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Understanding the insurgencies in Iraq

Sami Zubaida
15 April 2004

The basic cause of the current troubles in Iraq is the discontent and disillusion of the bulk of the population. One year after the occupation and the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime the great majority of Iraqis are worse off. Poverty, insecurity, shaky infrastructure, and, above all, unemployment have increased massively. Here is a population which always looked to the government for provision of jobs and basic subsistence. However bad and oppressive the government; it always responded to these needs.

The first blunder, among many, of the occupation authorities was to dissolve the army – around 450,000 men – without pay or pension, but with their weapons. It is estimated that two million Iraqis were dependent on this army and its pay. This step multiplied unemployment and destitution, and contributed to the ammunition of the insurgency. Here we are, one year later, and these frustrations are feeding into ever more acute anti-occupation sentiments, even among those who were initially favourable to it, and among the many who want, but can’t, get a quiet life.

The recent American onslaught on Falluja and the massacre of civilians there has led to a tremendous surge of anger and outrage among all sections of the Iraqi people. It has awakened a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism. But there are diverse and contradictory elements at work beneath the surface. The two recent insurgencies – one in the “Sunni Triangle” and one by Shi’ite followers of Muqtada al-Sadr – are different in crucial respects.

The Sunni insurgency is nihilist. It has no apparent political programme, nor does it announce its protagonists. It aims at causing as much damage and disruption as possible and to prevent steps towards the establishment of order and normality. Its two wings, the Saddamist and the Islamist, have different agendas. Saddamists want to pressure the Americans into leaving, allowing them a chance of re-establishing their old hegemony. Islamists want the Americans to stay so that they can hit them.

Muqtada al-Sadr and the intricacies of Shi’ia politics

The Shi’ia insurgency – lead by Muqtada al-Sadr – is political in that it is aimed at manoeuvring for power, with a distinct programme and set of demands. In the Shi’ite political landscape Muqtada al-Sadr is an upstart. He is young and without religious authority or charisma, except that inherited from his father – and even that inheritance is in dispute. The older Sadr’s designated successor is Kadhim al-Haeri, resident in the Iranian city of Qum and a Khomeinist in ideology, but outside the mainstream political clerical establishment of Iran. Haeri and young Sadr have an uneasy co-existence.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s offices and agents in Iraq continue to invoke the authority of his dead father, collecting dues and exercise authority in his name. In Shi’a doctrine this is not legitimate: a mujtahid’s authority dies with him, and believers must follow a living cleric. Muqtada al-Sadr attempts to over-ride this ambiguous status and confront his established rival by adopting a militant stance.

Muqtada al-Sadr takes up a political and militant stance against Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the main authority for Iraqi Shi’a, who avoids direct involvement in politics. Al-Sadr implicitly denounces Sistani on the grounds that the Ayatollah is Persian and an Iraqi leader must be Iraqi/Arab. In effect Muqtada al-Sadr holds a Khomeinist position in politics, advocating an Islamic state ruled by clerics, but is at the same time anti-Iranian: Shi’ite Iraq for the Iraqis.

The al-Hakim family, leaders of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which plays a leading role in Iraqi politics and holds seats on the US approved Governing Council, are equally “tainted” with Iranian connections, but it is not clear that they follow Iranian official directions. Indeed all Shi’a groups have Iranian connections, but not necessarily Iranian government influence, nor are they subordinate in their relation with Iranian counterparts.

One of Muqtada al-Sadr’s main objectives has been to establish control over the revenue-generating shrines of the holy cities. His followers fought many battles with rival factions, but with little success.

Reports indicate that the Sadrist support among the Shi’a resides in the poor slums of Baghdad, especially among the young in Sadr City. This location has always been the centre for radical agitation. It was built, with strong leftist support, in the late 1950s and early 1960s as Madinat al-Thawra or Revolution City by General Abd-al-Karim Qasim, who overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. It became a stronghold of the Iraqi Communist Party, and was one of the main centres of resistance to the Ba’thist putsch of 1963, occasioning a massacre. Saddam made the area his own as Saddam City, and in 2003 it was re-named Sadr City, after the martyr father Muhammd Sadiq al-Sadr (killed by Saddam in 1999.

But informed observers think that, in a free election in that quarter, Sadr’s support will prove to be limited. This is also true in parts of Basra and other southern cities where Sadrists have a high profile thanks to their militant behaviour and from intimidation of local people (bullying women into the hijab, forcibly closing down liquor venues and entertainments).

Political manoeuvres

While himself renouncing political ambitions, Ayatollah Ali Sistani has taken a leadership position aimed at ensuring that the Shi’a will not be sidelined again. His denunciation of the interim constitution’s clauses giving the Kurds and Sunni veto powers, is transparently aimed at establishing Shi’a majority rule. This line was broadly followed by other Shi’a parties and factions.

Muqtada al-Sadr will have calculated that the processes of the transfer of power to an Iraqi government, then elections, will only marginalize him further. The other Shi’a parties are much better placed for voting constituencies, and better funded. Furthermore, there are indications that in a secret ballot many Shi’a will want to avoid religious rule and vote for secular candidates. This was indicated in recent elections for a local council in the Nassiriya region, in which religious candidates obtained a minority of the seats.

These considerations constitute incentives for escalating Muqtada’s one positive dimension: militant action against the occupation and the political process it engenders. The Americans obligingly presented him with a pretext for this step in closing down his weekly newspaper Al-Hawza, arresting prominent followers, and issuing (through an Iraqi judge) an arrest warrant for Muqtada himself, on a murder charge. In effect, they declared war on the Sadrists and gave them further incentives for escalating militancy. This coincided with the Falluja uprising, giving Sadr further impetus and credibility.

The Sunni insurgency

Iraq’s Sunnis are diverse. By no means all are involved in or support the insurgency in the “Sunni Triangle”. But this area is the home of previously poor and excluded populations, tribal and peasant, quite distinct from the urban Sunni bourgeoisie of Baghdad and Mosul (predominantly Sunni), the leading families of the Sunni tribes and the old land-owning Sunni elites with Ottoman connections who dominated Iraqi politics under the monarchy.

The inhabitants of the Triangle came into politics through the army, the refuge of poor youth in the first half of the twentieth century. The leaders of the Ba’thist and nationalist coup d’etats came from these groups, and eventually established their control over the party and the state through Saddam and his tribal politics. Many of the armed and trained personnel of the Saddamist state and the military belong to this area.

Their insurgency is fuelled by outrage over the loss of enormous privilege and control. Sunni sentiments (not necessarily religiosity) and antagonism to the Americans and the Shi’a have made this area hospitable to the Islamist, or Jihadist elements, even though they are not always ideologically compatible. Fury is compounded by a tribal code of the blood feud which obliges many to seek revenge for kin killed in American actions and humiliations inflicted by the occupying forces.

Will Sunni and Shi’ia insurgents unite?

The death and destruction visited on Falluja recently by American forces – seemingly an act of overwhelming revenge on the population of the whole town – fuelled the outrage of the whole of Iraq, even the sectarian Shi’ia who would normally not have sympathy for their Sunni antagonists.

In the circumstances Shi’ia rivals and opponents of Sadr are reduced to impotence. They cannot be seen to side with the Americans against him. The most Sistani could do was to call for calm on all sides, and to seek negotiated political solutions. Sadr can only be sidelined again if the political process of transfer of rule, and then elections, can be put back on track. The odds against that in the present chaos seem overwhelming.

In public pronouncements, most religious leaders emphasise Islamic, and Iraqi, unity. Muqtada al-Sadr makes a special point of emphasising unity and the common struggle against the occupation. In practice, the rivalry and antagonism are transparent. Any cooperation between the two wings of the insurgency is likely to be temporary and tactical.

Both sides call for Islamic rule, but whose? Islamic law and government are indeterminate notions, and are in practice avenues of the exercise of power and coercion by religious authority. Under the circumstances, you can’t have two religious authorities (and there are many more than just two potential rivals). The quest for religious rule, then, is bound to lead to a struggle over whose rule.

This is not to say that Iraqis are bound to sectarianism: the twentieth century history of Iraq includes many episodes in which individuals and groups drawn from different religious and communal backgrounds engaged in common enterprises, political, social, literary and artistic, notably in the nationalist and communist movements. But these elements did not participate as Shi’ia or Sunni, Christian or Jewish, but as aspiring citizens and members of a common society united by interests and ideologies. Is it too much to hope for a return of that spirit?

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