Iraq, a different perspective

Five years into the Iraq war – a disaster of virtually unparalleled proportions – and one of its key original backers, columnist Andrew Sullivan, has explained the faulty reasons behind his support. At least he understands the error of his ways, though I fear he would support another war, by a new President, again based on fear and lies. Sullivan remains a believer in the right of Washington to act as it wants, behaviour that would be condemned if carried out by any other nation.

My friend Luke Skinner, a blogger in Perth, challenged my view that “ethnic cleansing” had taken place in Iraq since 2003. He has many Iraqi friends and sent me his following long essay that provides a useful, and largely ignored, perspective on the conflict. Our mainstream media ignores such views as its peril:

We all know how regularly it happens (“cleansing” of neighbourhoods) but I do still have personal friends in Baghdad who have their original neighbours (of opposite sects) living next door with no hostility between them; though they do, all of them, experience threats to leave on “religious reasons”. Baghdad is a very large city and there is definitely some clear lines between “Sunni” and “Shia” territories- but the common analogy and hence the way I read your words- is of a full scale ethnic (or “sectarian) war which has turned neighbours – who were for years before close friends – against each other.

I do not believe it is so. I believe the mistrust is largely the result of the many poor Shia previously living in the slum city (now Sadr City) and its surrounding poor areas moving towards the middle class mixed-areas; entering any houses left empty; extorting some for money and threatening others to leave on fear of death. Such actions inevitably provoke reactions and when they come you can sure there are some opportunists who take advantage of the situation.

I believe the rise of extremism has to do with opportunistic religious extremists taking full advantage of what could otherwise be “class warfare” for economic gain. As in any war time those already poor are stretched to desperation and hence begin to simply take what they need and eventually what they want; believing they honestly deserve it (and they may too, but so may the people who owned it originally). Not to say they don’t use religion for self-justification or even as their tool and weapon for recruitment/persecution; but it’s sure as hell not the only (perhaps not even the main) driving force behind the displacement of people from their homes in Baghdad.

It was the rich houses which were targeted first; from poorer (or greedy) members of their own sects’. Haifa street and Karrada are good examples. Many of the Iraqi bloggers lived in or had family from those areas which were forcibly displaced by extremists as early as 2004 (Salafi’s in mostly Sunni Haifa, SCIRI/Badr in Karrada); surely it is not coincidence these well-to-do areas were targeted before other areas. They were targeted by the militias whose ranks were filled not with angry middle-class persons, but with those who were previously poverty stricken (in Mehdi’s case), exiled (Badr Brigade) or had been stripped of their power when the Baath party fell. These are the actions of opportunists and while a level of resentment has become deeply imbued amongst the population for the extremists of BOTH sects, I believe it an arguable statement to make that the majority of Iraqi’s, though distrustful of one another do not feel they are PART of a ‘religious’ civil-war, though I do not deny they would feel they are “VICTIMS OF” one.

It’s never EVER going to be as simple as Sunni & Shia enclaves locked in a war of “ethnic cleansing” causing death on the scale of genocide. These are people who love one another; whose families and tribes are intertwined. Beyond the face value of “religious extremism” there are root-causes of what allowed extremism to rise as there are in all nations where religious extremism is rife and I’m of no doubt you could name more than a few.

Many families in Baghdad shared last Eid’s celebrations with members of the opposite sect (or even with Christians) without even leaving their neighbourhoods. Many Iraqi’s celebrated together when the Iraqi soccer team won the Asian Cup. Though I obviously haven’t witnessed with my own eyes; I do not believe Iraqi bloggers (and “former bloggers” who remain in the country) have reason to lie to me about who was at their families Eid festivities (nor who was unable to attend despite all efforts to do so).

In the public domain there are many interpretations of what makes a “ghetto” or an “enclave” or what defines “ethnic cleansing”. Baghdad is a giant place and for all I an aware there are (aside from the Green Zone) only two places with large concrete walls used to separate Sunni & Shia – one is the Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya on the Eastern side of the river (which is a well-to-do neighbourhood surrounded by run-down Shia areas with huge Badr & Mehdi presence), the other surrounds a similarly well-off area in the Western neighbourhoods of Dora & Amiriyah. Its hard to draw the line between what is class-warfare and what is religious warfare in post-Saddam Iraq because in many cases the lines for Rich & Poor are drawn roughly along the same lines as Shia & Sunni. Middle class Shia lived in the same neighbourhoods as Middle Class Sunni and their numbers were not so bad before the lower-class Shia wanted to do the same; provoking a defensive response from middle class Sunni who felt they were being invaded and hence expelled many Shia.

Maybe you are the wrong person to be hearing this argument; but none the less I believe it is equally yours as it is my responsibility to accurately represent the intricacies of humanitarian crisis and not to “dumb it down” for readabilities sake. There are miles of blast walls in Baghdad; but the vast majority of them surround the roads in between the Green Zone and the Airport, and not all Sunni areas are cut of from all Shia areas or vice versa- and lest we forget who the walls were erected by…

I challenged Skinner further, asking him whether journalists such as Patrick Cockburn, who regularly write about “ethnic cleansing” in Iraq, are mistaken. He went on:

I don’t think they are being either of those two things; though I dare say the amount of time they spend in the country must also take a toll on the individual journalist as it does the mass population. You (any journalist) go in search of every piece of information you can find to try build your analysis. Surely when you hear thousands of stories of ethnic conflict it will produces what is an undeniable truth: Sunni & Shia are killing each other on a regular basis; and it’s happening across the entire city. It IS happening everywhere in Sunni & Shia parts of Baghdad alike. You consistently hear hostility towards members of the other sect because as a journalist it is your job to find out who was responsible for specific events & actions. The Sunni & Shia conflict and even “cleansing” (invasion) of neighbourhoods is taking place. There are two extremist elements causing mass civilian deaths and promoting civil war. We DO HAVE an ethnic conflict. Surely the vast majority of a good journalists time in the country would be spent ensuring that what they are saying in this regard to this remains true to the day. How much time do they have to start asking new questions?

I guess I have a different window into the country. I have basically been doing a qualitative assessment of the mostly middle-class people I have come across – Iraqis online IN Iraq basically; not all of them bloggers. They are all from a large middle class of people suffering at the hands of an even bigger (in Baghdad at least; maybe not so in Mosul) poor population- who were in turn being exploited by the rich in a power-grab after Saddam’s fall and under the new Government.

The new government, however illegitimate, exists as an indefinite piece of procedure. Iraqi’s are too proud now to return to a dictatorship though many would do so willingly as opposed to suffering the torments of life as is. Iraq is not ripe for political revolution; in fact they are hesitant to try anything new at the moment and the only challenge to the “democratic” process as a process itself comes from the religious extremist groups who have nothing to offer the elite or middle classes.

Hence why those in good jobs and of high intelligence such as librarians, doctors, dentists, teachers, lecturers, civil engineers have targeted. The way chosen to bring the ideas of extremism into reality is by removing any better alternatives.

Many middle class Iraqis’ can still manage to get away with using fake IDs (sometimes with their own names still on them) when they leave their neighbourhood for another ghetto; because the lives of middle class Sunni and Shia are still too intertwined to this day to tell them apart- at least for those still living in their original homes anyway. I have yet to find any evidence to prove that those living in their own homes are not still in the majority of Baghdad’s current population; please correct me here if I’m wrong!!

How would a journalist be able to confirm or deny such things? It is the job of statisticians and the population itself to keep track of such things. On the job journalists make assessments they would later rethink or refine often; it’s not a crime. Its the practice of good journalism; find the truth; report it and then find the deeper truth again. Follow the process until you die and report it all along the way.

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