A battle rages across Iraq, forcing the government and the Iraqi people to make decisions, alliances, and policies that will have a long-lasting effect on the fate of the nation for many years to come. Articles by the BBC, including “Revisiting Baghdad: How bad are the sectarian tensions?” reveal that while broad strokes frequently paint a picture of a sectarian divide, the violence is in fact driven by a small minority of hardline extremists hailing from Al Qaeda’s various Iraqi franchises.
Iraq’s sectarian narrative has been so deeply engraved in the psyche of global audiences, few can scarcely remember the days when Sunnis and Shia’a stood shoulder to shoulder in the opening days of US occupation. In fact, it was because of the initial solidarity exhibited across Iraq’s diverse cultural and religious tapestry that necessitated the sectarian narrative in the first place.
Imperialism 101: Divide and Conquer
Prominent Shia’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had in 2006 proposed a united front, including both Shia’a and Sunnis, as well as members of Iraq’s smaller minority groups, in an attempt to speed up the withdrawal of US troops and diminish foreign influence over Iraq. It is clear that the “sectarian” strife sowed across Iraq and the US’ proposed “surge” to solve it was another case of “problem, reaction, solution” where as the US intentionally created a problem only they could solve. Thus the US and its coalition of collaborators, were able to continuously renew their lease on occupation while keeping the indigenous government weak and needy.
Such a narrative can also be seen utilized in neighboring Syria where in fact many of the extremists visiting havoc upon Iraqi territory have also spent time fighting and terrorizing the Syrian population. The goal of creating a “sectarian divide” is to explain the violence in terms global audiences can understand and accept, without needing a further in-depth explanation.
Should global audiences seek a deeper understanding of the situation, they will see many realities in both Iraq and neighboring Syria that defy the sectarian convention, and reveal a more appalling reality.
For instance, in Iraq, the key to checking Al Qaeda toward the end of the US occupation was taking members of Sunni-majority cities, towns, and provinces, and turning them into organized, paid, and well equipped militias to defend against the minority extremists. These were billed as “Sunnis fighting Sunnis,” but in reality, were Sunnis fighting extremists.
Similarly in Syria, Sunnis have, are, and will continue to fight within the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army, as well as form militias to counter foreign-backed militants that have overrun Syrian territory, particularly in the north of the country. The reality is that these “divisions” within Iraqi and Syrian society are fabricated and intentionally inflamed, mainly by importing extremist ideology and in many cases, importing the extremists themselves.
Who is Behind the “Sectarian Narrative?”
If there is in fact, no real sectarian divide, who then is promoting this myth and why? To answer that question, one must follow the guns and cash enabling the busy hands of extremists in Iraq back to their facilitators and financiers. Most recently that task has been accomplished by the Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri Maliki himself, who has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding militants in order to destabilize Iraq.
In an exclusive interview with France 24, Prime Minister Maliki said in very frank terms, “I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements. I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them. I accuse them of leading an open war against the Iraqi government.”
And of course, where Saudi and Qatari foreign policy pries, US interests cannot be far behind. Just as is the case in Syria, the familiar accusations Prime Minister Maliki is directing against Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been documented as fact in the case of the US-led destabilization of Iraq’s northern neighbor, Syria.
The New York Times admitted in June of 2012 that “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar…” and that “a small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government.”
Much more public announcements of material support being provided to extremists in Syria were made by the US, UK, and their Arab partners in Saudi Arabia and Qatar since then, leaving little doubt as to who is behind the militants that have devastated Syria for the past 3 years and are now seeping into other regions where America and her allies’ ambitions are being challenged… and in Iraq, those ambitions face a formidable and ever growing wall.
Why Sow Chaos?
Iraq has taken long strides in removing itself from the dependencies left behind by their occupiers and has done so chiefly by establishing closer ties with its neighbors including Iran. For Iran and Iraq, nothing could be more logical. The nations share borders, culture, history, resources, and national defense interests. They also share common enemies and both are in need of dependable allies.
In an Al Arabiya op-ed by Dr. Majid Rafizadeh of the US National Endowment for Democracy-funded National Iranian American Council, it is pointed out that a 195 million arms deal was signed between Iraq and Iran and that it violates UN sanctions placed on Iran. It was also noted that the deal followed failed attempts by the Iraqi government to secure additional arms from the US.
While Dr. Rafizadeh (clearly promoting the West’s version of reality) claims that Iran’s interest in Iraq is sectarian, an attempt to bolster Shia’a factions across their border and extend the reach of their influence throughout the region, it would be more accurate to view Iran’s business with Iraq within the intentionally polarized geopolitical landscape the US and its Arab allies are busy creating by arming extremists both inside of Iraq and next door in Syria and beyond.
Iran would benefit from making inroads with any nation, group, or sect. The sectarian narrative, fueled by real violence aimed at dividing Iraqi society, limits who the Iranians can build stable and deepening ties with. While Dr. Rafizadeh and the interests he represents attempts to frame Iran’s behavior as selective sectarianism, in reality it is sectarianism that has forced Iran to be selective.
The idea of strong geopolitical and economic ties between Iran and Iraq diminish further the US’ attempts to isolate and besiege the Islamic Republic as well as manipulate the development and progress of Iraq. For the US’ regional collaborators, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a stronger Iran and Iraq spells disaster for their own regional ambitions and may even pose an existential threat should they continue to meddle in Iraq and Iran’s business (including the destabilization of their neighbors and allies).
It is clear then, why Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and by proxy, the US would like to sow sectarian chaos across Iraq. Destabilizing Iraq just as they have done in Syria, may seem like a good means of prying the nation away from Iran’s embrace, or at the very least, diminishing its ability to bolster Iran’s regional standings and reach.
However, while the US remains safely on the other side of the globe, it will be Saudi Arabia and Qatar that reap the costs of playing this deadly game. While the US appears to be increasingly resigned to the fact that it is losing its grip on global hegemony and may believe it has nothing to lose by “seeing how far” its proxies in the region can go before failing, for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it is well within their best interests (if self-preservation is one of their interests) to pursue accommodation and cooperation with Iran and Iraq, rather than a confrontation they appear already well on their way to losing.
Ulson Gunnar is a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”