Iraqi Shi’ites: Calm on the Surface, Simmering Beneath

With the head of the occupying forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker delivering a progress report to Congress this week, Iraq has been thrust back into the US public consciousness, along with all the political divisions the issue engenders.

What the George W. Bush administration hails as a "success" has indeed yielded a marked drop in violence, with civilian deaths down by half. However, the US occupation’s larger counterinsurgency strategy – often identified as the "surge" but going well beyond the escalated troops numbers that refers to – fails to address the very Iraqi political reconciliation it is meant to bring about, many observers say.

The myth of the "calm" – a scant 600 innocent lives ended violently in a month – in Iraq was shattered two weeks ago when an intra-Shia power struggle turned bloody, exposing Bush’s strategy as a mere Band-Aid covering up the festering wounds of Iraqi societal strife.

"That’s essentially where we are right now. Violence is down on the surface, but a lot is boiling underneath," Michael Ware, a correspondent for CNN who reports extensively from inside Iraq, said at a forum on Iraq at the Center for American Progress last week.

While Bush claims that his Iraq policy is not beholden to public opinion polls in the US, it is increasingly difficult to view the respective aspects of the US strategy as doing anything more than reducing violence now to quell domestic dissent against the war at the cost of deferring further strife until a new administration takes power in Washington next January – giving Bush political cover to disown more widespread fighting that could destabilize what little order has been imposed since the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion in 2003.

The recent violence, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Iraqi troops to confront factions of anti-US Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia with US air support, in fact reveals further divides and puts on ready display the dissolution of what was a delicately and loosely unified Shia political bloc.

While the control of the so-called "special groups" of the Mahdi Army assaulted by the national government are considered by Petraeus and the administration to be rogue, criminal elements of the cleric’s militia, the large-scale operations are a sign of fictionalized Shia infighting between Maliki and Sadr – evidenced by the fact that negotiations, through the Iranians, between Sadr and envoys of the two ruling-coalition Shia parties, including Maliki’s Dawa party, finally brought the hostilities to an end.

But Shia power struggles are the lesser of the buried sectarian tensions that loom large over the future of a peaceful Iraq. Head-butting persists between the ruling majority Shia sect and Sunni groups being brought into the fold by the US army, which are perhaps the most delicate arrangements of the surge strategy – and amongst the most important in reducing the levels of violence.

The Sunni insurgency, former supporters of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, had initially resisted US occupation by any means necessary, including an alliance with al-Qaeda in Iraq. They initially feared that the previously oppressed Shia majority would vanquish them once empowered by the US, and so boycotted initial elections.

A dialogue with the US in 2004 fell apart because the Sunnis refused to deal with the Shia-dominated national government. As the Sunnis apparently became fed up with al-Qaeda creating difficult situations in their territories, and unable to combat that group, Shia militias, and the US concurrently, they formed groups called Sahwa – or "Awakening" in Arabic – which were then approached by the US to become part of its surge.

But in a potent example of how the US strategy solidifies rifts between Sunnis and Shias, the central government in Baghdad was left completely out of the incorporation of the Sahwa into the US’s counterinsurgency tactic.

"An agreement was found between America and Sunni insurgents on pretty much the terms that were originally offered," said Ware. "As even the Multi-National Forces’ [the official name of the US-led occupying forces] spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner openly admits, it’s a bilateral arrangement. The Iraqi government was not made party to this."

The deal took 90,000 insurgents off the battlefield and put them on the US military’s payroll – to the tune of 300 dollars a month – in order for them to take a role in providing security against al-Qaeda in their local areas.

"The fundamental problem in Iraq was the militias," said journalist Nir Rosen, speaking at the same event. "The Americans have now created more militias, or at least backed them and allowed them to arm themselves and control territory. Obviously, that is a very frightening scenario."

Part of the deal with the US military was a promise that eventually the Sahwa would be given a chance to participate in both national and provincial governance, and take a more leading role in official Iraqi security forces – until now made up mostly of former Shia militiamen.

Those changes have been frustratingly slow to come for many Sunnis. They already view the central government with great skepticism, deriding Iraqi Arab Shias as Iranians or Iranian surrogates – playing on racial tensions between ethnic Arabs and Iranians, who are also Shia.

The Sahwa have yet to gain any significant official political power – having to wait for provincial elections slated for October, but which are likely to be delayed – and they remain on the US dole, not the Iraqi government’s, because Iraqi security forces have failed to incorporate them in significant ways.

"For the most part the Iraqi government is not allowing the Awakening groups to join and the Awakening groups are very upset about that," said Rosen, who spends extensive time in Iraq with the Sahwa groups. "They complain that when they try to join, they are harassed and treated as prisoners, as suspects."

Frustration of that sort leaves the "successes" of the US strategy constantly teetering on the brink of devolution into violence that could precipitate a civil war. For the first three years or so of the occupation, the US failed to provide the security that could prevent the fragmentation of Iraqi society – leaving ethnically-cleansed neighborhoods and a situation with the potential to be worse than any sectarian bloodshed seen since the chaotic early years after the fall of Baghdad.

"The situation is incredibly unstable. Any sort of spark can renew massive violence. But this time there is nowhere to run to," said Rosen. "Jordan and Syria have closed their borders to refugees. Eleven of Iraq’s 18 governors have closed their borders to the internally displaced because they’re just overwhelmed."

"So when fighting starts again, people won’t have anywhere to escape to – they’ll be stuck in their walled areas," he said.

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.