“Those Iraqis have been fighting each other for centuries,” a friend recently said to me. I have heard this mistaken view too often.
I told him I had been to Iraq nine times, all before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not a single Iraqi ever said to me, “You need to know I'm Shiite” or “I should tell you I'm Sunni.” Not doctors, not taxi drivers, not hotel staff, not families we visited. Baghdad had many mixed marriages of Shiite and Sunni, as well as mixed neighborhoods. An Iraqi-American friend confirmed that often people didn't know the religious sect of their neighbor – or if they did, they didn't care.
Peace prevailed in the neighborhoods. What happened?
Expressing the conventional U.S. narrative, the columnist George Will recently wrote, “Saddam Hussein's horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq's sectarian furies.” In his view, Saddam Hussein and his ruling Sunni regime so oppressed the Shiite majority in Iraq that they didn't dare act violently against their oppressors. It follows from this belief that the current sectarian violence in Iraq is because Prime Minister Maliki hasn't acted with enough horrific tyranny against the Sunni minority.
Is this narrative correct? Were Shiites a persecuted majority?
Do you remember the famous deck of cards given to American soldiers, with pictures of the key members of Saddam Hussein's regime? If this story were true, of the deck of 55 cards why were 35 of them Shiites? Like it or not, Saddam Hussein was an equal opportunity employer and oppressor.
The major Shiite population in Iraq is in and around the city of Basra. Yet when the British troops arrived to liberate the oppressed Shiites of Basra, they were not welcomed. The Shiite population fought them off, seeing themselves first as Iraqis being invaded by foreigners. Some while later, two British soldiers were captured driving in Basra, dressed as Arabs and carrying explosives in their vehicle. This was reported in The Boston Globe for about two days, then the story disappeared from our press, as far as I could tell. What were they doing? Perhaps planting explosives in a Shiite mosque, the crime to be blamed on Sunnis¾certainly the 2006 bombing of the Shia Golden mosque was only attributed to (the predominantly Sunni) al-Qa'ida, never proven. They usually claim their actions.
When the U.S. created the Iraqi constitution – to bring “democracy” to Iraq – political parties were required to be based on religious affiliations. There was a Sunni party, a Shiite party, and so on. Imagine some foreign power occupying the U.S. and determining that future elections would be based on religious parties, with a Catholic party, a Protestant party, etc. How long would it take before people began to pay much more attention to who has what religious affiliation … and animosities to develop. Especially if the occupying power wanted to divide and conquer.
We need to recognize the truth of what respected Iraqi-American commentator Raed Jarrar said: “An uprising in these Sunni-dominated provinces in Iraq can be directly traced to the divisions that were installed by the U.S.-led occupation in 2003.” We must also recognize that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has aligned himself strictly with Shiites – and with Iran – and excluded Iraq's Sunni minority. He has used his military powers to oppress nonviolent Sunni protesters, imprisoning, torturing, and killing.
Whatever role foreign fighters have played in the current crisis, without this persecution of Sunnis the mass uprising in the Sunni-dominated provinces would not have occurred. The fact that we are aligning the U.S. with the repressive, authoritarian regime of Iran to support Maliki's continued sectarian violence ought to jar us awake into seeing how wrong this policy is: supporting Maliki's own horrific tyranny with more U.S. military aid and force is what has brought us to this current crisis.
In short, one thing we can do is not to make matters worse by sending or using arms to continue the sectarian conflict which Prime Minister Maliki fomented with his violent repression of Sunnis.
Having been to Iraq so many times, it saddens me deeply to watch our country again turn to military actions based on mistaken views, when such actions create so much suffering and worsen the problems.
Bert Sacks writes for PeaceVoice and is a peace activist in Seattle.