Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sectarian Fiefdoms

Why has Iraq fragmented to such a degree? Common explanations are the intractability of the Shia/Sunni split or the inherently "tribal" makeup of the society.

On their face, though, these are rather shallow explanations. IPS relays a much more convincing one:

There are an estimated 2.7 million Iraqis who have been displaced within their own country. No house; no food; no security. Who do they turn to for help? The international community's humanitarian organisations? The occupying United States government? The central Iraqi government based in Baghdad?

According to a report released Tuesday by Refugees International (RI), none of these has been able to provide sufficient assistance to the most vulnerable Iraqis. As a result, they are turning increasingly to local religious-political armed groups for their humanitarian needs -- often Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, or the Sunni militias known as Sahwa or Awakening groups, made up of former insurgents armed and funded by the U.S. military, though other militias and strongmen exist as well.

The ongoing fragmentation of Iraqi society well beyond pre-U.S. invasion levels -- caused by the flawed U.S. occupation and even encouraged by some of it and the nascent Iraqi government's policies -- has left militias and other neighbourhood strongmen the only ones able to effectively provide food, shelter, oil for heating and cooking, and the semblance of a judiciary system, according to the report entitled "Uprooted and Unstable: Meeting Urgent Humanitarian Needs in Iraq".

"The trend more and more has been [that] Iraq, leaving aside Kurdistan, resembles Somalia, where you have warlords and militias independent fiefdoms," said journalist Nir Rosen, who has spent significant time in Iraq, in a conference call to launch the report, which he co-authored. "These militias, be they Mahdi Army, be they Sunni Awakening groups or otherwise, provide security, provide housing, and other forms of assistance."

The expansion of militias into a service-delivery and aid role stands to reinforce the fragmentation. And if the trend is to be reversed, the international community and the Iraqi government must act now -- during the window of a relative lull in violence brought on by the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy -- said the RI report.

But so far, the chaotic picture is roundly characterised by policies that continue to deepen rifts. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government tends to only offer aid to its Shia base, Sunnis told RI, and the Sunni militias -- armed and even usually created by the U.S. -- give help only to Sunnis in their local purview.

"Effectively there really isn't even a state in Iraq. People often talk about the Iraqi government as if it actually functions -- and it doesn't provide very many services," said Rosen. "To the extent that it does, it provides them on sectarian grounds. So we saw services being provided to a much larger extent in Shia areas."
So when the state loses all authority, legitimacy, and functionality, people increasingly rely on whatever local networks are available to them. And, to the extent that these local networks are able to provide sustenance and security, it shouldn't come as a surprise that people increasingly align themselves or identify with said local alliance. This is practically a sociological rule.