With what little I know, I am going to try to explain and summarize everything that is happening in Iraq in one e-mail. So let’s go. Our point of departure is going to be the big news that on the 4th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced that all Iraqis should resist the American occupation of Iraq and drive them out of the country. What does that mean and why that is important is going to need some splainin’.
What is Iraq? Iraq basically is a fictitious country invented by the British when they and other victors of the First World War carved up the Middle East from the Turks. A lot of the problems in the Middle East and Third World can be ascribed to colonialism. India/Pakistan was under British rule and so was Israel/Palestine. Iraq’s borders were arbitrarily defined and do not have much of a link to history nor ethnicity. Borders that don’t make sense also happened in the Partition of India and in Central Asia during Stalin’s crushing of the Basmachi rebellion, so it’s a theme alright.
Iraqis are generally divided into three groups: Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds (who are not Arabs). Kurds are actually Sunnis, but for political and reporting purposes, “Sunnis” in Iraq is shorthand for Arab Sunnis. Kurds live in the northern part of Iraq and are fighting to retake the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from which they were ethnically cleansed out of in the 1970s. Kurds have lots of oil in their area. Sunnis live in the broad middle of the country (or the Sunni Triangle). Saddam Hussein was an Arab Sunni and came from the town of Tikrit, where he was found in that spider hole. This area has very little oil. The Shi’ites live in the southern part of the country and have a lot of oil. One of their large cities is Basra which is being run by the British. Baghdad is a mixed city in the middle with both religions.
**And in case you didn’t know, Arab is just anyone from an Arabic-speaking country. You can be a Christian, Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze, or whatever, it just means you speak Arabic. Kurds speak Kurdish. And… IRANIANS ARE NOT ARABS. They are Persians who speak Farsi.**
Sunnis and Shi’ites are two branches of Islam that split due to an argument and war over the succession of Muhammed in the Caliphate (leader of Islam). The Shi’ites lost the civil war within Islam, and only represent 15% of Muslims in the world. However, they are a majority in Iraq and Iran. Since Lebanon hasn’t taken a census in decades, no one knows if they are a majority there. The Caliphate was disestablished (it was in Turkey/Ottoman Empire) in the 1920s by the British; the Caliphate was seen as a unifier of Sunni Islam. (I am working with very limited knowledge of Muslims, anyone who knows more be sure to tell me). Incidently, it is widely believed that al-Qaida and bin Laden want to re-establish the Caliphate for Muslims and make bin Laden or someone like him the head. Shi’ites have a centralized religion (soooorta like Catholics) with hiearchies of imams and ayatollahs. Shi’ites, from what I read, tend to be backwards, rural, and uneducated. They haven’t run Iraq in centuries either even though they are 60% of the population. Iraq has been run by the 20% Sunni Arabs. Until the fall of Saddam, that tended to be Sunnis from his hometown of Tikrit. The elite was mostly Sunni Ba’athists (the name of Saddam’s political party).
Shi’ites (from what I understand) are really into martyrdom and remorse. In particular, they have a holy day called Ashura where they flog themselves for failing to protect their prophet/leader Ali from assassination. The story of Ali’s bloody death and all the Shi’ite martyrs is always repeated and remembered in Shi’ite Islam. Marytrdom is a big thing. And Saddam provided them lots of martyrdom.
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saddam got paranoid that a religious Shi’ite revolution would overthrow his minority government. Iraq fought with Iran in the 1980s in a bloody war in which Iraq was supported by America; in fact, Saddam met Donald Rumsfeld and shook his hand and was given chemical weapons for the war. The Ba’ath Party was an Arab nationalist party that was socialist and secular. Iraq was possibly the most liberal Arab country for womens rights…. they went to law school and medical school and had government jobs. Now they hide in their apartments and cannot leave unveiled with the religious fervent unleashed by Saddam’s downfall.
Saddam did not ever try to associate with religion until after the Gulf War and used to kill religious fundamentalists on a regular basis. Religious opponents were a threat to his power. And it just so happens that some of them had the last name al-Sadr.
To understand the significance of [Moqtada’s announcement], it’s worth reminding oneself of who Sadr and his supporters are. While generally portrayed as violent anti-Sunni and anti-American extremists (the first charge is certainly true of many of them and the second is silly – being anti-American in Iraq is not extreme), Sadr and his supporters were also among the biggest victims of Saddam Hussein. Sadr’s great-uncle, great-aunt, father, and two elder brothers were murdered by Saddam’s regime. His followers, largely the poor, uneducated and downtrodden among Iraq’s Shi’a majority, were, along with the Kurds, Saddam’s biggest victims – especially in 1991, when Saddam put down their uprising with the aid of our current president’s sainted – or perhaps merely beatified — father.
So what happened when America brought “democracy” to Iraq? The angry, suppressed majority would take power after centuries of mistreatment.
After the fall of Saddam 4 years ago, the United States set up a puppet government called the Coalition Provisional Authority that later one became the “Iraq Governing Council.” Paul Bremer, the “Director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance”, was for all intents and purposes the Viceroy of Iraq. Viceroy Bremer was appointed after the first Viceroy Garner, said he wanted immediate elections and then a withdrawal. Paul Bremer’s reign was amazing in its corruption, stupidity, and theft. The information is all out there, I don’t want to bother looking it all up. It is worth noting that Bremer and the CPA could not account for (working from memory here) $8-10 billion of UN Oil For Food money that was turned over…. that’s right, we can’t account for the Iraqi’s own oil revenues.
Anyway, Bremer didn’t want real elections to occur. His idea was to have a series of regional caucuses to have more caucuses to make up the first Iraqi government. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most important Shi’ite priest in Iraq, demanded democracy and elections and started massive protests until Bremer buckled and allowed real elections. (If you don’t believe America was avoiding elections in Iraq, you can look around on the Internet. I’m pretty sure I got that from a Financial Times of London editorial.)
Bremer turned over “sovereignty” in June 2004 to the Iraqi transitional government. According the agreement, laws in effect Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, was the transitional Prime Minister. When elections came around in 2005, Allawi was wiped out by the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance of Shi’ite religious parties. The two biggest parties were the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Not exactly the sort of secular liberal democrats the President thought would take control and promote a non-Islamic state. One of those parties was Moqtada al-Sadr’s (I dunno its name).
Enter Moqtada al-Sadr
Moqtada al-Sadr is a religious cleric not known for his great religious thinking, but for his man-on-the-street populism and nationalism. He also has an excellent religious pedigree coming from a family of religious scholars, including his father.
In 2004, he was the only major Shi’ite leader to fight against American troops. The insurgency at this point had been Sunni Ba’athists. He saw America as a terrible foreign occupier that must be driven out. After battles in the holy city of Najaf, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army announced it would stop fighting and enter into politics.
In politics, the fractured United Iraqi Alliance fought over whether to drop Ibrahim al-Jafaari, the first Prime Minister. Al-Sadr’s support in the UIA caucus kept Jafaari up for a bit longer than was expected. He is still supporting the murderous government of Nouri al-Maliki (who replaced Jafaari) in Parliament.
The militias and the Insurgency
If I can give you one link to read to understand Iraq’s insurgency and civil war, I recommend this interview on Salon.com (note, this is before al-Sadr’s announcement to drive out the Americans). “The insurgency” is essentially Sunni. Originally the insurgency was composed of nationalist Sunnis and former Saddam loyalists. Now the movement has become more religious and taken over by al-Qaida (which didn’t exist prior to the American invasion of Saddam-controlled Iraq. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are a dirty liar.) Groups with al-Qaida ideas and al-Qaida clones also dominate the Sunni insurgency.
As order broke down during the incompetent reign of Paul Bremer, and the Iraq Army was disbanded and all public officials with Ba’ath Party ties (mos, and most Sunni) were fired, the one organized force in Iraq replaced the absent State. The religious fundamentalists, their mosques, and their private militias. As the police disappeared, Shi’ite militias began policing the street, proclaiming and enforcing Islamic law, and murdering political opponents. Symbolic of the transition, the Shi’ite slum of Saddam City became renamed Sadr City, in honor of Moqtada al-Sadr’s father.
Because Saddam persecuted the Shi’ite and their political parties, each party had it’s own militia to protect itself. Now that the Shia parties were represented in government, each party took different ministries. The Kurds got some, but most importantly, the Interior Ministry went to the Shi’ites. Due to de-Ba’athification, most Saddam era law-enforcement could not take the jobs (they are only now talking about undoing de-Ba’athification, possibly the biggest reason for the cause of the insurgency). The Shia parties then integrated their militias into the national police and Interior ministry police. Basically then, there was no difference between the police and Shi’ite militias/death squads. Interior ministry police would then go about the city, murdering Sunnis in retaliation for terrorist attacks, and bury them into mass graves. It is so bad, the transitional Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (the one we PICKED!) said that human rights were worse now than under Saddam.
Last year around March, a big Shi’ite mosque was blown up (I can’t remember the name). After that happened, the civil war really began. The death squads were first holding themselves back to killing suspected terrorists while the Sunnis would indiscriminately bomb marketplaces and innocents. After that attack of their prized mosque, Shi’ites began to ethnically cleanse mixed neighborhoods of Sunnis in retaliation. The militia/death squads didn’t feel any reason to hold back, and shit hit the fan. Mass graves for everyone.
In possibly the most shocking thing I have read about the sectarian violence, I read that the Interior Minister told the Health Minister (both Shia) to only report to the media how many people died from terrorists attacks ( i.e. from Sunnis) and to not report murders that happened execution style by the death squads (Shia). So we don’t even know how many people the death squads have been killing. And who knows how many are buried out in the desert.
Basically, that has been the story so far. American soldiers have only been getting attacked from Sunnis except for that early fight in Najaf in 2004 with Moqtada al-Sadr. This bullshit “surge” is supposedly supposed to keep the militias off the streets and stop Sunni insurgents. Good luck to that. Reports I’ve read say that American soldiers mostly stay in FOBs (forward operating bases) where fobbits (people who never leave the FOB) tell them to go out and patrol the streets. They do “shows of forces” every once in a while where they either patrol unmolested because the militias/insurgents are waiting for them to leave or until they get shot at. Then they go back to the base and wait for their next death patrol that doesn’t improve security.
And this is just 20% of Iraq hating our guts and killing our soldiers. Now with al-Sadr saying he wants to drive us out with his 60% of Iraq, it’ll be a real shitstorm when 80% of Iraq is actively killing Americans. And the Iraqi government is a joke; they can’t even protect their cafeteria.
- Here’s a rundown of Iraq Shi’ite clerics
- Moqtada announces opposition to American presence
- The best on-the ground reporting I have seen comes from Christian Parenti at the Nation from 2003-2005. These reports just blew my mind with their minimal commentary, talks with actual Iraqis and actual soldiers. He was with the Mahdi Army during the 2004 battles in Najaf.
- The other great war reporting I saw was by the hilarious Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone here.
- Great commentary April 9th commentary by Raul Mahajan at www.empirenotes.org. Since he has actually been to Iraq, I read his stuff. He was an anti-war activist in Austin when the war started. And he has a PhD in physics for some reason.
For all you wannabe working Mothers
New York Times Magazine article about falling birthrates in First World countries. I found this via a feminist column by feminist Katha Pollitt. For all the pro-family rhetoric (I learned about this in middle school), the United States is the only first world country with no paid parental leave after the birth of a child. Other countries have public support for daycare and make it easier for working women to have kids and, well, work.
I find this stuff interesting because I “minored” in demography at UT. And also because I’m a huge nerd.