Is the U.S. Nurturing the Genocide to Come?

The turmoil in Iraq has been tagged “sectarian violence.” This term focuses mostly on the violence of two groups with differing views of Islam, the Sunni and the Shiite. But the US plan to support Sunnis with training and weapons adds to the murkiness of who’s who in the struggle for power in Iraq.

On June 8th, CNN reported that US forces have decided to extend one of their newest strategies in the war against Al-Qaeda, arming Sunni guerrillas, such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades, made up by men who once supported Saddam Hussein’s government and Sunni tribesmen.

The province of Diyala was the first to show some success, according to a US commander interviewed by the American network. He said the Sunni majority in the region had become fed up with the draconian laws imposed by Al-Qaeda supporters, such as a ban on smoking punishable with the amputation of the smoker’s hand or fingers, extorting a war tax from local officials, or kidnapping people for ransom.

Diyala had been one of the most violent provinces, but this strategy lowered the level of attacks drastically, according to Captain Ben Richards.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has been criticized by the US government for not pushing far enough his constituents into peace, called for an immediate halt to this strategy. In an interview with Newsweek magazine, published in the beginning of June, al-Maliki said his government didn’t have anything against arming Sunni tribesmen, but “it is afraid of the chaos and ill-discipline that may lead to the presence of new militias.”

It is hard to know how many militias are operating in Iraq, but their increase may be reflected in the number of political parties registered for the 2005 elections. Reports from several news sources speculate several of the  political parties that emerged after the dictatorship, have an armed faction.

So while on one hand, the plan by the US might seem simplistic, focused only on its obsession with the war against Al-Qaeda, it also targeted the group that sparked the sectarian violence, by bombing the Askariya Shiite mosque in Samarra, back in Feb. 22, 2006. From then on, the violence continued tit-for-tat.  Al Qaeda-Sunni militias may have calculated that the attack to the holiest sanctuary for Shiites, would lead to retaliation against Sunnis.  The calculation worked as reports of hundreds of dead Sunnis emerged over the next two days. About 200 Sunni mosques were attacked, according to the Inter Press Service News Agency on Feb. 24, 2006, some allegedly by the Mahdi army of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The U.S. occupation is just part of the equation in the sectarian violence, which has led to the almost complete destruction of the institutional infrastructure that it has then proposed to rebuild.

But the past cannot be erased, and the set up for the sectarian violence was there even before the US dropped the first bomb over Baghdad – from the artificial borders of Iraq imposed after the First World War for the newly established, British-supported monarchy which continued the policy of supporting the Sunni minority, and from Saddam Hussein’s repressive government that targeted, killed or deported dissident Shiite’s, accused of supporting Hussein’s former archenemy Iran.

Ironically, the fear of dictatorship became a reality, and many Iraqis did in fact seek refuge in Iran. Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for example, the Shiite Cleric whose party the United Iraqi Alliance has won 140 seats in the parliament giving it a clear majority. His political followers have “30 MPs and a handful of ministers in the American-backed government,” according to a BBC profile of the politico-religious leader.

Enter faction number two: the Sunnis. They are officially a minority, both in terms of population and in seats in the parliament and in the government ministries, as they make up for only about 32 per cent of the population, while the biggest Sunni party, the Iraqi Accord Front, won only 15 percent of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Sunnis are afraid of revenge from the Shiite majority, who hold the key posts of prime minister and national security minister, and most of the civilian police forces.

In other words, the economic resources are in the control of the majority over a minority that feels increasingly vulnerable.

And everybody is getting arms from somewhere. The US accused Iran earlier this year of providing arms to Shiite militias, while the US is now arming Sunni militias in the provinces. In other words, they are adding fuel to the fire. Even if the U.S. is trying to undo what Al-Qaeda began by bombing the golden dome of the Askariya mosque, the foundations for a break up were there, even before the invasion.

This does not absolve the US from responsibility for the war. The ‘what-ifs’ are only that: pure speculation and wishful thinking. What if the Iraqis had had the chance to depose Hussein on their own? What if the Coalition of the Willing had not imposed a Western-supported government in a country with the second largest proven oil reserves in the world according to the US Energy Information Administration? We’ll never know for sure.

But a darker ‘what if’ now looms over Iraq’s sectarian violence: This is, genocide.

Human rights experts such as Juan Mendez, Kofi Annan’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, quoted in Time magazine on Nov. 26, 2006, fear this is not far off. Some signs from previous experiences of genocide are already there, says Gregory Stanton, professor of Human Rights at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington, such as “trying to polarize the country, they’re systematically trying to assassinate moderates, and they’re trying to divide the population into homogenous religious sectors,” the extent of the violence …and the identifying and killing victims solely on the basis of their religious identity.” Another sign might be that Iraq’s governing structures have become so brittle that, for example, a study released on June 18 by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace ranked Iraq as number 2 among the world’s failed states, just after Sudan, a country where genocide has become the inescapable reality.

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