Monday, 7 May 2007

Shia and Sunni

The US occupation’s divide and rule policy reached a new level recently through the construction of the Baghdad wall around the district of Adhamiya. The wall was designed to divide a Sunni from a Shia area of Baghdad in the name of protecting the Sunni community of Adhamiya from Shia militant attacks, but has been widely condemned by all factions in Iraq even the current political elite. Despite the protests, the US went ahead and completed the construction of the wall. A wall can never neatly divide the two communities in Baghdad because of historic mixing and dispersal. However its symbolism is of more concern than its supposed use in reducing violence in Baghdad. Its presence aims to strengthen the popular myth that the violence in Iraq is due to a sectarian Sunni - Shia divide. It is an explanation that conveniently ignores the fact Iraq nearly 70% of the violence in Iraq is targeted at the occupation. Even the US National Intelligence Estimates admitted that the conflict is multi-facetted and “includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence”.The fact is that the supposed ‘Sunni-Shia’ conflict and its current extent is unprecedented in Iraq’s history and originates from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, the “actual and direct conflict between Sunni and Shi'a… has until recently been remarkable by its absence”. This is a reality lost on most commentators, as has the fact that Iraq is an occupied country with over 160,000 foreign troops on its soil who have been the subject of both Sunni and Shia attacks, often in collaboration.The wall will not therefore do anything to reduce the violence, as it targets the wrong source, but will be an attempt to popularise the believe that it is an old sectarian dispute that is dragging Iraq into abyss, and that a third party broker i.e. someone like the US, is needed to keep the peace. In reality a wall such as this will do more to institutionalise a Sunni-Shia divide rather than heal the violence. It uses a physical barrier that symbolically enforces the view the two communities cannot live together. Those within will be imprisoned reminiscent of those encircled by the wall in the occupied territories of Palestine. It is no secret that the US has had an eye on exploiting the situation in Iraq to suit their own ends through ‘divide and rule’. A RAND corporation report published in late 2004, “U.S. Strategy in the Muslim World After 9/11”, explicitly advocates exploiting Sunni-Shia as well other differences to achieve US interests in the region. The report, conducted on behalf of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations, US Air Force, states that one of its primary objectives was to “identify the key cleavages and fault lines among sectarian, ethnic, regional, and national lines and to assess how these cleavages generate challenges and opportunities for the United States.” In this context, it refers to the fact that the Shia represent some 15% of the world’s Muslim population and, it asserts, are politically excluded from all but Iran. As a result it suggests “The United States may have an opportunity to align its policy with Shi’ite groups, who aspire to have more participation in government and greater freedoms of political and religious expression”. If successful, the report asserts that this “may create a foundation for a stable U.S. position in the Middle East.” The report also advocates utilising other fractures in the Muslim such as the division between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, as well as tribal, ethnic and clan. It is not inconceivable therefore and clearly on the mind of bodies in a position to yield influence on US policymakers that such differences be exploited where relevant to further US long term involvement in the Muslim world. The old divide and rule policy is very much alive in the politics of Iraq today, being employed unashamedly by the US occupiers as a tool to create division. A solution to Iraq that tackles the real source of violence and brokers a solution without third party meddling is only possible if the occupation is ended. It is important to challenge the mythical battle lines that media outlets are eager to broadcast, who fail to understand the Muslim world and as a result wrongly distil the conflict for their audiences. US involvement in Iraq has acted only to bring chaos and instability to the country and the region, and an ongoing impediment to progress.

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