Sadr: Battles other Shiites, not just Sunnis.
February 2, 2007 -- THE claim that Iraq is in a state of civil war or heading toward it has been a staple of Washington political debate for four years now. More cautious commentators prefer "sectarian war," but implicitly draw the same conclusions: Iraqis are a bad lot, better left to stew in their juice of fanaticism and violence.
The truth, however, is that, although there is a great deal of killing in Iraq, there is no civil war in any reasonable sense of that term.
"Sectarian war" is also hard to sustain. Although there is killing prompted by sectarian hatred, what we have today is a war of the sectarians, not a sectarian war. The difference is not mere semantics.
In a sectarian war, the overwhelming majorities of rival religious sects subscribe to the aims of their own side and actively participate in their pursuit. I saw this in the '90s, when I covered the various wars in the former Yugoslavia.
You could be sure that almost all Serbs, from the taxi driver that took you from the airport to the hotel to the nation's leading poet, would be a sectarian - hating the Croats and the Muslims with passion.
And most Croats and Muslims (while also hating each other) dreamed of crushing the Serbs as a nation. Peasants, factory workers, the urban poor, bishops and muftis, artists and filmmakers, ballet dancers and chefs - all were sectarian.
Nothing of the sort exists in Iraq today. The deadly disease of sectarianism has not contaminated the majority of Iraqis. Shiites and Sunnis both organize on the basis of political affiliations and interests, rather than sectarian loyalties.
Iyad Allawi and Muqtada al-Sadr, both Shiite, have little in common politically. Nor does it make sense to bracket Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the Shiite vice president, with Dhia Abdul-Zahra, leader of the Army of the Heaven gang in Najaf.
Meanwhile, President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, is as much of a Sunni as Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi or elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, both ethnic Arabs - but it would be an error of analysis to put them all together in the same political camp. Nor could any be bracketed with the remnants of the Saddamite clan or al Qaeda, despite a shared religious affiliation.
The government in Baghdad is a coalition of many different parties and groups: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish. True, some members of this government are sectarians. But even then, their sectarianism comes in the form of nepotism and clientelism - designed to favor families and clans. Their rivalries are motivated by social, economic and political considerations, rather than religious differences.
Unlike the unraveling Yugoslavia of the '90s, sectarianism hasn't consumed Iraq at the grass-root level. Grandmothers don't say special prayers, asking God to destroy the rival sect. Poets don't write sectarian verse. Artists don't portray members of other sects as devils incarnate. Not one of the gangsters who destroyed the golden-domed shrine in Samarra was Iraqi.
Anyone closely familiar with the situation, rather than making judgments from thousands of miles away, would know of countless cases where Sunnis and Shiites protected one another against the violence of sectarian terrorist groups. In Anbar province, where Arab Sunnis are more than 95 percent of the population, several Shiite pockets owe their survival to the protection of local tribes. In some cases, Sunni tribes have fought al Qaeda terrorists to prevent the massacre of Shiites.
Indeed, most Iraqi tribes include both Sunni and Shiite members. There are also tens of thousands of mixed families of Sunnis and Shiites, especially in Baghdad and Basra.
In many cases, the fight is between rival militias belonging to the same religious sect. Sadr's Mahdi Army, a hodgepodge of armed groups often controlled by Iran, has clashed with Abdul-Aziz Hakim's Badr Brigade, another Shiite militia partly under Iranian control.
Iraqi and U.S. troops killed hundreds of militiamen this week in a battle near Najaf. Most of those killed were Shiite followers of a charlatan who claimed to be the Last Imam. But, according to Iraqi authorities, those killed or captured also included Sunni terrorists, some from Sudan and Algeria.
Sectarian violence has displaced many Iraqis, perhaps more than a million. There have also been instances of ethnic cleansing, through the forcible expulsion of families and clans. But even such cases cannot be imputed to religious sectarianism.
Consider the Sunni families forced out of their homes in Basra and Baghdad by Shiite death-squads: In almost all cases, the death squads belong to a single group: the Sadrists, who seek to pose as the most effective defenders of Shiism against a mythical Sunni threat.
In Kirkuk, the Kurds are forcing out Shiite and Sunni Arabs - but the motives are not religious, but ethnic. In the same city, the Turkmen, both Sunnis and Shiites, act together on the basis not of religious affiliations but of ethnic origin.
There is no doubt that there is a war in Iraq. It is important to know what kind of a war this is.
If it is a civil war, we should identify the two camps and decide which to support. If it is a sectarian war, the only way to end it is either by geographical separation (as was the case with Croatia and Serbia) or through massive foreign occupation, as in Bosnia.
What is happening in Iraq, however, is neither a civil nor a sectarian war (although elements of both exist within the broader context). This war is a political one - between those who wish Iraq to succeed as a new democracy and those who want it to fail.
Those who want the new Iraq to succeed represent the overwhelming majority of Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Those who want it to fail are made up of Saddamite bitter-enders, some misguided pan-Arab nationalists, death squads financed by Tehran - and a variety of non-Iraqi terrorist outfits who have come to Iraq to kill and die in the name of their perverted vision of Islam.
In short, the war in Iraq is part of the broader war against terrorism and its many dark forces.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist and author based in Europe.