us believe. This key piece of rhetoric is used to justify the continuance of the occupation of Iraq.

This propaganda, like others of its ilk, gains ground, substance, and reality due largely to the ignorance of those ingesting it. The snow job by the corporate media on the issue of sectarianism in Iraq has ensured that the public buys into the line that the Sunni and Shia will dice one another up into little pieces if the occupation ends.

It may be worthwhile to consider that prior to the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq there had never been open warfare between the two groups and certainly not a civil war. In terms of organization and convention, Iraqis are a tribal society and some of the largest tribes in the country comprise Sunni and Shia. Intermarriages between the two sects are not uncommon either.

Soon after arriving in Iraq in November 2003, I learned that it was considered rude and socially graceless to enquire after an individual’s sect. If in ignorance or under compulsion I did pose the question the most common answer I would receive was, “I am Muslim, and I am Iraqi.” On occasion there were more telling responses like the one I received from an older woman, “My mother is a Shia and my father a Sunni, so can you tell which half of me is which?” The accompanying smile said it all.

Large mixed neighborhoods were the norm in Baghdad. Sunni and Shia prayed in one another’s mosques. Secular Iraqis could form lifelong associations with others without overt concern about their chosen sect. How did such a well-integrated society erupt into vicious fighting, violent sectarianism, and segregated neighborhoods? How is one to explain the millions in Iraq displaced from their homes simply because they were the wrong sect in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Back in December 2003 Sheikh Adnan, a Friday speaker at his mosque, had recounted a recent experience to me. During the first weeks of the occupation, a U.S. military commander had showed up in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province located roughly twenty-five miles northeast of Baghdad with a mixed Sunni-Shia population. He had asked to meet with all the tribal and religious leaders. On the appointed day the assembled leaders were perplexed when the commander instructed them to divide themselves, “Shia on one side of the room, Sunni on the other.”

It would not be amiss, perhaps, to read in this account an implanting of a deliberate policy of “divide and rule” by the Anglo-American invaders from the early days of the occupation.

There have been no statistical surveys in recent years to determine the sectarian composition of Iraq. However, when the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Paul Bremer, formed the first puppet Iraqi government, a precedent was set. The twenty-five seats in the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), were assigned strictly along sectarian lines based on the assumption that 60 percent of the population is Shia, 20 percent Sunni, and 20 percent Kurds, who are mostly Sunni. For good measure, a couple of Turkoman and a Christian were thrown in.

It is evident that this puppet troupe deployed at the onset of “democracy” in Iraq was mandated to establish to the population that it was in the larger interest to begin thinking, at least politically, along sectarian and ethnic lines. Inevitably, political power struggles ensued and were cemented and exacerbated with the January 30, 2005, elections.

Mild surface scratching reveals a darker, largely unreported aspect of the divisive U.S. plan. A UN report released in September 2005 held Iraqi interior ministry forces responsible for an organized campaign of detention, torture, and killing of fellow Iraqis. These special police commando units were recruited from the Shia Badr Organization and Mehdi Army militias.

In Baghdad during November and December 2004, I heard widespread accounts of death squads assassinating Sunni resistance leaders and their key sympathizers. It was after the failure of Operation Phantom Fury, as the U.S. siege of Fallujah that November was named, that the Iraqi resistance spread across Iraq like wildfire. Death squads were set up to quell this fire by eliminating the leadership of this growing resistance.

The firefighting team had at its helm the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, ably assisted by retired Colonel James Steele, adviser to Iraqi security forces. In 1984–86 Steele had been commander of the U.S. military advisory group in El Salvador. Between 1981 and 1985 Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to neighboring Honduras. In 1994 the Honduras Commission on Human Rights charged him with extensive human rights violations, reporting the torture and disappearance of at least 184 political workers. A CIA working group set up in 1996 to look into the U.S. role in Honduras has placed on record documents admitting that the operations Negroponte oversaw in Honduras were carried out by “special intelligence units,” better known as “death squads,” of CIA-trained Honduran armed units which kidnapped, tortured, and killed thousands of people suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas. Negroponte was ambassador to Iraq for close to a year from June 2004.

The only public mention of any of this I have seen was in Newsweek magazine on January 8, 2005. It quotes Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense at the time, who discussed the use of the “Salvador Option” in Iraq. It compared the strategy being planned for Iraq to the one used in Central America during the Reagan administration:

Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the US government funded or supported “nationalist” forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many US conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

US-backed sectarian death squads have become the foremost generator of death in Iraq, even surpassing the U.S. military machine, infamous for its capacity for industrial-scale slaughter. It is no secret in Baghdad that the U.S. military would regularly cordon off pro-resistance areas like the al-Adhamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad and allow “Iraqi police” and “Iraqi army” personnel, masked in black balaclavas, through their checkpoints to carry out abductions and assassinations in the neighborhood.

Consequently, almost all of Baghdad and much of Iraq is now segregated. The flipside is that violence in the capital city has subsided somewhat of late now that the endgame of forming the death squads, that of fragmenting the population, has been mostly accomplished.

Baghdad resident, retired General Waleed al-Ubaidy told my Iraqi colleague recently, “I would like to agree with the idea that violence in Iraq has decreased and that everything is fine, but the truth is far more bitter. All that has happened is a dramatic change in the demographic map of Iraq.” Baghdad today is a divided city.

Ahmad Ali, chief engineer from one of Baghdad’s municipalities told my colleague, Ali al-Fadhily, “Baghdad has been torn into two cities and many towns and neighborhoods. There is now the Shia Baghdad and the Sunni Baghdad to start with. Each is divided into little town-like pieces of the hundreds of thousands who had to leave their homes.” Al-Adhamiyah, on the Russafa side of Tigris River, is now entirely Sunni, the other areas are all Shia. The al-Karkh side of the river is purely Sunni except for Shula, Hurriya, and small strips of Aamil which are dominated by Shia militias.

Not being privy to the U.S. machinations, Iraqis in Baghdad blame the Iraqi police and Iraqi army for the sectarian assassinations and wonder why the U.S. military does little or nothing to stop them. “The Americans ask [Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki to stop the sectarian assassinations knowing full well that his ministers are ordering the sectarian cleansing,” says Mahmood Farhan of the Muslim Scholars Association, a leading Sunni group.

A more recent manifestation of the divisive U.S. policy has been the “purchase” of members of the largely Sunni resistance in Baghdad and in al-Anbar province that constitutes one-third of the geographic area of Iraq. Payments made by the U.S. military to collaborating tribal sheikhs already amount to $17 million. The money passes directly into the hands of fighters who in many cases were engaged in launching attacks against the occupiers less than two weeks ago. Tribal fighters are being paid $300 per month to patrol their areas, particularly against foreign mercenaries. Today the military refers to these men as “concerned local citizens,” “awakening force,” or simply “volunteers.”

Arguably, violence in the area has temporarily declined. “Those Americans thought they would decrease the resistance attacks by separating the people of Iraq into sects and tribes,” announced a thirty-two-year-old man from Ramadi, who spoke with al-Fadhily on terms of anonymity, “They know they are sinking deeper into the shifting sand, but the collaborators are fooling the Americans right now, and will in the end use this strategy against them.” By the end of November 2007, the U.S. military had enlisted 77,000 of these fighters, and hopes to add another 10,000. Eighty-two percent of the fighters are Sunni.

Politically, the U.S. administration maintains its support of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The fallout has been blatantly clear. On the first of December, Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Accordance Front, which is the Sunni political bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, was placed under house arrest by Iraqi and U.S. security forces in the Adil neighborhood, west of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces also detained his son Makki and forty-five of his guards. They were accused of manufacturing car bombs and killing Sunni militia members in the neighborhood who have been working with the U.S. military. Members of the Accordance Front, which holds 44 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi Parliament, promptly walked out. Maliki has, several times in the last several weeks, hurled public accusations and criticisms at al-Dulaimi, sending political and sectarian shock waves, further crippling the crumbling political process.

It is important to mention that Maliki, a U.S. puppet par excellence, acts only as told. After the January 2005 elections, the government that came into power had chosen Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its prime minister. When Jaafari refused to toe the U.S./UK line, Condoleezza Rice and her UK counterpart Jack Straw flew to Baghdad, and before their short trip ended Jaafari was out and Maliki was in as prime minister.

In the context of these facts let us now return to the big question: Will Iraq descend further into a sectarian nightmare if the occupation ends?

An indicator of how things will likely resolve themselves upon the departure of foreign troops may be drawn from the southern city of Basra. In early September, 500 British troops left one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in the heart of the city and ceased to conduct regular foot patrols. According to the British military, the overall level of violence in the city has decreased 90 percent since then.

This may or may not be a guarantee of a drop in sectarianism upon the departure of the invading armies, but it does prove that when the primary cause of the violence, sectarian strife, instability, and chaos is removed from the equation of Iraq, things are bound to improve rapidly.

Are we still going to believe that the occupation is holding Iraq together?

Dahr Jamail is IPS’ specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years. Read other articles by Dahr, or visit Dahr's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sk said on January 7th, 2008 at 1:55pm #

    A little snippet of Winston Churchill–whose most famous bust is kept at the Oval Office–as recounted in Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division:

    When a colleague expressed ‘anxiety about the growing cleavage between Moslem and Hindu’, Churchill ‘at once said: “Oh, but that is all to the good.”‘

  2. brian said on January 7th, 2008 at 6:10pm #

    People may like to know some more info of US divide and rule:

    1. Sarafiya bridge incident:

    Al-Sarafiya bridge bombing….deja vu from Al-Askari shrine

    Just like the bombing of Al-Askari shrine, Al-sarafiya bridge witnessed
    strange events hours before the bombing.

    Iraqirabita quoting an eyewitness lives in Al-Atafiya – western side of
    the river says she woke up 07,10 this morning because of the unusual
    sounds of Americans helicopters above the river Tigris.

    I thought that this a beginning of an raid in our neighborhood, to
    be sure I went upstairs to see where are these helicopters are heading

    I saw with my own eyes a helicopter firing two missiles, I heard an
    explosion, then I saw the bridge collapsed.

    Another report says…..It is interesting to note this morning Iraqi
    police blocked the traffic on the bridge for more than two hours, shortly
    before the explosion they allowed civilians cars to cross the river,
    which confirms that there is an orchestrated destruction of Al-Sarafiya
    bridge and resumption of movement by the time of the bombing was to
    cover up the actions of the “bombers”?

    If you think that this is a joke then here is the Chairman of Iraqi
    parliament “Al-Mashadani” also questions this act revealing that this
    planed a month ago to separate Baghdad’s both sides, making it easy to

    2. Just who are the market bombers?

    ‘Former collaborator discloses details of US-ordered assassinations, sectarian bomb attacks targeting Iraqi civilians

    An Iraqi who asked not to be identified had disclosed some of the US activities such as assassinations and bombings in markets that aim at sparking sectarian fighting among Iraqis so as to facilitate the partition of the country.

    He pointed out that he that he worked with the US occupation troops for about two and a half years and then was able to flee from them to an area outside Baghdad where, he hopes, the Americans will not be able to get to him.

    The former Iraqi collaborator recalled: “I was a soldier in the Iraqi army in the war of 1991 and during the withdrawal from Kuwait I decided to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia along with dozens of others like me. That was how began the process whereby I was recruited into the American forces, for there were US military committees that chose a number of Iraqis who were willing to volunteer to join them and be transported to America. I was one of those,” he said.

    The former collaborator went on: “In 1992 I was taken to America, specifically to an island where most of the establishments were military. I was with a number of other Iraqis, one of them the former governor of an-Najaf, ‘Adnan adh-Dharfi. We received military training and intense courses in English and in how to carry out tasks like assassination,” he recounted.

    The former collaborator said that during the 2003 invasion and subsequent war, he was transported back to the interior of Iraq to carry out specific tasks assigned him by the US agencies.

    “During the last war that led to the occupation of Iraq,” he recalled, “I was with a group of my comrades who had received training in America in how to spread chaos in the ranks of the Iraqi army. We were brought into Iraq across the border from Saudi Arabia. We put on Iraqi army uniforms and out mission was basically to spread rumors among the Iraqis, such as that the American army had already got into such-and-such a city, or that it is on the outskirts of Baghdad and other such things, which were part of the reason for the rapid collapse of the Iraqi forces,” he said.

    The former collaborator went on: “the unit that I was with settled in the presidential palace in the al-A’zamiyah district. We were allowed to visit our relatives and relations in Baghdad once a month, and so I would go visit my family in ‘Madinat as-Sadr’ in eastern Baghdad. But after things began to get worse and the armed men began to shot at everyone leaving the palace, I asked my family to come to the palace every now and then so I could see them. My job was being a guard, but after a time that situation changed and the American occupation forces put me in charge of a group of a unit that carried out assassinations in the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

    “Our task was to carry out assassinations of individuals. The US occupation army would supply us with their names, pictures, and maps of their daily movements to and from their place of residence and we were supposed to kill the Shi’i, for example, in the al-A’zamiyah, and kill the Sunni in the of ‘Madinat as-Sadr’, and so on.”

    “Anyone in the unit who made a mistake was killed. Three members of my team were killed by US occupation forces after they failed to assassinate Sunni political figures in Baghdad. A US force that had been so-ordered eliminated them. That took place two years ago,” the former collaborator recalled.Image

    The former collaborator said that the Americans have a unit for “dirty jobs.” That unit is a mix of Iraqis, Americans, and foreigners and of the security detachments that are deployed in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. This unit doesn’t only carry out assassinations, but some of them specialize in planting bombs and car bombs in neighborhoods and markets. This unit carries out operations in which wanted people whom the American army does not want killed are arrested.

    The former collaborator said that “operations of planting car bombs and blowing up explosives in markets are carried out in various ways, the best-known and most famous among the US troops is placing a bomb inside cars as they are being searched at checkpoints. Another way is to put bombs in the cars during interrogations. After the desired person is summoned to one of the US bases, a bomb is place in his car and he is asked to drive to a police station or a marked for some purpose and there his car blows up.”

    The testimony of the former collaborator is consistent with some western reports that have disclosed the involvement of US military personnel in bombings that target Iraqi civilians. The British reporter Robert Fisk, AMSI noted, had recently met with Iraqis in Syria concerning such “black operations” carried out by the Americans.

    The Egyptian writer and former editor of al-Ahram, Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal, also noted in an interview with al-Jazeera satellite TV that there are mercenaries who practically make up an army second only to the regular US army in Iraq in terms of their numbers and equipment. This force is now called the “Knights of Malta” Haykal said, and they are the cause of many of the attacks that target Iraqi civilians. Haykal noted that there are Iraqis and Lebanese working in the ranks of that force.

  3. Shabnam said on January 7th, 2008 at 7:14pm #

    Mr. Dahr Jamail Thank you very much for sharing these information with us at this site.
    I do not believe anything Bush or his close associates says. All these people are war criminals and are directly responsible for the massacre of millions of Iraqi and Afghani so far. This people must be arrested and be punished.
    You are absolutely correct when you write “ the policy is divide to rule.” I have no doubt that majorities of the killing and death squat are directed by Americans and their puppets who work on their behalf, such as Saudis. The policy of the United States is to divide and rule. Blindfolded people who were found shut death in Iraq were similar to those who were found at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Blindfolded and hand cuffed is the American trade mark. Thousands of People were massacred this way in Afghanistan and Iraq. Majority of the car bombs are done by Americans to destabilized and spread fear and force people to submit.
    I have read, I think it was posted at Zmag site that Iraqi with a car or a taxi driver is arrested for no reason and they were hold for a few days. While they are waiting to see what is wrong, American hide a bomb in their car and later they tell them they can go. Later These Bombs will be exploded and kill indiscriminately. Have you heard about this kind of crime? Americans will give funds and arms to both sides and put one against the other to manufacture “sectarian killing” to tell ignorant Americans that we can not leave Iraq because people are going to die in large numbers. These lies are used by those fascists who are running for presidency to continue the status quo such as John MacKane; of course everyone must know that this is absolutely a LIE. They NEED instability to continue the occupation contrary to what they preach.
    American presence breads violence and thus produces DEATHS through car bombs death squad, tortures, rapes whether is in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanist, Sudan, Somalia or other places people are found death. Americans rule through violence, and violence brings destabilization which Americans need. To deceive the public and show that “surge” is working they have reduced number of killings to buy American complicity.

  4. maha said on January 10th, 2008 at 2:21am #

    As always, truthful reporting from Dahr.
    Unfortunately, other writers seem obsessed and unable to stop using the sectarian US/UK manufactured divisions in their “reporting” on Iraq, making them complicit in genocide. It is insane to refer to Iraqis like this, Iraqi society was never divided along sectarian lines (and it makes me cringe to even write the last part of this sentence). The many reports from Dahr and his colleagues in Iraq debunk again and again the myth of sectarianism the US/UK dress every incident with, by reporting the truth.

  5. Mike McNiven said on January 14th, 2008 at 4:02am #

    Thank you Mr. Jamail!

    Please help Arabs of Iran too! There are more than two millions in population; some Sunni some Shia. They are amongst the poorest of the poor under the racist theocrats. There were massive discriminations against them by the puppet shah too!

  6. Shabnam said on January 14th, 2008 at 2:19pm #

    Mr Dahr Jamail:

    Do not listen to those who are giving their services to Zionists who are pushing for “the greater Israel.” According to “the greater Israel” all the countries of the region must be destabilized and be divided. Mike McNiven has shown himself one of these pro Zionists who pretends is fighting against injustices, but in fact he like other Zionists cleverly pushing for the Zionist’s plan and instead of unity of all forces against the real enemy in the region, Israel, he goes after Iran. If you read his reactionary comments and his link to other reactionary writers and pro Zionist groups you will read his min. His support for the Zionists come from the fact that he is close to the spy network of Israel, the tribe of Kurd. He does not dare to bring his reactionary comments and anti Iran views early, rather he waits until the article is not in the first page and then he posts his propaganda in form of short comments but majorities are in form of “you tube” and other people’s article to form public opinion against Iran. Everyone knows that the Zionist and Imperialist divide nations into many different groups and give arms and money to few opportunists and use them for their political purposes. We have so many example: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and so many others because majority of Islamic countries are targets. A few Iranian Kurds have shown their pettiness when they have called the “Voice of America” and told the CIA agent that we are “4 million” Kurds in Iran who are willing to fight for you if you arm us. Such traitors and petty individuals SHOULD BE PUNISHED SEVERLY AND WILL.
    Mr. Jamail, we the people of the region must be united to force our main enemies, the Zionists and Imperialists and their supporters such as McNiven out of the region. Iranian government is NOT RACIST and NOT SECTERIAN. However, the Zionists and Imperialists are
    racist and they are trying to divide us through their agents. In fact Arab intellectuals more often must expose the destructive role of the Arab puppet States in the implementation of the enemies’ plan in the region especially Saudi Arabia.
    The United States kill Iraqi people with the help of the Saudis. Why we don’t see so many deaths in Kurdistan? Because north of Iraq is carrying out our enemies’ dirty

  7. Mike McNiven said on January 16th, 2008 at 2:14am #

    It is well documented that the zionist Israelis gave military aid to the racist theocrats of Iran — in 1980 — to murder the minority Kurds who were the members of the anti-zionist/anti-imperialist
    Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran!
    Only the zionists and their dependendts can overlook the current US/Israeli barbarity against the Kurds:

    It is also well documented that the sexist rulers of Iran were receiving military aid from the zionist Israelis during the imperialist Ronald Reagan presidency — aka Iran-Contra! Some of the victims:

  8. Shabnam said on March 4th, 2008 at 7:34pm #

    Mr. Jamail:

    We as Iranians, Arabs, Turks and the rest in the region must be united against our common enemy, the Zionist and Imperialist forces and their supporters. The tribe of Kurds is collaborating for the last fifty years with our common enemy, the Zionists, and they have received military and financial aids. Israel in 1960s was spying on Iraq through a hospital that Israel built in North of Iraq and put his spies, Mossad, in name of Doctors in charge of the hospital. We never forget when the Zionist Neocon, Wolfowitz, went to Northern Iraq to be received by the Kurdish women to kiss his shoulder and express their appreciation for death of more than 1.2 million Iraqi people by occupational force and millions of people as refugees.
    As Seymour Hersh reported:
    “Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan, providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel’s view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria. The Israeli operatives include members of the Mossad, Israel’s clandestine foreign-intelligence service, who work undercover in Kurdistan as businessmen and, in some cases, do not carry Israeli passports.”

    Maggie Ronayne in “Turkey and Kurdistan” has reported about the attitude of some of the Kurds about the occupation of Iraq which is very disturbing:
    “Recently Kerim Yildiz, director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, a UK-based charity, wrote that the violence in Iraq was the result not of the invasion but of the insurgency (The Kurds in Iraq 2nd edition, Pluto, 2007). There was no mention of crimes committed by the occupation forces or, indeed, any condemnation of the Iraq war. Rather, he offers advice to the US on counter-insurgency; while he says that ‘the use of force is inevitable’ he is not more specific. He praises the US coalition’s women’s rights programmes: ‘The CPA was praised by many Iraqis for promoting new organisations such as those aimed at the protection of women’s rights; it provided funding for women’s centres throughout the country which offered vocational training and educational opportunities to women.”
    She continued to say that:
    “In another co-authored book on the Kurds in Iran (Pluto, 2007) he allows that ‘an American military intervention’ there may be ‘an increasingly necessary option’ though cautions against it and advises the US on regime change by other means – unless a military invasion were to be ‘extremely thoughtful and based on the actual promotion of human rights rather than pretence’. Referring back to Iraq he says ‘[i]n regards to the Kurds specifically, it is evident that they have benefited in the short term, as there now exists a de facto Kurdish state in Iraq. . .”
    As you see the Kurds are full supporters of the invasion and some of them, like McNiven, shed crocodile tears to get attention.