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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 45

18 May 2003

Shia Fear
A Looming Confrontation Between The US/UK and The Iraqi People
WAR PLAN IRAQ Update Number 23


The US government of Iraq has taken a welcome if surprising turn, with the announcement of the incoming US administrator Paul Bremer, replacing Jay Garner, that the top ranks of the Ba'ath Party will be barred from public office. This is likely to be a tactical retreat rather than a real change in strategy. The Ba'athists are likely to be key allies in the pressing task of the US administration: defeating the Shia Muslim population of Iraq.

Sticking to the Ba'athist issue:'Purge of Ba'athists may total 30,000', said the Guardian. The Times was more honest and accurate: 'Baathists banned from jobs in US policy U-turn'. (17 May, p. 15, p. 21) (The best reporting on this issue has actually been in the right-wing press, by the way.)

An official in the US Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs was reported as saying they intended to 'extirpate Ba'athism' and 'put a stake in its heart'. The new policy 'meets a demand by Ahmad Chalabi, the US-backed exile leader, whose deputies said this week that 30,000 top Ba'athists need to be excluded.' (Guardian, 17 May, p. 15) (It is estimated the Party had between 600,000 and 700,000 members in total. FT, 17 May, p. 9)

A 'De-Baathification of Iraqi Society' order says that senior Party members, holding the ranks of Regional Command Member, Branch Member, Section Member and Group Member are 'hereby removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector'. They will be 'evaluated for criminal conduct or threat to the security of the coalition' and may be detained or placed under house arrest. Everyone in the top three layers of management in national government ministries or institutions, such as universities and hospitals 'shall be interviewed for possible affiliation with the Baath party and subject to investigation for criminal conduct and risk to security.' (Times, 17 May, p. 21) (But no word about the military is reported.)

This is a very welcome development. It is also very surprising. All the evidence of the past twelve years is that the US has wanted not 'regime change', but merely 'leadership change', and 'regime stabilisation' in Iraq. Why was there an ultimatum on 17 March for only Saddam Hussein and his sons to go into exile? That demand alone made it crystal clear that this was not about the Iraqi regime, but about the leadership of Iraq, about replacing Saddam's inner circle. (See War Plan Iraq and past ARROW Anti-War Briefings for more.)

Since the fall of the regime, the US and UK have been reimposing Ba'athist leaders all over Iraq. There has been considerable public protest in Iraq (though shamefully not (so far) in the Western anti-war movement, leading to 'several embarrassing cases, including the swift departure of two police chiefs—one called a "thief" to his face by a subordinate in front of The Times—and Dr Ali Shenan al-Janabi, the newly-appointed head of the Health Ministry.' (Times , 17 May, p. 21) The Times says Chalabi has 'given warnings of violence if top officials were not held to account'.(17 May, p. 21) Chalabi is just the Westernized tip of an enormous iceberg of public outrage in Iraq over the re-nazification of the state by US/UK forces.


The realities of US/UK policy so far are laid bare in the southern port town of Umm Qasr, the first population centre to be 'liberated' by US/UK forces. On 15 May, Umm Qasr 'was handed back to its municipal council by the [British] Army in the first transfer of power to a local authority since American and British troops invaded almost two months ago.' 'The relatively speedy hand-over of Umm Qasr has been hailed by military commanders as a huge success story.' (Telegraph, 16 May, p. 16)

Really. An unnamed British soldier who has worked closely with the 12-member, all-male council in the run-up to the hand-over described it as 'a joke' and a 'bloody disaster': 'They're almost all of them on the make'. Given £6,000 to start up the administration and to begin paying public servants, 'they came back to us and said they still needed money to pay the wages, saying they had lost the original amount'. The councillors are paying themselves £70 a month, when the average wage is around £3. The soldier 'added that several of the members were Ba'athists'. A local port clerk reports seeing council members in the market selling school equipment delivered by UNICEF. (Telegraph, 16 May, p. 16) Yes, Umm Qasr is a huge success.


According to one report, the new US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer actually said, 'The Ba'athists who abused their power to oppress the Iraqi people will be removed from office.' (Telegraph, 16 May, p. 16) This may give some wriggle room for continuing with the policy of granting effective immunity, and restoring to power, the old Sunni Arab Ba'athist elite.


Much of Iraq, perhaps even most of Iraq, is not actually being governed by the US at all. In the vacuum left by the collapse of the regime, and the unwillingness/unpreparedness of the US to govern, it is the clergy who have acted, especially the Shia Muslim clergy, representing the majority of people in the country (Iraq is 60% Shia, 35% Sunni, roughly).

'Despite years of repression under Saddam, Iraq's Shi'ite clerics and their followers, who make up the majority of the country's population, have displayed impressive organisational strength, taking over the running of hospitals and, in the absence of traffic lights, even the direction of traffic.' (Sunday Times, 4 May, pp. 24/25)

The most dramatic demonstration of Shia power was at Kerbala on 21 and 22 April, with over a million Shia Muslims engaging in a long-forbidden pilgrimage to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. BBC reporter Fergal Keane observed from the scene that this was 'raw emotion unleashed on a scale that the Middle East has not seen since the heyday of Nasser'. He marvelled at 'the absence of any police or military and still the extraordinary discipline'. Many pilgrims thanked Britain for helping to drive Saddam from power: 'But every single pilgrim said Britain and America should get out of Iraq quickly or they would face a Shia revolt.'

Keane suggested that 'For organisational skills they are not unlike Sinn Fein; in terms of marrying faith and politics they are like Hizbollah in Lebanon. Like both Sinn Fein and Hizbollah they have been quick to grasp the importance of social-welfare work in the community. Most important, they are on the ground talking to people every hour of the day. People have not forgotten who was with them during the long darkness of Saddam.' (Independent, 26 Apr., p. 16)

There is a 'de facto Shia confederacy, which is already taking shape': 'the Hawza, the Shia religious body based in Najaf, which is said to be co-ordinating the takeover of the administration of towns and cities by clerics, were present among the crowd' in Kerbala. One member of the hawza, Abbas Nahidi, said, 'The Hawza believe there should be elections so people can decided who should govern us. We want an Islamic state. We do not want to be ruled by any foreign powers including the United States.' (Independent, 24 Apr., p. 12) Ewen MacAskill reported from Kerbala, ‘Many in the crowd said they did not want rule in which Shia clerics have the monopoly, but instead wanted to share power.’ He suggested, ‘There is a strong chance that the Shia may yet fragment and that yesterday may yet turn out to have been the last day of Shia unity.’ (Guardian, 23 Apr., p. 13) There are powerful rivalries between various Shia clerics, and scope for division, which the US is no doubt keen to exploit, because the US is determined to prevent Shia rule in Iraq.


White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer says the US would not support 'an Islamic dictatorship, that does not respect the religious disagreements among the people, that is not tolerant, that is dictatorial, that is closed, that doesn't govern by a rule of law or transparency' (Times, 24 Apr., p. 15) Rubbish. The US is fine with just such a regime next door. The problem is that an Iraq dominated by Shia Islam would not obey US orders, unlike Saudi Arabia.

Shia leaders have made it clear that they all oppose US domination of Iraq, and the restoration of the Ba'athist regime. The long-persecuted Shia al Dawa Party has offered a £1,000 reward for each senior Ba'ath Party official found, dead or alive. (Sunday Telegraph, 18 May, p. 28) Brutal reprisals against Ba'athist torturers and murderers are common. This is likely to be the real reason for the US U-turn on Ba'athist leaders.


US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned recently that one of the remaining tasks of US forces in Iraq was rooting out terrorist networks there. Veteran reporter Robert Fisk: 'here is a little prediction. Mr Bush says the war is over, or words to that effect. Then Shia resistance begins to bite the Americans in Iraq. Of course, Mr Rumsfeld will have warned of this: it will be characterised as the famous "terrorist networks" which still have to be fought in Iraq. And Iran—and no doubt Syria—will be accused of supporting these "terrorists". . . So stand by for part two of the Iraq war, transmogrified into the next stage of the "war on terror".' (Independent on Sunday, 4 May, p. 22)

The US is about to attempt to subdue the majority community in Iraq, by a mixture of bribery, manipulation and force. Iran may be blamed for the Shia nationalist resistance to US domination, stoking US-Iran confrontation.

In this looming confrontation, Ba'athists could be key US allies. An old story. In North Africa in 1942, the US placed in power Admiral Darlan, a leading French Nazi collaborator and the author of Vichy's anti-semitic laws. In Greece, after the Nazi withdrawal, the UK and then the US waged war against the anti-fascist Resistance while installing an outright Nazi collaborator as Interior Minister. (Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, 1985, p. 195.)

The re-nazification of Iraq, and particularly of Iraqi security forces, is likely to resume. It must be resisted unequivocally and vehemently.


War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Why We Shouldn't Launch Another War Against Iraq
by Milan Rai
Published by Verson, 2002

'An excellent weapon for all those opposed to Bush's war'. Tariq Ali
'Excellent'. Alice Mahon MP
'Required reading for anyone concerned about the risk of war'. Professor Paul Rogers, Bradford School of Peace Studies
'Timely and important'. Hilary Wainwright

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