Sectarianism is a traditional weapon of colonisers

Liz Davies

Bush and Blair’s public opinion ratings are lower than ever before. Their “weapons of mass destruction” excuse for invading Iraq is known to be a cynical lie. American and British body bags come home every week while Iraqi casualties of the invasion and occupation were conservatively put, by the Lancet eighteen months ago, at over a hundred thousand. The country is in chaos, the most unsafe place to live in the world. A majority of the American and British electorates and a vast majority of Iraqis want the occupying troops to leave.


And yet, as Anthony Arnove points out in his new book: Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, the case for continued occupation is made not just by cheerleaders for the invasion, but by liberals, including some who spoke against the invasion three years ago.


However wrong the invasion was, they argue, now that the troops are there, shouldn’t they stay to nurture peace and democracy? Indeed, don’t the occupiers owe it to the Iraqis, having devastated their country?


Arnove dubs this rationale “the new white man’s burden”. It ignores the historical, economic and real-politik context of the invasion of Iraq: the significance of oil, the strategic importance of Iraq, the CIA’s long record of suppressing democratic movements in the middle east. It also ignores the history of US imperialism, with its record of human rights abuses, black ops and puppet dictatorships. It portrays the illegal detentions, torture, killings and other abuses committed by the occupiers in Iraq as aberrations, unrepresentative of the nature of the occupation. Above all, it betrays a racist assumption: a belief that Iraqis, left to their own, can’t build democracy or human rights.


Arnove alls for the “immediate withdrawal of all US and international troops from Iraq”. He gives eight reasons why the US and its collaborators should leave Iraq immediately.


First, the US and British military have no right to be in Iraq. Given that the invasion was illegal, so is the occupation. It’s not a defence for a burglar to argue that he has a right, indeed a moral and legal obligation, to remain in the house he’s burgled because he suspects its occupiers can’t look after it.
Second, they are not bringing democracy to Iraq. That was not the purpose of the invasion. Iraqi popular opinion forced the US to hold two elections. Even then the occupiers tried to subvert the process and promoted the notion of a strictly sectarian political choice for Iraqis. Despite the election not returning the US’s favoured option, the occupiers make sure that they pull the strings of any new government.
Third, the occupation does not make the world a safer place. Other countries (Israel, Russia, India) dub their opponents “terrorists” and cite US-UK behaviour as precedent for their own atrocities. Countries labelled as “rogue-states” note that Iraq was vulnerable precisely because it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and thus escalate the nuclear arms race.


Fourth, the US and Britain are not preventing civil war in Iraq. Rather, they deliberately foment sectarianism, a traditional weapon of colonisers. The Western media is obsessed with the Kurd-Shia-Sunni divide. In truth, and even now, Kurds, Shias, Sunnis live side by side in most cities. They inter-marry, and live and work together. Sectarianism, particularly against the Kurds, was certainly fomented by Saddam Hussein. The occupation has taken that to new extremes, fostering sectarian-based political parties and construing resistance to the occupation as sectarian violence and even permitting (or perhaps encouraging) its Iraqi allies to engage in such violence. What is clear that the longer the occupation continues, the more sectarianism will increase.


Fifth, the US and Britain are not fighting terrorism in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq and other manifestations of the “war on terror” have made us all more at risk of terrorist attack. Iraqi civilians face a murderous double whammy: they are victims of state terrorism conducted by the US and Britain as well as home-grown acts of violence.


Sixth, we are not honouring those who died by continuing the conflict. It is a strange argument that justifies future deaths as a necessary memorial to those who have already died. Bush says “We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against terrorists”. Cindy Sheehan replies “Why should I want one more mother to go through what I’ve gone through, because my son is dead?”.
Seventh, the occupiers are not rebuilding Iraq; they are looting the country. Of the $18.4 billion allocated by the US Congress for “reconstruction”, less than half has been spent. Electricity, water and sewage supplies don’t work. Hospitals are in chaos. Unemployment has sky-rocketed. Lucrative contracts are handed to multi-national corporations (Haliburton being the principal beneficiary) and a blind eye is turned as money is misspent, siphoned off, unaccounted for, and private companies fail to deliver and don’t even employ Iraqis. Untapped oil reserves are sold to multi-nationals (the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions is campaigning hard to keep the existing oil reserves in public ownership). Aggressive privatisation and neo-liberalism are being written into the constitution.


Finally, the US and Britain are not fulfilling their obligations to the Iraqi people by occupying their country. We certainly do have an obligation to Iraqi: to make reparation for 12 years of sanctions, the deaths of over half a million children, for unleashing death from the skies throughout the 1990s, for the invasion of 2004 and the civilian deaths, poverty and instability that have followed. And further back: for arming both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, for selling arms to Saddam Hussein, for helping to suppress democratic movements in Iraq over many decades. Reparations cannot be made at gunpoint. Reparations require military withdrawal followed by a massive influx of cash distributed by democratically elected politicians, cancelling the whole of Iraq’s debt, working to eliminate land mines, combat the effects of depleted uranium, and prosecuting Bush, Blair and others for war crimes.


The earlier the withdrawal, the sooner Iraqis can start to rebuild their country. But what are the factors that might make withdrawal a reality? Arnove identifies five forces that ultimately led to the US withdrawing from South East Asia: mass resistance by the Vietnamese people; resistance by US soldiers and veterans; domestic opposition; international protest and the growing economic consequences of the war. The reference to Vietnam is poignant. Arnove’s title is taken from Howard Zinn’s book “Vietnam: the Logic of Withdrawal” which was published in 1967. The US withdrew from South East Asia five years later. Those five years claimed the lives of a million Vietnamese and thirty thousand Americans.


It’s the job of the anti-war movement to make the occupation untenable in the US and Britain now, so that Iraqis don’t have to repeat the suffering of the Vietnamese. Public opinion generally thinks that there should be a withdrawal, but is less certain about when it should be. Arnove’s book is an invaluable tool for engaging with the arguments that arise whenever the occupation is discussed. It makes an unanswerable and urgent case.


Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal is published by the New Press.

Liz Davies is a barrister, long-standing peace and labour movement activist, Vice-Chairwoman of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and involved in Iraq Occupation Focus. This column first appeared in the Morning Star.




June 2006

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