Resistance and sectarianism in Iraq

Issue: 109

Haifa Zangana and Sami Ramadani

Haifa Zangana and Sami Ramadani answered questions from Anne Ashford on the situation in Iraq as the third anniversary of the occupation approaches.

I’d like to start with the question of sectarianism. How do you see the problem?

Haifa Zangana: This identifying people by whether they are Sunni or Shia is something which we did not have in Iraq at the beginning of the 1980s. People didn’t do that in society, and not in writing, not in history or in literature. It would be very difficult to find a reference book which deals with Iraqis by dividing them into sects.

Someone like Gareth Stansfield focuses on the idea that previously the Sunnis dominated the mechanics of government. Would you say that this is a false picture?

HZ: I think it is totally artificial, because if we applied that to Britain, and we started digging into the background of this person—is he Protestant, Catholic, Church of England—we might draw out certain patterns of who is ruling what, which could be conveniently adopted by a selective process.

If you look at the 52 playing cards of the Ba’ath leaders who were
wanted by the US immediately after the fall of Baghdad, you’ll find that 38 of those leaders out of 51 are Shias. So who was ruling Iraq? I think this idea is a complete fabrication, it has been made intentionally, and it can be traced back to the beginning of the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran War. The statistics presented to us now say that the majority of Iraqis are Shias, so it was the
Shias who were fighting the Iranians, who are of course also Shias. They were also in the government.

This Shia-Sunni division of Iraqi society is a complete fabrication.

There is no such thing. There is class struggle, there is the oil, there are many other factors that you can really talk about in Iraq, but definitely not sectarianism. It has totally been manufactured in recent years. If you go back to the media, and look immediately after the invasion—have a pile of newspapers
and read articles—you’ll see that it was only a few newspapers which used to identify Iraqis by sect. Now every single Iraqi is presented as Sunni or Shia.

If I go for an interview on Channel 4, for example, they say immediately, ‘Haifa Zangana, are you Shia or Sunni?’ I’m a bloody Iraqi! But the process is gradual, and we really have to examine the source of it, to understand what’s going on. We shouldn’t fall into this trap.

Sami Ramadani: On the communal, street level, there aren’t these sharp divisions between people. People don’t go killing each other because they are on the wrong side of the religious divide, or even national divide.

The wars against the Kurdish people, for example, were not communal wars whereby hundreds of thousands of Arabs went to fight Kurds, but rather a repressive state that was launching a chauvinist war against the Kurdish people, and it was the state against the people. Progressive Arabs from the South used to flee and use Kurdistan as the safe area to conduct their struggle against the regime. Thousands of soldiers used to flee to the
Kurdish forces, for example, at the height of these wars.

There has never been a sectarian conflict in Iraq on the communal, street level. Saddam’s regime had obvious sectarian dimensions, especially after the 1991 uprising, which was centred in the South, and since most of the South is Shia, it appeared to be a campaign against the Shia. Iraq is not an apartheid society, and never was. Saddam’s regime rested on using social strata and security services from across the sects and nationalities of Iraq. Saddam’s regime could not have ruled the South or Kurdistan without people from the South and Kurdistan participating in that. So there was a social base, a narrow social base of course, that backed that fascist set-up, but it was a social base that was drawn from all sects and religions and nationalities.

Take a town like Fallujah. It was a very strong bastion of anti-
Saddamism, because back in 1996 there was a coup attempt and he traced it to people in Fallujah, and in 1998 he ordered the imams of mosques in Fallujah to sing his praises and pray for him and they refused, so he started punishing people in Fallujah. And until today the Ba’ath is very weak in Fallujah—that’s why the resistance there is led by religious forces. This is an important point—he lashed out at any source of opposition, regardless of
religion, sect or nationality.

Do you think that the occupying forces have actually tried to create sectarian divisions, and if so how have they done that?

SR: Generally speaking they have encouraged it, even before the occupation, because they dealt with the Iraqi opposition forces at the conference in London and a couple of other pre-occupation conferences increasingly in terms of who is a Kurd, who is an Arab, who is Shia, who is Sunni, who is Turkoman, who is Christian, and so on. And they deliberately tried to foster this—that was quite evident. They continued that after the occupation, to an even greater extent. So any institution that they had a hand in forming had to be divided on a sectarian basis—even the army units they wanted to set up earlier were run on a sectarian basis. Paul Bremer’s Iraqi Governing Council is a prime example of how they wanted to divide Iraqis.

A so-called ‘balance’ between the different communities basically enshrines very rigid sectarian and ethnic divisions, even down to the lowest level appointments or committees. This is completely alien to the country’s general traditions, over hundreds of years.

HZ: For example, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) really represents a certain class of Shias. Muqtada al-Sadr represents another class—the poorest of the poor. SCIRI is more or less the middle class and the people who supervise the holy places. There are dynasties. Families such as al-Hakim, al-Sadr and al-Khalisi are in charge of the holy places, and a fifth of the money goes religiously to them from Shia tithes—khums. I see it as a class struggle, rather than anything else, because after all it’s one religion, Islam. There is not really much difference if you come to the texts—what matters is who is in control of what. They are political parties, using this sect or another. This is something new, these parties based on sectarianism.

If you read all their programmes they will be exactly the same in the end, because they are all very caring about the Iraqi people, national unity, against sectarianism, and so on. People are telling us from Iraq that the ministry of the interior is divided into three floors—each floor follows one political party and they don’t speak to each other. So it was just discovered that 167 Iraqis were imprisoned in the ministry buildings, and each political party in the interim government is accusing the other, because they don’t even know who’s arresting and who’s torturing. This process doesn’t just apply in terms of imprisonment or the militias, but is also having an impact on the population in terms of applying for jobs. To be appointed to the ministry of defence, for example, or the ministry of social affairs or any other ministry, you have to follow the criteria of the minister—what party he or she represents. If he is in the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], you have to be a member of the PUK, otherwise forget it. It has nothing to do with your qualifications.

And it becomes almost part of the constitution. In fact it has been shown that the committee to write the constitution [in Iraq] was divided into sectarian and ethnic categories. Even that didn’t work, and the committee has been pushed aside. The Americans have taken over the process because they felt it was taking too long. Their agenda is set by what is needed in America, rather than what is needed in Iraq. So they said, ‘No, forget about it. We’ll just present you with a copy of the constitution—you just agree or disagree.’ But the minor details of it are sectarian division, totally, and it reflects on employing people. Employment is so important.

SR: There is a degree of tolerance in Iraqi society which allowed for the existence of a lot of sects, a lot of religions and nationalities. And that translated socially in terms of mixed marriages, mixed communities. There are more Kurds in Baghdad than in any city in Kurdistan, and so on. There are
Shia communities all over Iraq. A quarter of the population of Basra is Sunni. These are all indications of the general mix in the country, which they tried actively to break, to discourage.

The Western media say many Shias support the occupation and many Sunnis oppose it.

SR: I wouldn’t describe it as most of the Shia community supporting the government. I think there are obviously Shia mass organisations like the SCIRI or the Da’wah Party, who are part of the government, and they do have strength within the southern cities and parts of Baghdad. But by no means—in my own assessment—do they represent the majority of people in those areas. The Sadr movement, for example, is quite popular, but it is very anti-government and anti-occupation.

Muqtada al-Sadr is playing quite a complex political role, whereby on the one hand he is maintaining a very hostile stand towards the occupation and government policies while, on the other hand, he is allowing his supporters to stand in these elections. But his latest decision to actually let some of his supporters join the official Iraqi National Coalition list has created a lot of debate among the ranks of his own supporters—some being completely against it, some saying, ‘If we’re to join in the elections we might as well go it alone, or at least unite with other anti-occupation groups which might be inclined to take part in the elections.’

Are the occupying forces trying to break the country up?

SR: I don’t think that they came in to stir up civil war. They came to exploit Iraq and its oil and turn it into a strategic base within a global context. But because of the level of opposition to their presence in the country, and the swift rise of armed resistance across Iraq (except in Kurdistan), their policy of dividing people along sectarian and ethnic lines was developed into a full-scale scheme of inciting communal strife and violence. This is the only way that a colonial power—or any power—dominating another society would deal with this situation, even in a spontaneous way. If you have an enemy you try to divide them, and overwhelmingly the Iraqi people have proven to be anti-occupation to varying degrees. And the occupation’s response was to try and entrench or play on differences, and to start to encourage or turn a blind eye to organisations which preach sectarianism and practice sectarian and ethnic violence.

HZ: I think it is divide and rule. The colonial powers experimented with this previously, during the British occupation. They didn’t succeed. It was a complete failure for them during the 1920 revolution, which was followed by many other uprisings. Also the 1958 revolution itself, a major event in our modern history, really was a slap in the face for the colonial powers, to indicate that Iraq is far beyond these sectarian divides.

SR: I am on thin ground in terms of material evidence, but I am more in favour of what the popular street says in Iraq, and that is that the US is either behind, or encouraging, or turning a blind eye to organisations like Zarqawi’s—even though they think that Zarqawi is a mythical figure now, but let’s use him as an allegorical figure, or a symbol of a sectarian voice. This type of sectarianism and killings are strongly believed in the country to be the work of the occupation. However, there is enough evidence now, some of it emanating for the US itself, that the US forces run active American and Iraqi death squads engaged in assassinations and other murderous activities.

Nobody has come up with a logical reason as to why any antioccupation resistance force which wants to free Iraq from the occupation would go around blowing up innocent workers or worshippers in mosques or churches. Even if it is a nakedly sectarian force, as Zarqawi’s statements indicate, the path it is following does not make sense, even within its own compass. Just to say that they are after creating chaos does not wash, because if they are clashing with the majority of the population in Iraq then obviously they have no chance in hell of evicting any occupier. To instantly make enemies of the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people and of their friends across the world does not make sense at all. These terrorist acts so very obviously serve the occupation.

There have been a lot of incidents where there have been indications that these were not suicide bombers, but carefully timed devices in lorries and cars. There was an incident of children being killed a few months ago in Baghdad, and people throughout that area and in that street testified to the presence of American forces coming in and pretending to check a car which was booby-trapped but they then declared safe. Two minutes after they left, the car exploded. Before the car exploded they were actually distributing chocolates and toys to children, so many children gathered near that explosion site. Parents of the children were accusing the Americans of planting the bomb. There are even victims of a lot of these bombs in mosques and so on who say, ‘The Americans are doing this so that we will fight each other.’ So this anti-sectarian feeling is quite deeply ingrained.

HZ: If you ask any Iraqi in the street, ‘Do you want Sunni or Shia to rule you?’ the answer will come, ‘Let the devil rule, as long as he is first an Iraqi, and second he brings us safety and security, and thirdly we can lead what is more or less a normal life—we don’t give a damn.’ Even when Talabani was being chosen as the president, I didn’t hear an Iraqi saying, ‘This Talabani is Kurdish, and we don’t want him because he is Kurdish.’ They can sit down and give you a list of why they hate Talabani: he is corrupt, to start with; he is responsible for killing many Kurds; sometimes it was almost a competition between himself and Saddam Hussein, how many Kurds he killed. So it is about economics and politics.

That’s completely opposite to the picture that’s presented here in the media, because the common view is that Iraq is divided between the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the ‘Sunni Triangle’ and the Shia in the South, and so on. Is this a false picture?

SR: Absolutely. And this picture unfortunately has struck roots, because it was repeated so many times that it has been taken for granted. The power of the modern media is such that this kind of myth becomes virtual reality in the minds of people outside Iraq. Within Iraq it has an impact in intellectual circles, and among certain political organisations. But down at the level of the street it’s not that deep, and so far it has failed among the communities.

But something is happening around the militias and the armed groups?

HZ: This is the surface of things happening, and the surface says that there are militias—for example, Ahmad Chalabi’s militia is still powerful. We have the Badr Brigade of SCIRI, which is notorious—and anyway we know they were established in Iran and they moved with the party itself to Iraq without having any roots in Iraqi society. We have the peshmerga [Kurdish militia] who have been used by the occupying forces in Najaf and Fallujah.

If we are talking about political parties, it is there, it does exist. But when we are talking about the people, on the contrary. For example, when the stampede happened on Jisr al-Imma’ bridge in Baghdad and hundreds were killed, people hurried to help everyone. During the siege of Fallujah, people were donating and giving blood and sending cars to help with food and so on, from various parts of Iraq. So there is real solid unity, and I believe
this is the heart of Iraq. But how long will that unity survive under this daily hammering by politicians, the media—whether inside Iraq or outside?

SR: Obviously the past is important to look at, though there is no logical reason why the past and historical continuity could not be broken and new events take shape. There is a threat, the longer the occupation stays, the more these divisions will become antagonistic. The occupation is no longer an external factor to Iraqi society. It is within Iraqi society. It is building armed forces and security forces. It is colonising the state. It is dealing with political forces that are fairly well organised. It has spread its tentacles within every organisation in society. It has tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries and tens of thousands of ‘secret’ private armies roaming the country.

So obviously it is important to point to history, to point to the way the masses do not have this massive wall between them in terms of religions and nationalities and sects. But the longer the occupation stays, I think there are threats to this cohesion among communities in Iraq. In fact, one should reverse the slogan about the threat of civil war in Iraq, to say that the longer the occupation lasts, the more likely it is that conflict will occur. The sooner they withdraw, the more likely it is that Iraq will revert back to the relative cohesion that existed between the various communities. Your politics were always more important than your religion or nationality in Iraq.

In terms of organisations which could cut across the trajectory towards sectarianism—for example, genuine workers’ organisations—do they exist at the moment, and if so what’s their attitude to the occupation?

SR: This is probably one of the saddest aspects of Iraq today. Although historically the left was strong in Iraq, 35 years of fascism and Saddam’s regime have meant that the organised secular left has been weakened beyond recognition. Saddam compromised with all political forces in Iraq, except the secular left. He would not tolerate a secular anti-regime left in Iraq. The Communist Party’s leadership joined Saddam’s regime in the early 1970s and up to 1978, and this further weakened the secular left. Its support for the Governing Council after the occupation dealt it yet another blow.

Secular and left wing ideas are still strong, but there is no organisational expression today which is strong enough to mobilise the people along a political platform which could mobilise the working classes and people in Iraq to defeat the occupation, and bring about genuine democracy in the country. So that is a crisis that Iraq faces. Despite the ruthless occupation and despite all that’s happening in terms of the inadequacy of the religious forces and so on, there is as yet no secular left wing political force which is strong enough to mobilise across Iraq. And all the political forces are aware that they are addressing a population which is generally sympathetic to left wing and secular ideas, so they don’t tolerate organisations which might grow that way.

There are good, healthy signs as well, in terms of workers organising in trade unions, in terms of the unemployed being active. There are signs that the student movement can be quite enlightened, and so are some professional organisations, like teachers, lawyers, and so on. There are sections within the various communities which give hope for the future, but as of
today there isn’t a strong, left wing secular force to unite the Iraqi people.

There isn’t one unified trade union movement either, and the picture became quite complex because the various political parties that cooperated with the occupation tried to take over the old trade unions, the Saddam federation. They were all after the federation because it had buildings all over Iraq, its assets were enormous, and it had exclusive rights to organise in all Iraq’s establishments and factories. So all these pro-occupation political organisations were forming their own federations, including the IFTU federation. But there is independent trade union activity as well, especially among the oil workers in the South and in Basra. There is a strong trade union that organises oil workers, but a unified trade union movement across Iraq is lacking—despite the big-sounding names of the various federations that claim to be representing all workers in Iraq.

HZ: Look at the journalists’ unions—we have five or six of them. Teachers, it is the same thing. A couple of months ago I think there were elections for the teachers to choose their new union representatives. And when they didn’t manage to get the people they wanted, who would really represent the line of the government—the sectarian line—they abolished the union, saying, ‘This isn’t really representative.’ There are something like three writers’ unions—each one of them claiming to be the legitimate union, and each one of them accusing the others of malpractice. So we don’t know who is representing who or what. There are students’ unions, and again there are a couple of them. It seems as if union elections are taking place more or less locally rather than to represent the whole country.

None of them can claim that they represent all writers, or teachers, or journalists, or doctors, or university academics. Regarding the oil, this is a big thing. Also there is IFTU which claims to represent all the unions. And there is the Basra Oil Workers Union. They issued a statement last month saying that they are trying to unify their work with other branches of the unions in Nasiriyyah, Al-Amarah area, and they are hoping to do
something in Kirkuk. I think that this would be a fantastic way of working together if they can achieve that, although it will be very difficult—especially as all the programmes of the political parties are tending to divide it, as they are looking to who is taking control of this part of the oil industry.

SR: Unemployment is still very high. A lot of the industries have been crushed. It wasn’t just that they shut down the ministry of defence or the armed forces or they closed the ministry of information, but they actually mothballed hundreds of factories and establishments across Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority had a website detailing hundreds of factories and establishments in Iraq, and within neat columns they would put what sort of assets each factory had, which one is suitable for closure, which one is suitable for mothballing and selling off. The upshot is the total closure of all these working class areas and centres of work. So unemployment rose enormously—some estimated up to 70 percent of the labour force becoming
unemployed literally overnight.

The factories that have reopened are a minority. Work is intermittent because of the power cuts and lack of raw materials, and the security situation. So people do other jobs—sell things in the streets, do decorating work, building work. Casualisation of labour is very extensive now. So this has hit the working class very badly. One incident that showed how callous the terrorists can be in Iraq, and how the working class is so badly hit, is the
explosion in Kadhimiyya (in Baghdad) in September 2005 that killed 114 workers and injured 156. They were casual workers, building workers gathered early in the morning. A van approached and somebody left the van, and they all thought that this was somebody asking for workers. Hundreds of them surrounded that single van which then exploded and killed so
many of them. The desperation to do ‘an honest day’s work’, as they say, is so powerful. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent saw the dying and injured in hospital. Most told him that the occupation was behind the explosion, so that they make them blame and fight the Sunnis.

What about women’s rights? One of the arguments advanced by people who are reluctant to call for the withdrawal of the occupation is that if the occupying forces leave then Iraqi women will be left at the mercy of the religious parties and anti-women bigots.

SR: This is parallel to the argument that if the occupying forces withdraw from Iraq there will be civil war. It sounds very appealing, sounds very logical, just like the civil war scenario—if they withdraw then all Iraqis will cut each other’s throats and launch communal civil war tomorrow. I think this is a myth.

The conditions of women in Iraq have deteriorated sharply since the occupation, so if we want to assess whether there’ll be civil war or whether women will be worse off one has to look at what is happening today rather than try to extrapolate into the future on the basis of logical arguments.

The facts on the ground are that women have suffered enormously, more than the men in many instances. For example, when there is no electricity, think of all the babies and children in poor working class areas, or across Iraq—no electricity means that the women have to struggle to look after the babies, give them clean water, try to warm up the place or cool it down in the heat of the summer. Think of the lack of fuel—the place will freeze up in the cold winter nights or will boil in summer. How are children and babies coping with that? How are their mums managing?

Water-borne diseases are hitting children and babies enormously, and traditionally who looks after them? The women. Who takes them to the hospitals? The women. And the hospitals have been run down—the health service is literally crumbling. So the burden on women is across the board, from the moment they wake up until the moment they sleep. Burdens of life have enormously increased, not to mention the security threats to women, their fear of going out—even in daylight hours women are frightened to go out. The kidnapping of women, the hurt that is being imposed on women, is across the board. Unemployment hit women probably proportionately more than men, as is usual in these circumstances—when there is a crisis women are hit first. So across the board women are suffering. Their situation is deteriorating. And I haven’t even mentioned being bombed from the skies, or attacked by white phosphorous, or raided in the middle of the night by the US Marines, or the newborn babies affected by DU. But the women of Iraq, like most of the men, are fighting back in a variety of ways.

So to talk about an imaginary situation where if these ‘enlightened occupiers’ withdraw, Iraqis will turn against the women of Iraq is ridiculous. It doesn’t bear close examination at all.

HZ: Iraqi women have never been victims, and they have never been weak. In fact, they are very well known in the Middle East for being quite powerful characters. They have been active politically and economically in building the country, in the legal system. They were equally responsible for building the new Iraq, from the 1920 revolution until now. So Iraqi women are not passive victims who are at the mercy of men, whether politically or otherwise. Of course, repression under Saddam’s regime targeted everybody, so there was no difference. It wasn’t based on sectarianism, or on ethnicity, or on gender—it was political, purely political.

So women are quite capable of deciding for themselves what they do, and examining what the US and British forces promised when they came to Iraq—and there is little room for optimism here, or that Iraqi women themselves can look forward to something different. They would rather deal with their problems organically and by themselves. Maybe some women were deceived to start with, by these ideas of democracy and women’s rights. There were millions of dollars spent on it by the US government.

I did research on the women’s organisations that came from the
States with the invasion. They are facing daily failure in Iraq. Women themselves dismiss them as representatives of women, though they claim that they have women leaders of this and that. But they are only an attachment of the sectarian or ethnic parties. So it doesn’t really make a difference whether you are male or female, in a sense, if you are there to spout the same rhetoric of your political party, which is echoing US policy in Iraq. It has nothing to do with Iraqi women or establishing their rights

Look, for example, at the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq. One of its biggest projects was about writing an essay, ‘I love Iraq’, and giving $100 to the family whose son or daughter won. The second project was to get women to draw on the old murals that Saddam put up. I mean, if you think that women hardly venture into the streets of Iraqi, can you imagine an Iraqi woman, with all the dangers, risking her life to walk in the street and stand in front of a huge mural, to draw a new mural. This is farcical. Its main project is to buy sewing machines, and they go on and on about the little details—how much it cost them, how they sent this delegation to negotiate the prices and so on. In the end, they got 15 sewing machines and they had photo opportunities and delegations to go and visit the families. The whole project was really just a photo opportunity for the media.

So it’s more about a public relations exercise for the Western media than helping Iraqi women?

HZ: They used to tour the military camps in America to encourage the soldiers by saying thank you—thank you for what? For killing Iraqi people? All this was happening while Iraqi cities were under continuous bombardment, while women and children were being killed all the time, whether by direct bombardment or by using unconventional weapons, cluster bombs, white phosphorous, DU [depleted uranium], or by the effect of the conflict, of the war itself, on Iraqi health, education. So they are completely detached from Iraqi reality, and in particular the reality of Iraqi women.

And we can see, if we are talking about human rights in general, the occupation has nothing to do with human rights. In the end women’s rights are part of human rights. Without the struggle for national liberation, which Iraqi women have been part of throughout all the history of modern Iraq, I can’t see how they can really achieve anything.