How Mass Atrocities End: Iraq

Given the continuing, indeed worsening, violence in Iraq, I think everyone at the recent seminar on How Mass Atrocities End: Iraq struggled to work with the title. The past few months threaten to reduce the drop, though by no means cessation, of political and criminal violence that began in late 2007 to an ephemeral page in an otherwise unremitting catalogue of horrors dating back to 2003. In fact, this month (July) has already seen Iraq’s deadliest day so far this year: 142 killed on the 3rd of July – hardly indicative of a post-mass atrocities environment!

Nevertheless, violence has most definitely dropped from the gruesome peaks of the civil war when over 3,500 Iraqis were dying in the summer months of 2006. Trying to account for this drop in violence was a persistent theme at the seminar and whilst there were differing viewpoints, all recognised that the drop in violence was underpinned by armed force in one way or another. Whether it was the US Surge, the rise of the Awakening movement, fatigue, sectarian cleansing running its course or the reorientation of US counterinsurgency thinking, all factors seem to be underpinned by and dependent on force.

Force can yield much needed short-term results and give long suffering communities some respite from violence; indeed one can argue that overwhelming force can potentially ‘solve’ a conflict by effectively crippling an enemy; however, this remains a relatively rare dynamic. More commonly, and certainly in the case of Iraq, coercive measures can keep more extreme levels of violence in check but cannot ‘solve’ conflict for the self-evident reason that over-reliance on force may be useful in attaining a punitive (and usually temporary) victory but not in attaining peace. Small wonder then that the drop in violence in 2007/2008 quickly plateaued leaving Iraq forever on the brink of a resurgence of mass violence.

The most noticeable thing about the end of the civil war (or, rather, the shift in patterns of violence to something less intense than civil war) is that there was no definitive end, no reckoning, no conclusive peace agreement, no iconic end-moment and hence Iraq has neither a victor’s peace nor ‘reconciliation’ because in many ways, the civil war has not really ended – a fact that makes Iraq’s endless ‘reconciliation process’ a rather vacuous affair. For example, it remains unclear what the aims of the ‘reconciliation process’ are beyond a vaguely defined ‘unity’. Similarly, ‘reconciliation’ neglects to clarify what episode is being addressed and who the protagonists in need of reconciling actually are. As such, Iraq’s ‘reconciliation process’ underlines the fact that Iraq is still a long way off ‘post-atrocity’ let alone ‘post-conflict’ status. Rather than seeking to bring an end to violence or to bridge communal or political divides, what ‘reconciliation’ has ultimately been aimed at is negotiating a satisfactory division of political and economic power amongst an unrepresentative political elite detached from the people they claim to represent. I would go as far as saying that ‘reconciliation’ thus far has had little to do with communal identities, political ideologies or national unity and everything to do with dividing the national pie amongst a corrupt and dysfunctional political elite.

Returning to the on-going violence, we can identify several drivers and these have changed and evolved over the past decade; some have ceased to matter, new ones have emerged, others still have changed to accommodate the new-Iraq’s rapidly changing landscapes of violence. In my research I have focussed on perceptual drivers such as memory, identity and victimhood. These are intrinsic to post-2003 conflict: whether we focus on the rejection of the new order or the issues surrounding reconciliation, it seems evident that conflict in Iraq has many roots in perceptual and emotional issues regarding the previous regime and the post-2003 order.

Contrary to what the newly empowered former opposition in exile had believed in 2003, Iraqis were far from agreed on what the Ba’ath era signified. A considerable body of Iraqi opinion rejected the elevation of the Ba’ath era to the status of evil unparalleled. As a result, whilst many, particularly amongst the exiled political classes, expected the horrors of the Ba’ath era to act as a unifier in post-war Iraq what actually happened was the exact opposite: the memory of the Ba’ath era has proven a fertile source of division and violence since 2003; indeed one could argue that the continuation of violence today is aided by the fact that closure on the Ba’ath era has thus far proven so elusive.

A key point here however is that this disagreement was not, I believe, the result of Saddam’s or the Ba’ath’s popularity; rather, I would argue that the reason the vilification of the Ba’ath was met with such vehement resistance was the manner in which the issue was framed and to what ends. The main problem – and this has bred so much that accounts for the continuation of the violence not just in Iraq but throughout the region – was that, intentionally or not, the issue was framed through the prism of ethno-sectarian identity. The Ba’ath were presented as evil personified and this view was championed as the bedrock of the new-Iraq; however, this project was made controversial by the fact that it was propagated by political forces that believed they as an ethnic or sectarian group (Kurdish and Shi’a to be precise) were uniquely victimized by the Ba’ath and hence the most deserving of the Ba’ath’s demise. In other words, for these political actors, and indeed for significant parts of the communal groups they claimed to represent, the Ba’ath were evil personified primarily for what they had done to specific communal groups; as such, for Kurdish and Shi’a political forces and significant segments of Kurdish and Shi’a society, the fall of the Ba’ath was celebrated in a rather exclusionary way as their deliverance as an ethno-sectarian group as much as it was Iraq’s.

Intentionally or otherwise, there was an implication that Sunni Arabs were, at worst, guilty of the crimes of the Ba’ath or, at best, excluded from the new-Iraq: the new-Iraq was that of the triumphant victim and Sunnis had no such conception of themselves ten years ago. It is small wonder that many Sunni Arabs have contested the demonization of the Ba’ath particularly the narrative of unique Kurdish and, more pertinently, Shi’a Ba’ath era victimization when one considers that it is upon that narrative that the empowerment of Shi’a and Kurdish political forces and the marginalization of Sunni Arabs was based and justified.

This divergence in political perceptions and historical memory strikes at the very foundations of the new-Iraq whose ostensible legitimacy is based on it being the democratic alternative to Saddam’s Iraq. Even if we move beyond 2003, we see a similar division – in many cases along sectarian lines – in socio-political perception and historical memories of the past ten years. Take the civil war: whilst there was no grand finale and whilst there is no formal recognition of a civil war ever having taken place, there very clearly are (sectarian) winners and losers as reflected by the fact that some militant networks from one side are today integrated into the state and into state organs. As such the Mahdi Army or the Asa’ib Ahl al Haq can organise parades and engage in political activities with state sanction while any idea of extending the same privileges to their Sunni counterparts remains unthinkable. More broadly, there are very clear Sunni and Shi’a narratives of what happened in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq in 2006-2007. Once again we see a bloody chapter in modern Iraqi history (Anfal, 1991, the civil war and so forth) disintegrate from a potentially national tragedy to a divisive communal one. This is one of the many ways that Iraqi sectarian division is perpetuated: it is not that Sunnis and Shi’as are innately incapable of getting along; rather, specific events and identifiable drivers have helped sectarian imaginations of Iraq and Iraqi history emerge and these have turned what in the past was an often irrelevant sectarian plurality into a politically salient sectarian division today.

That we can identify specific turning points or factors that have aided such transformations does not make the end result, namely sectarian entrenchment, any less real. Even if we accept the simplistic argument that the entire issue of ‘sectarianism’ in Iraq is the result of foreign interference and machinations that have divided otherwise blissfully united Iraqis, it does not change the fact that sectarian identity today is an important part of many Arab Iraqis’ self-conception and that it is a prominent part of Arab Iraq’s contemporary social and political landscape. As such, understanding the drivers of sectarian identity, alleviating fears of sectarian encirclement and establishing a functional national politics that can alleviate sectarian entrenchment is far more conducive to ending sectarian violence – and alas not all atrocities in Iraq are related to sectarian identity – than blindly insisting on negating present realities by clinging on to visions of a romanticised past.

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