Iraq: A land of splintered loyalties
THE Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, a modest, soft-spoken cleric, who entertains American diplomats in his modest chambers in Najaf over tea and crumpets, appears far more powerful in Iraq these days than the man in the Oval office back in Washington, who on March 20 last year launched a grand plan to re-make the Middle East.
But then, ever since the successful conquest of Baghdad last spring, developments in Iraq have made fools of Western planning experts, whose stated intentions still include providing peace, prosperity and democracy.
Last week, the Grand Ayatollah threatened to use his influence to stonewall the signing of a new interim constitution designed to steer the country down a democratic path towards independence. "Any law prepared for the transitional period will not gain legitimacy except after it is endorsed by an elected national assembly," announced al-Sistani in a fatwa.
Like many other Iraqis opposed to foreign influence, al-Sistani was expressing worries that the framework for a new state was being created by forces other than the country’s majority, which for Shiites is viewed in terms of the 60% Shia population’s interests.
Arab Shiite and Arab Sunni leaders both worry about the ambitions of a small, influential Kurdish minority in the north that sits in control of vast oil reserves. The constitution, finally signed by all parties early this week, allows both the Kurds and Sunni Arabs to opt out of a unified Iraq upon their own choosing.
Yet even the squabbling over a new constitution - which can be viewed in a positive light by democracy advocates - seems a paltry concern compared to several growing threats to long-term stability in Iraq.
Despite the absence of any substantive evidence that the former regime was cooperating with international terrorists prior to the US and British-led invasion, Iraq has become, over the past year, a crucial new front for the West’s "war on terror".
Security, not democracy, is the dominant concern of most Iraqis struggling to make ends meet in the post-Saddam era. Whereas British forces remain on constant patrol in the south of the country, in the central regions American forces have largely withdrawn behind massive concrete barriers, nicknamed "Bremmer Walls," after the top US administrator ambassador Paul Bremmer. When mayhem erupts in the form of a car-bombing or an assault on an Iraqi police station, US and British forces are often nowhere to be seen.
American and British commanders say they are determined to hand security responsibilities, with the partial exception of the fight against terror, over to Iraqi counterparts this summer. Yet, that plan is hampered by inexperience, lack of know-how and mixed loyalties on the Iraqi end.
Witness the daily struggle of US forces here to recruit, train and equip Iraqi security forces charged with taking on the struggle fighting terror and keeping the peace. Hossam, a cadet in one of Saddam Hussein’s elite military academies when US forces and their allies invaded last year, is learning again how to crawl in the mud and shoot straight. Private American trainers with US military backgrounds have given him tips on how to take on would-be guerrilla fighters.
Not surprisingly, Hossam, 25, now questions his family’s own prevailing view of the deposed leader. He openly denounces the former Iraqi president in the company of three of his older brothers, one an insurgent and the other an arms dealer for the same fighters.
"We want an Islamic commander in this country," he says, sitting alongside the Tigris River as fishermen toss their nets across an inlet, while others simply toss grenades in the water, hoping for better results. "Though we have a proud history, Iraq has been a great historical loser."
Another brother in the same family served in one of the Iraqi president’s elite militias. He has just signed up for the new Iraqi police force. He too has been through a special training course and has a salary - along with its newly-added "danger pay" - equal to about $190 a month. For now, though, he says he will only stay in the new force briefly before resigning with the dollars and new, high-tech pistol he hopes to earn sometime in the next three months. He believes that, by serving in the US sponsored force, he is forsaking both Islam and his own nation.
"We are in the service of an occupier and so we are betraying our nation," he says, pulling on a cigarette and staring across the Tigris in the direction of a US military base, one of the largest in Iraq. Like many Iraqis, he also resents Washington planners for bringing what they consider the United States’ own "war on terror" into his own backyard.
This Sunni Arab family, living in a modest mud-brick home with a clay oven out back, does not stand out as an anomaly in the new Iraq; a nation of sweeping changes and mercurial loyalties.
Iraqi tribesmen in the volatile Sunni Triangle are drawn by religious and tribal allegiances to oppose the American occupation. With the anti-American insurgency still active and sacrificing fighters to the cause of "liberation", enlistment in the new Iraqi security services could well mean that one local Iraqi might end up fighting against his fellow Muslims and - in this family’s case - his own brother.
Hossam’s older brother Abu Jabbar, a tall, lanky resistance fighter, insists that both his brothers have already sold out by joining the new Iraqi security services. The dilemma that all brothers face is whether to serve the "occupier" in the hope of bringing stability to Iraq, or fight the Americans to promote Iraqi "independence".
Seen in this light, the "new Iraq" is not so new, after all. The issue has echoes of the Arab world’s historical struggle to assert its own destiny.
Despite decades of time since the British occupation of Iraq, Iraqis often harken back to that era for comparisons to what they face today. Indeed, Hossam’s clan, which resides in a district that once fuelled Saddam Hussein’s fighting machine, has no natural ties to the occupying army. Like members of thousands of other Sunni Arabs, four sons in the family all served another master under the former regime in their capacity as policemen, soldiers and militiamen. They enjoyed perks and power far beyond the 20 to 25% of the population base that Sunni Arabs represent in Iraq, a country with a Shiite majority.
Power and money are still very much in play. The two sons who have joined the new Iraqi security services say that it is the prospect of a good salary that goaded them into signing up in the first place. As a response to mass resignations that accompanied the graduation of the first class of Iraqi army cadets in December, the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority offered a "danger pay" supplement that doubled salaries.
But money alone is not likely to solve America’s larger problem. Dollars can’t buy loyalty or allies in the war on terror. Only on Friday, US investigators announced that they believe that Iraqi policemen - not men disguised as policemen - may have been responsible for this week’s assassinations of two civilian employees of the American-led coalition.
Nor is it likely that the US military will be able to continue to exercise total control over the Iraqi security services after July when national representatives form a new Iraqi government. While American commanders say they are working closely with several Iraqi security institutions to instil basic tactics, they admit that their work will not be complete for at least another year.
One of the key tasks already given to members of the new Iraqi army and police is the less-than-enviable job of raiding suspected "terrorist" and insurgent nests. Iraqi insurgent groups are increasingly in the grip of Islamic extremist organisations, many of which claim ties or loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organisation.
Iraqis see American and British efforts to remain in control of their new security services as a form of foreign meddling in their internal affairs. "The occupier has done his duty and we can take it from here," says Dr Hamed Al-Mashandani, a Baghdad veterinarian and member of the newly-formed Sunni Advisory Council, which meets in a mosque built by Saddam Hussein.
"We don’t need the Americans to oversee the creation of our military," he adds. Any sense that Westerners are attempting to set up a proxy state or military in the Middle East could well fuel the fires of the armed resistance.
Apart from armed resistance, the US officials in charge of Iraq must also face the likelihood that Iraq’s new leaders will not be typical democrats in any sense. Indeed, al-Sistani, who has broadened his own national authority by channelling anti-American sentiment, already controls an authoritarian-minded clerical network.
Like the Shiite clerics that helped garner support for the fight against the British, al-Sistani has been beating the same drum, demanding that the new Iraq be run for and by Iraqis. As a result, despite his unexplained intentions, he is the most popular man in Iraq today.
"If America tries to prolong its occupation and upsets Sistani, I think they’ll be finished here," says Ahmed al-Moussaoui, whose family owns a hotel in the southern Shiite city of Karbala. "He has never expressed any gratitude towards the US presence or intervention here." Yet, the Grande Ayatollah’s popularity may reflect the view that some Iraqis - not knowing real democracy yet - would prefer a theocracy that protects their rights to a more secular form of government that, they fear, might not.
In central Baghdad last week, thousands of Shiites rallied against the US presence in Iraq, chanting "Kill America! Kill America!" and "Yes, yes to Islam!" Protesters hurled stones at a passing pair of armoured civilian SUVs, of the type often used by coalition workers or plain clothes security officials, forcing the vehicles to back away.
Al-Sistani’s critics have accused him of being a mere populist. "He returned to Iraq in 1984 - even at a time when many Iranians were being forced out of our own country," says Sheikh Hamza Al-Taey, deputy to al-Sistani’s hard-line rival, Moqtada Al-Sadr. "He just lived in his small house and taught religion but never considered the fate of the people. He kept silent. Now that Saddam, the devil, is gone, he talks about a new government and a constitution."
Though Washington and London are anxious to hand over authority to Iraqi politicians and security forces this summer, outside analysts are concerned that Iraq cannot sustain itself for long as a unified nation without foreign oversight. Western administrators in Iraq appear damned if they do and damned if they don’t. A taskforce of prominent foreign policy experts, organised by the Council on Foreign Relations, urged last week that US troops not be withdrawn from Iraqi cities until fledgling Iraqi security forces are better able to handle the responsibility.
"The planned transfer of sovereignty [from US occupation authorities to Iraqis] on June 30, reports of US troop reductions in Iraqi cities and uncertainty about long-term funding have all raised questions about the US commitment to sustain long-term engagement in Iraq," former Defence Secretary James Schlesinger told a Washington news conference.
Shlesinger cited concerns that the US government "may not stay the course" and will instead withdraw prematurely. Waiting in the wings should the US forces pull back too early are several terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. These groups have gained supporters in recent months, both drawing on public disenchantment with the occupation and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s own insurgent camp after his capture at the hands of US forces last December.
The strongest terror threat stems from the small Arab Sunni population, supported by wealthy factions in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The Sunnis, favoured by both Turkish and British occupiers in the past, view Shiite rule with fear and loathing.
With Iraq’s banking system full of loopholes and borders mostly wide open for human traffic, fighters from Ansar Al-Islam and smaller terror groupings have easy access to funds from outside. Coalition military commanders point out that terrorists need not bring weapons or explosives into Iraq as these items remain in abundant supply after vast weapons depots were left unguarded in the wake of the intervention last year.
One insurgent leader in northern Iraq, Abu Ali, contends that Salafists - a radical Islamic organisation allied with bin Laden - have opened a parallel front in their "holy war against the Americans" here in Iraq, following on their ongoing efforts in Afghanistan. He swears loyalty to bin Laden and boasts that his own fighters act as guides to foreign suicide bombers entering the country from Syria and Jordan.
The constant threat of terror from small and large terror networks poses a growing threat to ethnic unity across Iraq. The two leading Kurdish parties, already packed with separatist sentiment, have been targeted by al-Qaeda affiliates in recent terror attacks. Western analysts fear that future attacks will only continue to stoke Kurdish aspirations for complete independence.
Herro Kader Mustafa, the CPA’s governorate coordinator of Ninevah Province, says political parties in northern Iraq are part of the problem. "There isn’t obvious ethnic hatred in the north between the Kurds and the Arabs, but there is a real conflict that political parties are exacerbating with their attempts to manipulate public opinion," says Mustafa, an American who hails from a Kurdish refugee family that left for North Dakota when she was one year old. "We are doing our very best to make sure that things don’t erupt."
In Ninevah, Kurdish leaders are helping thousands of Kurdish villagers move back inside the province after Saddam Hussein’s forces expelled them over the last two decades. In some cases, Arab settlers are fleeing ahead of the influx, often hastily selling their land to the advancing, well-armed Kurds. In other cases, Kurds are closing in on multi-ethnic villages that had - prior to Saddam’s manipulations - been models of good ethnic relations. Several dozen towns inside Ninevah and east of the Tigris belong to the small Yezidi religious sect, which is neither Christian nor Muslim, as well as to both Catholic and Orthodox Assyrians.
In the village of Bashika, punctuated by the conical stone spires of Yezidi temples, Muslim minarets and Christian bell-towers, residents worry that their pastoral way of life will soon be upset by ethnic bloodshed. Father Rizakalla Afram, 55, an Assyrian Catholic says: "I’ve lived here all my life in peace. When we gather to celebrate in this village, sometimes you can’t tell who is who. But things have changed. There are evil hands from outside that want to play an ethnic game. Now, everyone wants to take a piece of this beautiful land in the name of one ethnic group or another. It is a crime."
Further south in the oil rich region of Kirkuk, which contains some 6.4% of the world’s known oil reserves, Hanna Jusef Saka, 60, a Christian Kurd, sits quietly counting dinar notes in his popular kebab shop. Now, he sees the fires of ethnic hate stoked with a heat more searing than his own kebab furnace.
He has seen the Arabs in town ethnically cleanse his Muslim Kurdish friends, while he stood by watching helplessly. He has seen Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party members try to turn him into an official "Arab" because they knew he had a Lebanese (Arab) wife. "Even if you solve all the problems in Iraq, you’ll never solve the problems here in Kirkuk," he says. "There is resentment now from the Arabs because they know we - the Kurds - liberated Kirkuk. The Arabs had taken a lot at our expense in the years before."
Hanna says that when Arab (and Turk) demonstrations against Kirkuk’s inclusion in Kurdistan broke out earlier this year, a mob of several hundred Arabs came by his restaurant with bludgeons and whips in hand. "They asked me if I had any Kurdish Muslim workers, but they didn’t bother me because they knew I was a Christian. We are the quiet ones. We have the recommendation from Jesus to turn the other cheek, which is what I do."
For now, Hanna is placing his faith in the United States and its military staying power. "We are Iraqis and we need a strong man," he says. "We always look for someone strong - as a symbol of strength - and right now that is the USA."
Like Bosnia on the brink of war in the early Nineties, Iraqis in Kirkuk now fret over the prospects of a looming ethnic slaughterhouse. Yehya Assi Mahmoud, 50, sits cross-legged on the floor with Arab friends, drinking strong coffee and talking about the good old days. The tall, handsome Arab attorney in a grey suit with a polished demeanour was respected enough within Kirkuk circles to be chosen by the occupation authorities to sit on the city’s multi-ethnic city council after it formed here last year following the fall of Saddam.
Though Mahmoud has since quit the city council in protest over what he calls American favouritism of the Kurds, he sees the American forces in Iraq as a necessary evil. "They are an occupier, but we want them to stay until we find a solution," he says. "Still, in the eight months that they have been here, they haven’t begun to solve the real problems yet. If the US left now, Kurds would move to ethnically cleanse the remaining Arabs in Kirkuk. Even now, the Kurdish newspapers are saying, ‘we need to dismiss all the Arabs from Kirkuk.’"
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