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Iraq: Divide et Impera

By Stephen Gowans
August 22, 2007

A US-financed program to build a Sunni paramilitary Guardian organization in Iraq, and US proposals for a soft partition of the country, are the latest steps in a divide and rule strategy the US is pursuing to keep Iraqis fighting among themselves so they won't fight the occupation. Sectarian strife also provides the US with the pretext it needs to establish a long-term military presence in the country.

The US occupation authority has made ethnicity and religion salient in Iraq, where once it was a matter of little moment in the daily political lives of Iraqis. The US organized elections and the army along sectarian lines. It decided which parties could run in elections, favoring those that emphasized religious affiliations (Sunni vs. Shia) and ethnicity (Arab vs. Kurd), while banning the largest non-sectarian party, the Baath party. Key government positions were doled out along sectarian lines. The interior ministry was turned over to the Badr Brigade, a sectarian Shia paramilitary organization. From head to toe, Iraq has been transformed from a secular society into one in which religious and ethnic identity matter. Imagine the Department of Homeland Security being turned over to the KKK, the Pentagon to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, while the Democrat and Republican parties are banned and replaced by religious and ethnic parties. If ever there was a recipe to get people fighting among themselves, this is it.

The most recent manifestation of the US divide and rule policy is a program to create a Sunni paramilitary Guardian force whose mandate is to protect Sunni neighborhoods (1). Imagine Washington creating a Black paramilitary Guardian force, a White paramilitary Guardian force, and a Hispanic paramilitary Guardian force in the US. The effect in sparking racial tension would be the same.

Now, some US policy makers are talking about partitioning Iraq into Kurd, Sunni and Shia regions. Leading advocates include senior politicians and US ruling class foundations. Joseph Biden, chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination endorses "soft" partition, as does Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (2). Last year, the two put together the Biden-Gelb plan, which calls for a "soft" partition of Iraq. Soft partition would see Iraq divided into three distinct ethno-religious regions: Kurdistan, Shiastan and Sunnistan, held together by a weak federal government.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues the "time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is soft partition (3)." The Brookings Institution, associated with the Rockefellers, is one of the most influential US ruling class policy-making organizations.

Western politicians portray Iraq as a country whose simmering sectarian tensions were held in check by the brutal repression of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who ruled on behalf of the Sunni population and its political vehicle, the Baath party. It's only now that Mr. Hussein's tyranical rule has ended that sectarian conflict has slipped its restraints and come to the surface. At least, that's the favored US view. Trouble is, it's a crock of shit. When "the Committee of Debaathification issued a list of 100,000 senior Iraqi Baathists who would not be allowed to enjoy government posts," 66,000 of them turned out to be Shiites (4). And anyone who cared to check the deck of cards used to list the 55 top Iraqi officials the US invasion force wanted dead or alive, would discover that half were Shiite, and the remainder a mix of Sunnis, Christians and Kurds (5).

The former Ottoman territory that is now Iraq was governed as a single territory before 1880. The three provinces that were pieced together in 1921 to form modern Iraq had no "clear sectarian identities (6)." "For much of Iraq's history, the two communities (Shia and Sunni) co-existed peacefully (7)."

Partitioning the country would be no mean feat. "The geographic boundaries do not run toward partition. There is no Sunnistan or Shiastan." On the contrary, conditions are "highly commingled" with people "totally intermixed, especially in the major cities (8)." Five million Iraqis would have to be moved were the country to be divided into homogeneous ethno-religious slices (9).

More importantly, most Iraqis don't want their country partitioned. "Apart from the Kurds in the north, there is no unanimous, popular demand for federalism or soft partition or any partition at all (10)."

The 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of three resistance groups to form the political office of the Iraqi resistance, rejects the idea of a sectarian division in Iraq. "Our position," says its spokesman, "is that there are two kinds of people in Iraq: not Sunni and Shia, Kurdish and Arab, Muslim and Christian, but those who are with the occupation and those who are against it (11)." Sectarian divisions in Iraq have been amplified, he says, "as part of the 'British imperial tactic of divide and rule (12).'"

The British employed the Roman principle of divide et impera to enslave colonial peoples. The US has taken up the tradition. "Our endeavour," remarked Lieutenant-Colonel Coke, Commandant of Moradabad during the middle of the nineteenth century, "should be to uphold in full force the (for us fortunate) separation which exists between the different religions and races, not to endeavour to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian government (13)." Lord Elphinstone, Governer of Bombay, seconded the motion. "Divide et impera was the old Romon motto, and it should be ours (14)."

Adumbrating US imperial tactics in Iraq, the British devised a system of separate electorates in India and separate representation by religion, caste and ethnicity. Sound familiar? "The effect of this electoral policy," observed one commentator, was "to give the sharpest possible stimulus to communal antagonism (15)." Prior to British rule in India there was no trace of the type of Hindu-Muslim conflict that later emerged under British rule (16).

"There is no natural inevitable difficulty from the cohabiting of differing races or religions in one country (17)." Mulsim and Hindu lived side-by-side peacefully until the British arrived in India; Sunni and Shiite commingled peacefully before the US imposed its occupation on the country. "The difficulties arise from social-political conditions. They arise, in particular, whenever a reactionary regime is endeavouring to maintain itself against the popular movement (18)."

In the USSR, diverse religions and races lived together amicably. Germans and Jews lived together peacefully under Germany's Weimar Republic. It wasn't until the Nazis emphasized national identity to weaken growing working class consciousness that systematic persecution of Jews began.

The strategy is simple. The last thing an occupying power wants is for the people it's dominating to recognize their common situation and interests. Were they to do that, they might mobilize their energies to fight their common enemy. So occupied countries are organized by their occupiers along color, religious and ethnic fault-lines. Iraqis mustn't think of themselves as Iraqis, but as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, locked in a struggle with each other for access to resources.

The same is true within imperialist countries. People who work for a living mustn't identify with their class, but with their ethnic, religious or racial cohorts, or must be imbued with patriotism, so that they equate their personal interests with those of their ruling class. In this way, Americans and Britons who have nothing to gain personally from their country's occupation of Iraq, and much to lose, are bamboozled into supporting the war. Likewise, employees who have much to gain from coming together as a class are diverted by racism, religion and patriotism.

Another thing the US divide et impera tactic provides is an excuse to maintain a military presence in Iraq, and therefore, the continued domination of Iraq by Washington. For liberals, the argument that the US can't leave Iraq now, otherwise a full-scale civil war will erupt, is decisive. But what this view ignores is that the possibility of a full-scale civil war is the product of the occupation itself. Had the US not fomented ethnic and religious divisions, the possibility of a civil war would never have arisen. On the other hand, were the US to cease efforts to pit Iraqi against Iraqi, the occupation - already greatly challenged by the resistance, despite US divide and rule tactics - would surely be defeated, an outcome the US will never willingly consent to. Soft partition, then, seems to those seeking both sectarian peace and US withdrawal, to be the answer. But slicing the country up into Sunnistan, Shiastan and Kurdistan, won't set the stage for a US pull-out. On the contrary, "senior military planners caution that should partition become American policy, withdrawal almost certainly wouldn't. Partition would require a stabilization force - code for American military presence - of 75,000 to 100,000 troops for years to come (19)." Heads I win, tails you lose. No matter what, the US figures to be hanging around Iraq for a long time, using sectarian tensions as the justification for its ongoing presence. What will foil these plans are non-sectarian groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, that recognize there are only two kinds of people in Iraq: those who are with the occupation and those who are against it.


1. New York Times, August 19, 2007.

2. The CFR brings together CEOs, government and military officials and scholars, to recommend policy to the US State Department. The policy recommendations are typically responses to problems identified in corporate boardrooms, or exclusive clubs catering to the ultra-wealthy. The State Department relies on very little internal expertise, and uses the ruling class funded, directed and staffed think tanks and foundations to suggest policy. The CFR is the most important and influential of these organizations in matters of US foreign relations. See G. William Dumhoff, Who Rules America? McGraw-Hill, 2005.

3. New York Times, August 19, 2007.

4. Workers World, February 11, 2007.

5. Ibid.

6. Reidar Visser, who studies Iraq's sectarian issues at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, quoted in New York Times, August19, 2007.

7. New York Times, March 26, 2006.

8. Joost Hilterman, deputy director of Middle East programs for the International Crisis Group, quoted in New York Times, August 19, 2007.

9. New York Times, August 19, 2007.

10. Hilterman.

11. Guardian (UK), July 19, 2007.

12. Ibid.

13. R. Palme Dutt, The Problem of India, International Publishers, New York, 1943, p. 98.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 101.

16. Ibid. p. 97.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. New York Times, August 19, 2007.

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