Muqtada al-Sadr

Iraq: A study in violence

In 1990, the late Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi went to Iran to discuss problems in the Middle East with Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Gandhi asked the president who would, should or could replace Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq.

After thinking for a moment, Rafsanjani replied, “Saddam Hussein”. Only someone as strong (and ruthless) as Saddam could rule a country as divided, diverse and complicated as Iraq. Until very recently, such an idea was unacceptable to the millions of people who had celebrated the downfall of the Iraqi dictator in March 2003. Iraq was free of dictatorship, these people argued, and would now embark on a new path of democracy and prosperity.

That’s what the Americans promised. Today, however, many have begun to say that the only type of government suitable for a country like Iraq sadly, is dictatorship. Perhaps not a perfect

dictatorship as Saddam had been, but a dictatorship nonetheless.

Former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a strong man by all accounts, was considered by many as the man who would create this semi-dictatorship when he came to office in 2004. People called him “Saddam Light”. He has been voted out of office since then, however, and the new rulers of Iraq are trying hard to impose a perfect democracy on Iraqi society, acceptable maybe, for a country like Switzerland.

Iraqis, however, have other things on their minds and other priorities on their agendas. Civilized life has collapsed in Iraq. Electricity gets cut for most of the day. Water is short. Security is totally absent, and kidnapping and terror attacks are on the rise. To date, 26,773 people have died since the US invasion in March 2003, excluding the approximately 1,000 Shi’ite pilgrims who died in a stampede on Wednesday.

To top all of their problems, the Iraqis are now faced with a constitution draft that might truncate their nation, dividing it into zones for Shi’ites and Kurds. On August 28, the Iraqi parliament accepted the draft constitution, which called for, as everybody anticipated, a federal republic. The Sunnis, who reject federalism, have already begun preparing themselves for voting against it in the referendum scheduled for October 15.

The Kurds have enjoyed autonomy in the north, under US protection, since the Gulf War of 1991. They have long struggled for what they claim is independence from the countries where they are currently strong (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria). When independence became clearly something that no regional power would allow, the Kurds began to demand autonomy. They got it after the Gulf War and have maintained it ever since.

The Kurds feel that they are a different nationality than the Arabs. A decreasing number of them in Iraq speak Arabic. They got to keep that in the draft constitution, and the Shi’ites, jealous of Kurdish autonomy, got their own zones in the south. Their autonomy does not include Baghdad, however, which alone has about 6 million Shi’ites.

Effectively, this divides the oil wealth among Kurds and Shi’ites, leaving the Sunnis, who had enjoyed power for centuries until 2003, practically with nothing. The Sunnis are demanding that Iraq’s Arab identity be maintained and that a ban on the Ba’ath Party (and punishment of its members) be abrogated. This is because under Saddam, most members of the ruling party were from the Sunni community. Most did not join out of conviction, but just to get employed in the civil or military service, where they got better wages.

This demand has been rejected by the Kurds and Shi’ites, who suffered most under Saddam and insist on punishing all those who worked with, benefited from or endorsed his regime during the years 1979-2003. Another Sunni objection is to making Kurdish an official language in Iraq, in addition to Arabic. They want Kurdish to remain confined to Iraqi Kurdistan. This, too, has been turned down by the Kurds. The 15 members of the Sunni community who had been dragged into the constitutional assembly after boycotting the January 2005 elections absented themselves and rejected the draft.

The Sunnis see themselves as Iraqis more so than Sunnis, claiming that the Kurds are sub-national, seeing themselves as Kurds, and the Shi’ites view themselves as Shi’ites, rather than Iraqis. The Sunnis are the only ones with a truly national consciousness at this stage. The Sunnis clearly refuse federalism, demanding a united Iraq. Had they been unwise, or ambitious, like the Kurds and Shi’ites, they could have demanded autonomy in central Iraq.

The Sunnis have found many people eager to share in their grievances over federalism in Iraq. In addition to Iraq’s frightened neighbors (Syria, Iran and Turkey) federalism has angered a lot of mainstream Iraqi nationalists who are still committed to the nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.

One of those to come out in favor of the Sunni veto of the constitution is the famed Shi’ite resistance leader Muqtada al-Sadr. A young revolutionary who has gone to war twice against the Americans since 2003, Muqtada called on his followers, who are very powerful, to say no to federalism in Iraq, even if it meant giving autonomy to the Shi’ites in the south.

Both he and the Sunnis agree that the constitution was penned to suite US interests in Iraq in particular, and the Middle East in general. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, did not make things better by boasting that this constitution was the finest in the entire Muslim World.

Fatah al-Sheikh, a pro-Muqtada member of parliament, said, “Our basic line [of agreement with the Sunnis] will be the unity of Iraq.” Both Muqtada and the Sunnis have already collided with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by the popular cleric Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. The council leaders are the authors of the new constitution.

Muqtada has always been in favor of maintaining Iraqi unity, combining Iraqi nationalism with religion and Shi’ite nationalism. His posters all over Iraq show Shi’ite religious notables with the Iraqi flag. Being anti-federalist, to many, is a strong dimension of Iraqi nationalism.

Hakim, however, along with his Badr Brigades, think in a different manner. His party and militia were based in Iran, after being persecuted by Saddam in the 1980s, and during Saddam’s war with Iran in 1980-1988, it sided with the mullahs of Tehran against the Sunni leaders of Baghdad.

The fact that 80% of the Iraqi army was composed of Shi’ites did not change Hakim’s conviction that he must fight the Iraqi army – seeing it only as Saddam’s army. On August 26, about 100,000 supporters of Muqtada demonstrated in Kufa, Najaf, Baghdad, Nasriyyah, Amara and Basra against the new constitution. Meanwhile, in Sunni cities all over Iraq, demonstrators were also in the streets, in thousands, carrying posters of the ex-Iraqi president and calling for the downfall of the “American-authored constitution”.

Violence in Iraq, just like anywhere else, means that something is going seriously wrong. People who are happy and satisfied do not riot or become violent. Some people, or groups, are so angry that they are willing to break the law, get arrested – and in some cases get killed, to express themselves and object to certain issues, such as the new constitution.

These people are motivated to come out on the streets either through conviction, or desperation. The government, in times like these, usually accuses “radicals and troublemakers” for the violence, and responds by force.

That is what Saddam would have done. That is what the US and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari are clumsily doing today. But the truth is: people are angry and coming out in the streets, in thousands, risking their lives and jeopardizing their security, to defend an idea and protest an idea.

This is a high warning to the government that something is wrong and must be changed immediately to bring calm, and avoid the outbreak of an all-out civil war, which many see in the long-term horizon if federalism is implemented in Iraq.

Five-fold violence
The political scientist Fred R von der Mehden, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin, says that there are five kinds of violence that apply to different countries, during different times. If allowed to get out of hand, all of them lead to revolution. In Iraq, every single one of the five forms of violence applies today.

The first violence, called primordial, is that which erupts due to conflict among different people living in the same community. This conflict is born from differences in ethnicity and religion. These people carry the same national identity, but are competing over power and privileges in their country. This is what the Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis have been doing, thanks to the Americans, since 2003.

The second violence is separatist violence. Most of the time, this results from primordial violence. This violence has one objective: a separation movement that demands independence for specific territory. This is what the Kurds will be doing if their status is not maintained in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The third violence is revolutionary violence. This violence aims at overthrowing, or toppling, an existing regime and replacing it with a new one. This is something that the Sunnis would love to achieve at this stage.

The fourth kind of violence is coup violence, which results after a military takeover. This, too, is very likely to happen in Iraq, given the high number of disgruntled officers in the Iraqi army. The new army is created mainly from Shi’ites, who are combating the Sunni insurgency, further dividing the fractured communities.

The fifth violence is “violence over issues”. Historically, this violence can be over unemployment, war, security, corruption or simply objection to clauses in a constitutional draft.

On the other hand, history shows that societies that are traditional in everything they do will not face a revolution. In these traditional societies, people live as their ancestors lived and do not expect much from politics or the society around them. They have no hopes for a better future, do not dream of participating in political life, do not aspire for great wealth and do not think of objecting to anything related to government. In more than way, this was the case under Saddam.

Also, societies that are very modern, very advanced and very rational in their activity, and prosperous in their economy, will not face revolution. Why revolt when everything is so good? The society that will face revolution is the society that is moving from a traditional society to a modern one. This is where Iraq stands today. Modernizing societies are the ones that face revolution, when they are in transition. They leave one world, where there is traditional stability, but have not yet arrived in the new world where there is modern stability. While these societies are changing, everything changes with them: the economy, morals, religious actions, lifestyle, dreams and the political system. This leaves the people worried, confused and ripe for violent action.

When people are always poor, and permanently miserable, they have no hope for a better future and they get used to their bad life and conditions. This was Iraq under Saddam. Usually, they were too busy with work and with finding food for their children to think about politics or revolution. When things improved, somewhat after 2003, the Iraqis started imagining a better world – their aspirations awakened.

Partly this was because of a slight improvement in standards, which crashed a short while later, but mainly because everyone around them, from their Arab neighbors, to George W Bush and Iyad Allawi, were telling them that a brighter future was coming their way. That did not happen. But the magic spell had already been cast.

They are no longer satisfied with what they have, and have started to demand fast improvement – faster even than what advanced countries can offer. The very poor seldom revolt. The very rich do not revolt. The ones in between are the ones who revolt. They have tasted the sweetness of better life, but have been unable to keep it or experience it to the maximum. This will make them angry and lead them to violence and revolution. Sadly, this is where Iraq stands today.

Asia Times Online, 2 September 2005