Chaos Hardening Sectarian Fiefdoms

There are an estimated 2.7 million Iraqis who have been displaced within their own country. No house; no food; no security. Who do they turn to for help? The international community’s humanitarian organizations? The occupying United States government? The central Iraqi government based in Baghdad?

According to a report released Tuesday by Refugees International (RI), none of these has been able to provide sufficient assistance to the most vulnerable Iraqis. As a result, they are turning increasingly to local religious-political armed groups for their humanitarian needs – often Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, or the Sunni militias known as Sahwa or Awakening groups, made up of former insurgents armed and funded by the US military, though other militias and strongmen exist as well.

The ongoing fragmentation of Iraqi society well beyond pre-US invasion levels – caused by the flawed US occupation and even encouraged by some of it and the nascent Iraqi government’s policies – has left militias and other neighborhood strongmen the only ones able to effectively provide food, shelter, oil for heating and cooking, and the semblance of a judiciary system, according to the report entitled "Uprooted and Unstable: Meeting Urgent Humanitarian Needs in Iraq".

"The trend more and more has been [that] Iraq, leaving aside Kurdistan, resembles Somalia, where you have warlords’ and militias’ independent fiefdoms," said journalist Nir Rosen, who has spent significant time in Iraq, in a conference call to launch the report, which he co-authored. "These militias, be they Mahdi Army, be they Sunni Awakening groups or otherwise, provide security, provide housing, and other forms of assistance."

The expansion of militias into a service-delivery and aid role stands to reinforce the fragmentation. And if the trend is to be reversed, the international community and the Iraqi government must act now – during the window of a relative lull in violence brought on by the US counterinsurgency strategy – said the RI report.

But so far, the chaotic picture is roundly characterized by policies that continue to deepen rifts. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government tends to only offer aid to its Shia base, Sunnis told RI, and the Sunni militias – armed and even usually created by the US – give help only to Sunnis in their local purview.

"Effectively there really isn’t even a state in Iraq. People often talk about the Iraqi government as if it actually functions – and it doesn’t provide very many services," said Rosen. "To the extent that it does, it provides them on sectarian grounds. So we saw services being provided to a much larger extent in Shia areas."

For example, due to the former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s "light footprint" plan to control Iraq with a small number of troops on the ground, the security gaps for the first several years of the occupation allowed a de facto ethnic cleansing of communities – with Sunnis ejecting Shias from Sunni-dominated neighborhoods and vice versa.

If they stayed in Iraq, the resettled refugees were often not able to transfer cards that identified them within the Public Distribution System (PDS) that was put in place in 1996 to deliver aid and which 80 percent of the population depended on before 2003.

The Ministry of Trade of the Shia-dominated central government that runs the PDS programs is, according the RI report, "widely perceived as being compromised by sectarianism in favor of Shiites," noting that "of those who were able to [transfer their cards], the overwhelming majority are Shiites."

Furthermore, citing "corruption, inefficiency, and security problems," the report said that those still within the PDS are receiving at best half of the aid they used to, and that portion is of a lesser quality.

Meanwhile, the report also addressed a series of problems with refugees who had left the country altogether and are slowly trickling back in. Returnees have also had widespread problems renewing their PDS cards.

RI said that returnees are encouraged by the Iraqi government and the US, which ballyhoo the returns as a sign of progress when in actuality the returns are both dangerous for the returnees and are contributing to the solidification of society’s fragmentation. The report urged the Iraqi government and the US to cease both the encouragement and politicization of returns.

Returnees often do not return to their homes in formerly mixed neighborhoods because the risk of the same sectarian violence that drove them out still exists – having, in fact, become the modus operandi in many of the neighborhoods. Instead, sectarian militias resettle returnees into homogenous neighborhoods and subsequently top up whatever the aid deficiencies of international organizations and the Iraqi government, further contributing to the societal fragmentation and thereby weakening the nearly nonexistent central government presence.

As with PDS aid, sectarian bias exists in the Iraqi government’s distribution of electricity on the national grid as well.

"Sunni leaders and American officers assert that installations such as power stations and gas stations are often controlled by the Mahdi Army, which provides services to Shiites only," said the report.

To fill the holes – and in a potent example of a US policy that reinforces polarization and the warlord model – the U.S military builds power stations which are then run for-profit by warlords or organized crime. If there is a reemergence of the Iraqi state, the RI report cites aid workers’ concerns the government will be weakened by the reluctance of these forces to give up their hold on a source of both clout and income.

While the RI report did cite good work being done by local NGOs and the increasing presence of international organizations such as the United Nations supporting them in light of the "humanitarian space" created by the drop in violence, the efforts are not nearly enough. It noted a positive step in a UN appeal for 263 million dollars from donors for humanitarian aid – with report co-author Kristele Younes asking in the conference call that the US foot half that bill.

But because of widespread distrust of the UN and its thus far limited role, the struggle to deliver assistance remains an uphill battle.

"The security situation might get worse and we might see large-scale violence resume in important points throughout the country," said Younes. "Those two reasons are really large enough and important enough for the international community, the US government, international donors, and the government of Iraq to really step up and start looking at much better responding to the needs of the place – much better responding to the needs of Iraqis in general."

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.