Sami Ramadani interview: ‘Iraq is not a communal war’

Issue: 114

Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi exile based in Britain, spoke to International Socialism about the situation in the country after four years of occupation

International Socialism spoke to you and Haifa Zangana about 15 months ago. At that stage both of you were saying that, while there was some sectarianism, it was not the Iraqi way. Today people say sectarianism is the dominant factor in Iraq—this is not just the argument of those on the right, but also people like Patrick Cockburn on the left [see ‘Alternative Views of Iraq’]. How do you see the situation?

There is a greater degree of sectarianism since that interview. This is mainly due to the grip that sectarian parties have established on the formal politics of the country. They are backed by the occupying forces financially, and in every other sense. The rise in sectarianism is mainly reflected in the battle for power between the sectarian parties that are in the government. All of the factions cooperate with the occupation, but they are also competing with each other for a greater share in political power, and ultimately Iraq’s wealth. These forces cannot obtain any substantial social base without appealing on the basis of a religion, sect or ethnicity. The growth of sectarianism aids and abets their existence. The greater the sectarian divide, the greater their chance of having a wider social base.

Having said all that, I am still of the opinion that the sectarian conflict in Iraq—between the forces I have described—is not yet the dominant factor among the masses in the streets. If there was a communal civil war in the streets, towns and cities of Iraq, that would be a very serious development. I do not think we are anywhere near this stage. Indeed, the people’s hostility to the governmental parties and the occupation, and the historical absence of mass sectarian hostility have all combined to prevent large-scale communal strife and violence.

The current sectarian violence takes a number of forms. One type is the conflict I referred to between the various political forces. But this is at a highly organised level, unpopular and not mass-communal in nature. A second type is directly linked to the occupation forces themselves. They aid and abet secret militias led by former Saddam generals, six of which were exposed by the Wall Street Journal more than a year and a half ago. In addition to their own US assassination squads (trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina), they brought in a strong force of what I call mercenaries, what the media calls private contractors. They number well over 50,000—mostly contracted to the Pentagon. They are not answerable to anybody other than the occupying forces. Paul Bremmer put them above Iraqi law in one of his final decrees while he was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Some of the activities of these forces are designed to inflame sectarian divisions in the country. They are recruited from highly trained special forces from across the world, including former officers from apartheid South Africa, and are paid $500 to $1,000 per day.

There is another force, which has been heavily engaged in sectarian violence, named the Facilities Protection Service. This is a force of up to 150,000, an army, established by Paul Bremmer, paid for by the Iraqi government but totally outside its control. A former interior minister admitted in an interview with BBC World that this force was involved in death squad activities. Prime minister Maliki admitted some weeks ago that this force was financed by the state but not under its control and is engaged in death squad activities. He vowed to clean it up! In addition, there is a myriad of private gangs and, for the first time, strong drug gangs, which operate on the margins of this chaos. They are out to make money through kidnapping or, operating under sectarian banners, by threatening people to make them leave their homes, which they can then sell or rent.

Most people are of the opinion that all these things have been brought in by, or developed under, the occupation. They dislike it, they attack it and they say it is the work of the occupation.

There was recently a big bomb planted in Baghdad’s biggest market, Shorja. It’s probably the twentieth time this market has been bombed. It’s a massive popular market, and it’s completely mixed—Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Christians, you name it, they are there—it’s a microcosm of Iraqi society. Whoever exploded that bomb killed all these people. The media would immediately call that a sectarian attack. How do they know? Ultimately this is a conspiracy theory. Or they would say it’s Saddam’s people or Al Qaida—that’s just another conspiracy theory unless they provide some evidence. But what the media label a conspiracy theory, and refuse to report, is the view held by the majority of Iraqis in the streets—that the occupation causes, instigates or turns a blind eye to the sectarian violence.

Look at the editorials in the British press and across most of the world when a bomb destroyed the Shia shrine in Samara in February last year. They instantly claimed it was Sunni extremists or Sunni insurgents. This was not backed up by any evidence. The Samara bomb is now considered the trigger for the so-called sectarian conflict. Samara is a mainly Sunni town. That shrine, with its massive dome, is one of the most important Shia shrines, and has been there for hundreds of years, protected by and regarded as the pride of an ancient Sunni city. Why is it that Sunnis would bomb the shrine? A little reported fact is that the shrine is also sacred to Sunnis in Iraq. According to one Iraqi minister, the bomb took an estimated 12 hours to carefully and expertly plant, during which there was a strict curfew enforced by the US. The bombers came in four‑wheel drives, detained the policemen and proceeded to plant the explosives. They left in the same cars just before the curfew was lifted early in the morning. The mostly Sunni people of the city instantly came out in their thousands to angrily denounce the bombing and accuse the occupation.

One of the biggest bombs exploded in the heavily working class Sadr City district of Baghdad, where about two million people live, after US forces completely besieged an area of the district and jammed all mobile phones. Sadr City people interviewed on the spot, sometimes with blood still dripping from them, said, ‘We haven’t been attacked by Sunnis. This is the work of the occupation forces.’ This is a very popular and strongly held opinion in Iraq—that the US is trying to drive the country towards civil war. This is what the media refuses to or rarely reports

You can ask why the US, which went to war to control Iraq, to get a greater command of its oil and reshape the Middle East, would want to incite a civil war. I don’t think they came to Iraq to start a civil war. But faced with such overwhelmingly popular opposition to their presence they reacted like any classical colonial power—divide and rule, sow divisions. If you are a US general you would rather have Iraqis shoot at each other than at your forces. They underestimated the size of the opposition to their presence—especially in the south of Iraq and certain areas of Baghdad. They worked for a long time to convince Shias that, once Saddam was overthrown, the new situation would be much better for them. But the south of Iraq hated their presence. There were mass demonstrations, trade union activities and protests by the unemployed. On the massive march to Karbala two weeks after the fall of Baghdad—the BBC estimated four million marched—the main slogan was ‘No to America, no to Saddam’. On that march there were Sunnis, Shias, Christians, atheists, you name it, even though it had a religious tone marking the death of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussein.

When the US arrived as an outside force in Iraq it faced resistance and looked for anyone who would support the occupation. But if you read Charles Tripp’s article in the London Review of Books in January [see ‘Alternative Views of Iraq’], he argues that even before the occupation Saddam had to rely on and encourage divisions. He would pass whatever money the state had down through tribal and religious leaders. The US looked to the same leaders. Tripp’s description reminded me of Karl Marx’s writings on India—the British could only control India with a small army by exacerbating every division and finding people they could work with.

I think that it’s true that this is what the US have done. But I don’t think it’s true that this is what Saddam did. Saddam ruled through a mechanism of terror, social and class control, which was ‘equal opportunities’ type -repression. He did not repress on the basis of religion or ethnicity, not even the Kurds. He repressed any social force or group that threatened his power base—and this included people from his own town and his closest relatives.

There were sectarian ramifications to his policies, especially after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1991 uprising in the south -following the Kuwait war. That uprising started in Basra and was triggered by the retreating foot soldiers Saddam had dispatched to Kuwait. He hit the uprising savagely, with George Bush senior’s blessing. It looked, especially to people who didn’t know Iraq well, as if he was waging a sectarian war, but he was hitting at the centres of the popular uprising, just like he struck against any rebellion in Iraqi Kurdistan. Any Kurdish force that cooperated with him, he would work with, similarly with Shia forces. He always had a foothold in sections of the Shia religious establishment.

There was a myth that the Sunni areas were pampered by Saddam, for example the city of Fallujah, which became a centre of resistance to the occupation. In fact the people of Fallujah hated Saddam because he accused many of their elders and military officers of conspiring to overthrow him in a coup attempt in the 1990s. That’s why after the occupation it fell so easily to Islamic forces, rather than Baathists. The Islamic forces became strong in Iraq because the mosque became the one space that Saddam could not shut down or fully control, and because left wing secular forces were brutally crushed or, in the case of the leadership of the Communist Party, compromised with Saddam. The Communist Party (founded in 1934) had been the force that cut across religious and ethnic divisions and which, over three decades, had enjoyed massive popular support. The regime’s brutal repression and the policies pursued by the party itself eventually isolated it from popular support on the street. In fact the centres where Sadr’s movement is so strong today are working class areas that were previously strongholds of the Communist Party.

But Saddam’s control of the money, filtered down through tribal leaders, meant that divisions which had become less important as Iraq urbanised reasserted themselves. In a sense he could keep Iraqis fragmented.

I agree with that up to a point, but he didn’t do it along systematic sectarian lines. Indeed, one can see that it’s not the countryside but some of the urban centres that are today the focus of organised sectarian conflict. Also most if not all Iraqi tribes are mixed Sunni and Shia tribes—a fact not mentioned in most analyses of Iraq. A tribe’s leader or leaders have to defend all members of the tribe, regardless of their sect or ethnicity. And of course a section of the middle class in the cities also provided a base of support for Saddam, and they were mainly secular. It’s true that he bought off influential tribal figures, and he made sure that the officers of the army were pampered, and so on. Even criminalised activities were ‘nationalised’—you couldn’t become a prostitute unless the state controlled your activities; you couldn’t steal or bribe without the state’s knowledge and blessing.

The state was not built on sectarian foundations, even though some of its policies had a sectarian impact, just as his policies had a national‑chauvinist character, for example against the Kurdish people and their legitimate national rights. At the same time, he was willing to do deals with, and even arm, certain Kurdish forces, including the present leaders of the main Kurdish parties. But he used terror against any force that opposed him.

An important backdrop to Iraqi society is the fact that the communal lands that belonged to the tribes were privatised and awarded to some of the tribal leaders after Britain occupied Iraq in the 1920s (feudalism in Kurdistan had a much longer history). This new and old feudal class was composed of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds (mostly Sunnis), and, with their legalised private armies, they formed the most powerful segment of the class base of the modern Iraqi state. The other segment was the extremely wealthy, urban‑based merchant class. These merchants were also Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.

There are parts of the world where you do have genuine communal sectarianism. In northern India, for example, you have horrific riots between Muslims and Hindus, and in some areas near annual riots between Sunnis and Shias. You’re saying that’s not the case in Iraq.

Correct. I would challenge anyone to show me a period in Iraq’s history where there has been sustained or large-scale communal violence, and it’s still not occurring. It’s your neighbours who are protecting you at the moment—and your neighbours might be Sunnis, Shias or Kurds. It’s the unknown, darker forces that are threatening you—the masked men in their four‑wheel drives at night who will descend and knock on your door. This is not the main characteristic of a communal war. In a communal war people go out onto the streets, point to a house and empty it or burn it down; people clash in the street, or at least support the sectarian -violence. On the contrary, all mass gatherings, demonstrations and protests throughout Iraq have been fiercely anti-sectarian. Again this goes mainly unreported, while the ‘sectarian bombers’ grab the headlines. The news is carefully managed from the US-dominated ‘Green Zone’.

In Bosnia you would have people who had lived together for years. Then communalist figures from other areas would appear, go through the streets asking, ‘Are you Catholic, are you Muslim?’ People run, and that creates the basis for further resentment. That was true to some extent during partition of India—people suddenly had to identify themselves as Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.

Some of this has, in fact, happened in Iraq. But people don’t recognise it, at least not so far, as a genuine popular feeling—they recognise it as the work of state-backed or occupation-backed forces, or the gangs that I referred to.

I understand that among some of the Wahhabis (followers of the form of Islam -sponsored by the Saudi state) there is a genuinely sectarian attitude to the Shias.

The Wahhabis certainly have a fierce sectarian line—but they never managed to gain a foothold in Iraq, because in the past they have always failed to build a social base there. In the 1920s they came from the Arabian peninsular to try to build in Iraq but were crushed by an alliance of Shias and Sunnis. Today they are again trying to build in Iraq. They have a -sectarian line backed and financially supported by the Saudi regime. They spread the most backward social norms, for example they argue for the most extreme forms of social repression of women. For decades they were also backed by the CIA as an anti-Communist force, for example in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion when Saudi‑financed/CIA trained forces (including Bin Laden’s) were sent there. Iraq was never fertile ground for them. So far they have failed to become a large force in Iraq, although they appear well‑funded and active.

How actively they are fighting the occupation is open to question. Most of their activity is directed against Iraqis. Many of the statements attributed to Zarqawi and his successors call on people to attack Shias. If you’re preaching that, attacking the US becomes secondary. According to some of the Sunni religious figures, the Wahhabis are also killing Sunnis who refuse to follow them. Most of the religious leaders in Fallujah were also opposed to Zarqawi, even though the US claimed that Zarqawi was based in Fallujah.

The US decided to play the sectarian card when radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr led a rebellion at the same time as the uprising in Fallujah. At that time Sadr was seen as a non-sectarian figure. Now there are reports that his Mahdi army are involved in sectarian killings.

Parts of the Mahdi army have been involved in sectarian killings. It is not a disciplined force—it’s made up of tens of thousands of volunteers who joined spontaneously, because Sadr was the one Shia cleric who talked about taking up arms and fighting the occupation. There are other Shia clerics, even some much more senior than Sadr, who strongly oppose the occupation, but none of these have appealed to the streets to build an armed force against the occupation. Tens of thousands of working class Iraqis joined Sadr’s forces.

Sadr also belongs to a tradition and a family that stands for anti‑imperialism. This tradition stretches back to the 1920 revolution against the British occupation. His father in law, Muhammad Baqir al‑Sadr, and Muhammad Baqir’s sister, Bint ul Huda, founded the Da’wa party in 1958, which later fought against Saddam. Mohammad Baqir was Khomeini’s main ally when the Iranian leader was in exile in Najaf before the Iranian Revolution. Muhmmad Baqir and Bint ul Huda were murdered by Saddam in 1980 following their vocal support for the Iranian Revolution. Sadr’s father, Muhammad Sadiq, was also a leading ayatollah, who challenged the ‘silent’ Iraqi Shia establishment and appealed to poorer Shias. He built a large anti-US, anti-Israel following around him, and Saddam killed him, and Muqtada’s two brothers, in 1999.

The Mahdi army are the strongest ‘organised’ anti-occupation military force with a known leadership. They remain, however, utterly disorganised. They are easily infiltrated, for example by the occupation agents, and the [Sciri party leader] Hakim’s Badr forces, which are working with the occupation. Some of the sectarianism stems from this infiltration—if you wear black fatigues and carry a Kalashnikov you are part of the Mahdi army. Some of it is internal and sectarian in nature—although Sadr is generally anti-sectarian he still mobilises on a sect basis. When an explosion, like the one in the Shia shrine at Samarra, occurs there are sectarian activities that go beyond simply infiltration.

But, generally, I don’t think Sadr has, at least in his public statements, encouraged sectarianism. On the contrary, all his public statements are strongly anti‑sectarian and call for anti-occupation unity across the sect and ethnic differences. One thing he did, which indirectly encouraged sectarianism, was to join the now governing coalition just before the elections. Up until that moment he had strong support across the sects. Once he joined the coalition that message became less clear and had less influence. Also, and almost simultaneously, some of the Sunni religious leaders, who had previously met with Sadr, seemed to become less hostile to Al Qaida and the Saddamist faction of the Baath Party. This further widened the gap between them.

Of course one major problem with the Sadr movement, especially within the context of a highly urbanised and secular Iraq, is the social content of its message. This has obviously prevented the Sadr movement from gaining the support of large sections of the highly educated and publicly active women in the cities as well as other socially progressive opinion.

You’ve mentioned the resistance to the US. How would you now characterise the resistance, and how do they interweave with the other forces you talked about? For example, the US has stepped up its attacks on the Mahdi army even though Sadr is crucial to the governing coalition.

One shouldn’t underestimate how much the US exploited Sadr’s entry into the governing coalition. The propaganda against Sadr has been massive over the past couple of years. Part of that propaganda has succeeded, and in some areas Sadr is quite isolated. The US forces now feel that they can take on the Sadr movement, but I do not think they have reached the stage where they can start a full-scale assault. They are still at the stage of arresting key figures in the movement—they have already detained hundreds of activists, especially in Baghdad. They are trying to avoid what they did in Najaf, where they tried to attack Sadr’s forces directly. This is a complex onslaught, which may lead to big open clashes, but is designed to prevent unity emerging between the various resistance forces.

When we talk about ‘the’ resistance it’s probably the wrong description—it’s not a unified movement. Aside from the Mahdi army, there are small resistance groups all over Iraq, but the bulk of the armed resistance is still spontaneous and locally based. It is composed of people who take a shot at occupation forces, or plant a home‑made device. The operations claimed by all the known resistance groups still amount to only 10 percent of the average 3,000 operations against the occupation each month (according to figures published by the US military). The organised groups usually claim attacks very quickly if they carried them out. This diffused and ‘unorganised’ resistance shows the widespread, popular base of the resistance. That’s why the occupation has failed to defeat it.

There’s a famous video, which exemplifies the nature of the resistance in Iraq, showing a supply convoy being chaperoned by US army vehicles, which lost its way in the side streets and suddenly came under attack. US forces control the highways, but in the side roads they meet neighbourhood-based resistance. The deeper they went into the neighbourhood the more they were attacked. This is also true of the southern areas controlled by British forces.

What’s the relationship between the Iraqi government and the occupation, and how has this evolved in recent months?

The relationship is complex. The US embassy (inside Saddam’s Republican Palace in the Green Zone) is like the Godfather. You have groups gathered in the Green Zone in the Iraqi government. All these political forces tend to appeal to the Godfather when they want to enhance their position or complain about other forces. If they unite they could pose a problem for the US. Even within the Kurdish scene in Kurdistan there are still two government structures based on the rival PUK and KDP. The US has not tried to fuse them into one force. They would rather play on the tensions between them.

The prime minister of Iraq is from the Da’wa party (which has today lost much of its popular base). Then there are Hakim’s forces, which are rich and well organised within Sciri—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. It has a large well paid militia, the Badr Brigade, but this is organised more like a regular army. Again this force has lost most of its popular support. In the last clash between Sadr’s force and Badr Brigade, which took place last summer, the Mahdi Army crushed them in ten major cities. It was significant that Badr’s forces fled their headquarters in those cities and did not fight back. They reached a ceasefire, mediated by Ayatollah Sistanti, and it was after this that Sadr was offered of 30 seats in the coalition government. The Badr Brigade used to be in Iran before the US-led invasion, but after they crossed the border back into Iraq their leadership became—contrary to many reports—much more answerable to the US than Iran. Historically, the forces around Hakim supported the 1963 US-backed Baathist coup. There is a Hakim tradition of working with the US, stretching back to that Baathist coup and the anti-Communist alliance.

The current prime minister is not the US’s first choice. In the long term they would rather have someone from a Shia movement that has close ties with the US. Hakim’s movement, despite acute differences and complex problems, is the closest they have to that.

A few months ago some people were talking about a CIA-backed coup against the government. I didn’t think that was likely at the time, but the stronger the Iraqi army grows under US tutelage, the more likely this kind of US attempt to enforce a fascist political order would become. This is akin to the US-organised coup in Vietnam under occupation (which also followed a period of so‑called free elections).

Another development that could radically change the picture is the US threat of war against Iran. The US is building an anti-Iran -alliance of pro-US Arab regimes, as well as an Iraqi alliance. The latter is more complex to build and involves some in the Kurdish leadership, part of Hakim’s forces, some of the Sunni clergy, the Saddamist faction of the Baath party and others. This is a very difficult alliance to construct, but the US is piling up the pressure and resources to build it.

What are your expectations for the future?

I’m an incurable optimist, but I’m a bit pessimistic about the situation in Iraq. On one hand you have the US in deep crisis. They have failed in their initial plans and they will continue to fail. On the other hand, and this is the source of my relative pessimism, the Iraqi people’s movement is also in crisis because of the absence of a well organised unifying movement with largely secular appeal and from an anti-imperialist tradition. I’m a socialist, so my preference would be for a socialist force to lead a great people’s alliance against the occupation, but I’d support a generally progressive force leading such a broad front to end the occupation. This is not yet on the horizon—hence the historic crisis. Thirty five years of dictatorship, 13 years of sanctions and the US-led war have weakened the fibre of progressive social and political movements in Iraq.

In the longer term, however, things might well change for the better—there are historical precedents in Iraq. We have traditions of unifying Iraqis regardless of ethnic or religious background. These traditions cannot be wiped out overnight. There are still student, trade union and women’s activities. There are active progressive forces, but I cannot pretend they are currently capable of leading a broad front. Very important for the future of the struggle, and for Iraq itself, is the rising tide of opposition to the leaderships of the two ruling Kurdish parties. There is a growing workers’, students’ and poor peasants’ opposition against the large‑scale corruption and theft of state funds and the deteriorating public services and rising poverty, alongside the growth of the pro-occupation super‑rich class in Kurdistan.

There is an umbrella organisation called the National Foundation Congress, which is anti-occupation. They looked as if they could become a broad progressive force, but Sadr joining the governing coalition, and some of the Sunni leaders moving closer to Al Qaida and Saddam regime remnants have weakened it. It still has a strong political anti-sectarian and anti‑occupation appeal, but it doesn’t have a strong organised presence. It might enjoy the support of some resistance forces, but it does not lead the resistance. The struggle in Iraq will also depend on a broader anti-imperialist unity among the peoples of the Middle East, including the Iranian people and the people of Turkey.

Alternative Views of Iraq

Baghdad is now effectively a dozen different cities; they are all at war. On walls there are slogans in black paint saying ‘Death to Spies’. A Shia caught in a Sunni district will be killed and vice versa… The Sunnis are behind the car bombings and suicide bombings of Shia areas… According to the UN, 3,000 people are murdered, mostly for sectarian reasons, in Iraq every month. The Shias retaliate by opening more checkpoints and killing any Sunni they can identify. So many people now carry false identity papers to conceal their sectarian background that some guards manning the posts carry a list of theological questions that a Sunni would not be able to answer.
Patrick Cockburn in London Review of Books, 22 Feburary 2007

The sectarian anti-Shia attack in Samarra in February 2006…was a major turning point in the Iraq situation and very much precipitated the slide into sectarian war… Of course, it built on a long accumulation of events preceding it: so many sectarian attacks against the Shias, so many suicide attacks, car bombs and all that, killing hundreds after hundreds of Shias and therefore creating deep -resentment among them… Let me repeat that no one can safely predict whether there is still a way out of the situation without an all‑out explosion or not. The only established fact is that the presence of US troops is not preventing the worse outcome, and the longer it stays, the worse it is getting…
Gilbert Achcar interviewed by ZNet in January 2007

The political as opposed to humanitarian effects of the punitive sanctions in force since 1990 had been wholly misunderstood…connections with the privileged became key, thus giving vast power not only to the inner circle around the president, but also concentric circles of co‑opted intermediaries, who spread into every community, and whose freedom of action was such that they had power of life and death over those who looked to them for assistance… Secular Iraqi professionals, several generations removed from their rural forebears, found themselves swearing allegiance to the sheikh of ‘their’ tribe or submitting to the local imam in an attempt to fund protection. Both winners and losers were systematically brutalised and humiliated in the process, fostering forms of behaviour that have been only too evident in the past three years, since the overarching control of the centre evaporated… The US and UK are mainly concerned with the security of the powerful, of those who have, by various means, some of them very brutal indeed, established themselves as power‑brokers.
Charles Tripp in London Review of Books, 25 January 2007