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THE ROVING EYE
The Sunni-Shi'ite power play
By Pepe Escobar

Iraqis are not fighting one another - at least not yet: they are fighting the occupying power, although with different strategies. After Fallujah, this situation is about to change.

For the average Iraqi, Sunni or Shi'ite - and Americans underestimate Iraqi national pride at their peril - there's no question: the current Sunni resistance morally prevails, because they are Iraqis fighting an invader/occupier. This means the US occupation in essence lost even before it began. Defining the resistance as "anti-Iraqi forces" - as the Pentagon does - is nonsense: they are a legitimate popular resistance movement, while the US-trained Iraqi police are largely identified for what they are - collaborationists doing the dirty work of Iraqification, the Mesopotamian version of failed Vietnamization. Hundreds of these US-trained forces ran away before the battle even started in Fallujah. No wonder: they were resistance moles. And most of Mosul's police also defected.

The resistance is now spread out all over the Sunni heartland - contradicting US marine talk that the assault on Fallujah "broke the back of the resistance". Added proof that the resistance is indigenous is that of more than 1,000 men between the ages of 15 and 55 who the Pentagon says were captured in Fallujah - there's no independent confirmation; only 15 have been confirmed as "foreign fighters", according to General George Casey, the top US ground commander. And these "foreigners" are mostly Saudis, Jordanians or Syrians, described by Iraqis themselves as "our Arab brothers", members of the large Arab nation. The real "foreign fighters" in Iraq are the Americans.

Anger in Sunni-dominated Baghdad has reached a fever pitch, as an Iraqi physician told a radio station he has examined bodies of people who seem to have died of banned chemical weapons: the bodies are swollen, are yellowish and have no smell. Asia Times Online sources in Baghdad say that people in Fallujah believe the Americans may have used chemical weapons in the bombing of Jolan, ash-Shuhada and al-Jubayl neighborhoods. They also say the neighborhoods were showered with cluster bombs.

The political war
The Sunni Iraqi resistance is battling a political war. For the mujahideen, the stakes are clear: under the current US-imposed situation, the Shi'ites will be in power after elections scheduled for January. Saif al-Deen al-Baghdadi, a hardcore Sunni Salafi and top member of the resistance in Mosul, has qualified the Iyad Allawi government as representing "the fundamentalist right wing of the White House and not the Iraqi people". Apart from the "clash of fundamentalisms" implicit in this observation, the fact is that for the resistance, softcore or hardcore, the Shi'ites are being propelled to power by an alliance of fundamentalists - Washington plus US-backed Allawi.

The Shi'ites are not doing enough to calm Sunni anger. When Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani spoke out against the Fallujah offensive, it was too late. In fact, the one who spoke was Sistani's top man in Karbala, Ahmad al-Safi al-Najafi, who told thousands at the Imam Hussein Mosque that Sistani viewed the assault on Fallujah as he viewed the assault on Najaf: he favored a peaceful solution, he called for the withdrawal of "foreign forces" (the Americans) and he condemned the death of innocent civilians.

The Sunni-Shi'ite divide is not monolithic. The powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) - founded after the fall of Saddam Hussein - is closely coordinating with the lumpenproletariat -based movement of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But events in Fallujah have set the political landscape on fire - with the AMS urging all Iraqis to boycott the January elections. At the lavish golden-and-marble Umm al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad - built by Saddam and previously called "Mother of all Battles" - the AMS managed to rally 47 political parties, not only Sunni Islamist but eight Shi'ite parties, one Christian, the Iraqi Turkmen Front and the Communist Party. Their joint communique condemns the elections as "imposed by the US-backed interim government and rejected by a clear majority of political and religious powers"; stresses that "the US raids against Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, Mosul, Baghdad and more recently Fallujah represent an obstacle to the political participation in the occupied country"; and qualifies the attack on Fallujah as "genocide". The whole idea comes from Sheikh Jawad al-Khalissi, a Shi'ite, who is a descendent of one of the leaders of the 1920 revolt against the British colonial power. In Iraq, history does repeat itself in many ways.

The AMS is making it very clear to all Sunni Iraqis - and to all Iraqis for that matter - that Fallujah had nothing to do with "stabilizing" the country before elections, as the Pentagon and Allawi have claimed. And support for the AMS is increasing fast, especially after the Americans arrested seven of its leading members. On a parallel front, the Americans also arrested seven aides to Sheikh al-Hasani, the leader of a splinter group of Muqtada's movement. The popular response was swift: this past Wednesday more than 3,000 people demonstrated in front of the Green Zone in Baghdad demanding their release.

To boycott or not to boycott?
What is Muqtada up to? Hashim al-Musawi, one of his top aides, told a crowd in front of Kufa's mosque this week that they will also boycott the elections because in Fallujah the Americans "violated all human values enshrined in the Geneva Convention". This may be a diversionary tactic. Asia Times Online contacts in Baghdad confirm that Muqtada is frantically negotiating with Sistani: the crucial point is how many parliament seats Muqtada will get if he joins a united list of all major Shi'ite parties in the January elections. The Grand Ayatollah is putting all his efforts to consolidate this list. And he is adamantly in favor of conducting the elections on schedule.

The key question is how extensive a Sunni boycott would be. If the absolute majority of Sunnis - up to 30% of the population - don't vote, plus some Shi'ite factions, the elections have no legitimacy. The Kurds are also extremely nervous. With a boycott, most of the 275 seats will be Shi'ite: the Kurds would get around 30 - with no Sunni Arab allies to counteract what many in Baghdad are already defining as the tyranny of a Shi'ite majority.

As for Prime Minister Allawi, his Iraqi National Accord is a mixed bag of Sunni and Shi'ite ex-Ba'athists. Allawi does not want to be part of the Sistani list. This may be a blessing in disguise for Iraqis, because in this case Allawi may not even be elected to parliament: his little party has scant popular legitimacy. And his "political capital" after Fallujah is zero: not only did he authorize the massacre, but he installed martial law, muzzled the press and exacerbated the inherent contradiction of his position - how to behave as a strong leader when you depend on an occupying army.

It's important to note that not a single party - and especially the Shi'ite parties - represented in Allawi's "cabinet" condemned Fallujah. Their collective game is to blame the whole disaster on Allawi alone. But that may not be enough to placate Sunni anger.

At the moment, with fighting in Fallujah still raging, and the resistance hitting all over the heartland, this is how Sunni Iraq is reading what the Americans say: If you fight us, we will kill you. And if you don't participate in our elections, you go to jail. No wonder the resistance keeps growing.

To stay or to go?
Imagine a Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government next January having to face a widespread Sunni guerrilla movement with only a ragged bunch of guerrilla-infiltrated Iraqi security forces. Who're you gonna call? The marines?

The Sistani-blessed government may ask the Americans to go. The Bush II administration will obviously say no. The Sistani-blessed government may launch selected raids against the resistance: not likely to break its back. Moreover, in the eyes of most Iraqis, the Sistani-blessed government cannot even afford to not ask the Americans to pack up and go. Sistani knows Shi'ites are anti-occupation: nobody will tolerate a Sistani-blessed government "protected" by an occupying army. Not to mention this would prove the point now stressed by the Sunni resistance: the Shi'ites are allied with American "fundamentalists".

This leaves an ominous prospect in place: an Iraqi Shi'ite, Sistani-blessed government fighting a widespread Sunni guerrilla resistance in a bloody civil war.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for info7rmation on our sales and syndication policies.)


Nov 20, 2004
Asia Times Online Community



Resistance looks beyond Fallujah
(Nov 19, '04)

Counterinsurgency run amok
(Nov 18, '04)

A thousand Fallujahs
(Nov 12, '04)

Satan hides in a hospital
(Nov 11, '04)

Another pyrrhic victory
(Nov 11, '04)

A cry from the mosque
(Nov 11, '04)

The real fury of Fallujah
(Nov 10, '04)

Phantom victory
(Nov 10, '04)

Fighting in an urban jungle
(Nov 10, '04)

Fallujah: Inside the Iraqi resistance
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