Shi’ites Escalate Conflict with US Over Sunni Strategy

In escalating their conflict with the United States over its efforts to weaken the Iraqi insurgency by co-opting Sunni political figures, Shi’ite party leaders may have delivered a fatal blow to that strategy.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been trying to convince the Sunni population that a share of political power will protect their interests. But the ruling Shi’ite party – supported by the anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – has now broken decisively with that strategy, castigating both Sunni political leaders and the United States as being apologists for terrorists.

Responding to the Jan. 5 suicide bombing in Karbala that killed 60 Shi’ites and wounded 120, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which heads the ruling Shi’ite coalition, said, "We hold responsible Coalition forces, and political elements that have openly announced their support for terrorism, for the pure blood that has flowed."

Sunni political leaders have publicly denounced terrorist acts, including the Karbala bombing. Nevertheless, Hakim suggested that his party would now block the bid by Sunni parties who won seats in parliament last month to participate in government.

He said the Sunni parties’ alleged support for terrorism "for the sake of immediate political interests" would "only increase our willingness to exclude" those "who promulgate and make excuses for terrorism." The Karbala bombing and the SCIRI response came just as talks were set to begin among Shi’ites, Kurds, and Sunnis on the formation of a new government.

Although he did not refer to the United States, Hakim was making an obvious jab at Washington for its efforts to promote a prominent Sunni role in the next government and to weaken Shi’ite control over paramilitary forces used to fight the insurgents.

In an indication that Hakim’s statement was part of an emerging Shi’ite plan to fend off the U.S. Sunni strategy, 5,000 followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad’s Sadr City chanted, "We’re going to crush Saleh al-Mutlaq with our slippers," referring to the Sunni political leader considered to be a supporter of the Sunni insurgency. Then they chanted, "No, no to Zalmay. No, no to terrorism."

Hadi al-Amiri, the secretary-general of the Badr Brigade, a Shi’ite militia group, repeated a previous Shi’ite argument that the Sunni political groups had been supporting terrorism, and that the United States has been coddling them.

On the al-Arabiya television network, he said the Shi’ite government had told the United States "that they should not give any cover to terrorism." The Badr leader asserted that it was U.S. interference with the security operations of the government that "gave the green light to terrorists to implement their filthy operations against civilians."

The new Shi’ite strategy thus appears to be aimed not only at excluding or limiting Sunni participation in the government, but at striking back at the demand by Khalilzad last month that SCIRI and the Badr Brigade give up their control over the Interior Ministry, which has been responsible for paramilitary operations that include death squads and systematic torture of Sunni detainees.

Until the Karbala bombing, the SCIRI had not responded publicly to U.S. pressure, but it had clearly been waiting for the right opportunity to blast a U.S. strategy they regard as favoring their enemies.

Although the Shi’ite counteroffensive may be intended in part to strengthen their hand in bargaining in the formation of the new government, it also reflects fundamental Shi’ite sectarian beliefs about the nature of the conflict with the Sunnis.

Militant Shi’ites regard all Sunni political leaders and the main organization of Sunni clerics, the Association of Muslim Scholars, as being aligned with the Sunni insurgents. They frequently insist that all Sunni insurgents are "terrorists" and do not differentiate between them and followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s network in Iraq.

The new SCIRI line has already been transmitted to Shi’ite clerics. Imam Hazim Araji at Baghdad’s Khadimiya mosque declared before 5,000 worshippers on Saturday, "Terrorists are pampered in Iraq."

The SCIRI leaders are also under strong pressure from their supporters to take even stronger actions against Sunnis in response to terrorist bombing. Reuters quoted a Shi’ite shopkeeper in Karbala as blaming the Karbala bombing on Sunnis and demanding permission from Shi’ite clerics to "fight back."

Badr leader al-Amiri suggested in an interview with Reuters that Shi’ite "popular opinion" is "about to explode." He said "They’re telling us, ‘If you can’t protect us, then let us protect ourselves.’"

The determination of the SCIRI leadership, strongly backed by clerics and followers, to take a hard line against the Sunnis both in politics and paramilitary operations appears to doom the U.S. Sunni co-optation strategy, which had become the centerpiece of the administration’s war strategy in 2005, to failure.

The U.S. effort to draw Sunnis away from the insurgency and into the government went into high gear when Khalilzad took over the embassy in late July. Since then, however, he had been reminded repeatedly that the militant Shi’ite leadership was never really on board.

The draft constitution that was under negotiation last summer turned out to be a disastrous setback to the Sunni strategy, symbolizing the Shi’ite government’s determination to marginalize the Sunnis politically and economically.

Khalilzad could only do damage control in the weeks before the October referendum, by getting Shi’ite representatives and a small group of Sunni politicians to agree that the constitution could be amended by the new assembly.

The U.S. ambassador outlined his views on the necessity for political changes that would reassure Sunnis in an interview with Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsh on Oct. 31. He noted that many Sunnis "are driven by fear that they will be marginalized and they will be discriminated against." He pinned his hopes on a set of amendments that would be made during the first six months in the next Iraqi national assembly.

He acknowledged that the fact that the main political parties represented one sect of Islam was "not a good thing" and referred hopefully to "cross-sectarian political parties … that are moderate and secular as well." That was a reference to former Premier Iyad Allawi’s party, which the embassy had hoped would gain enough seats to play a major role in the next government.

The December elections were another blow to the Sunni strategy, reaffirming the power of sectarian parties and the utter weakness of secular parties. Even after preliminary election returns made that clear, however, the embassy continued to press for a dilution of Shi’ite power – especially over paramilitary operations against Sunnis.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.