September 28, 2005
The US-led occupation forces in Iraq are widening the campaign
of repression being carried out against sections of the population
who are expected to vote "No" in the October 15 referendum
called to ratify a draft constitution.
On September 25, for the first time in over a year, American
and Iraqi government troops in Baghdad launched an attack on the
Shiite supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the impoverished
working class district of Sadr City.
A Sadr aide told the Los Angeles Times that both US
and government troops had approached the home of a minor leader
of the Shiite movement in the early hours of the morning and opened
fire indiscriminately on the Mahdi Army militiamen guarding the
area. Witnesses told the newspaper that the militiamen fired first,
after their warnings to the occupation forces to leave were ignored.
The US military claimed that government troops attempting to
detain three men suspected of involvement in a "kidnapping
and torture cell" were ambushed and that American forces
went to their assistance. Whatever the exact circumstances, a
90-minute gun battle took place between the local fighters and
the US and government forces. According to the Sadrists, four
people were killed, including a child, and 15 wounded.
Sadrist leaders immediately denounced the firefight as a calculated
provocation. Sheik Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji told Al Jazeera: "They
want to provoke al-Sadr people to fight, to stop them from taking
part in the political process." Another spokesman told Associated
Press that the occupation forces were trying to provoke a battle
"aimed at destroying Iraqi towns, particularly those in pro-Sadr
areas" in order to "prevent Sadr followers from voting".
The Sadrist movement opposed the US invasion in 2003 and has
demanded the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops. In 2004,
it took up arms twice against the American military. While the
Sadrists have observed a ceasefire that was negotiated last September
to end the fighting, they have remained critical of the occupation
and tensions have been steadily escalating over the past two months.
Sadr has made no clear call for Iraqis to vote down the referendum.
Both he and his associates have, however, issued a number of statements
condemning the clauses in the draft constitution that allow for
the establishment of federal "regions", or virtually
In the face of an entrenched insurgency in the central and
western provinces of Iraq, Washington now regards the de-facto
partition as the best mechanism for selling off Iraq’s oil
and other resources to transnational corporate interests and establishing
permanent US military bases. The constitution will facilitate
the creation of a Kurdish mini-state in the north and a Shiite-dominated
mini-state in the south, with substantial control over oil revenues
and internal security. Baghdad, where the Sadrists have their
base, and the resource-poor central and western provinces, which
have a majority Sunni population, face being marginalised.
A large turnout and "No" vote by the Shiite supporters
of Sadr, combined with the votes of Sunni Muslims and other groups
that oppose the constitution such as ethnic Turkomen, Christians
and secularists, could defeat the constitution in as many as five
provinces. A "No" vote by two-thirds of voters in just
three of Iraq’s 18 provinces is all that is required for
its overall rejection. Over the past several months, hundreds
of thousands of Sunnis, who overwhelmingly boycotted the election
in January, have registered in response to calls by Sunni political
and religious leaders for a mass vote against the draft constitution.
Within that context, the Iraqi Electoral Commission has ruled
that a negative vote by two-thirds of registered voters—not
actual voters—is necessary to defeat the constitution in
a province. The US military and the Iraqi government of Prime
Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari are deliberately creating fear and
chaos to prevent large numbers of likely "No" voters
reaching a polling station, in order to ensure the critical two-thirds
is never reached.
An offensive in the predominantly Sunni-populated Euphrates
Valley has led to tens of thousands of people fleeing cities such
as Qaim and Tal Afar and plunged large swathes of the majority
Sunni provinces of Ninewa and al-Anbar into chaos. There have
been reports too of residents fleeing the major Sunni city of
Samarra in Sala al Din province and escalating fighting in Ramadi,
the capital of Anbar province.
The Iraqi newspaper Azzaman reported on September 24
that residents of the Sunni Baghdad suburb of Doura also have
begun to leave their homes, after anonymous leaflets warned an
occupation assault was imminent. The paper reported that Iraqi
government forces were "massing in the district, setting
up checkpoints and road blocks, prompting the residents to leave
for fear that the troops would soon mount a major attack".
The displacement of people, the volatile atmosphere and intimidating
presence of US and government forces is likely to cause a far
lower turnout in key Sunni areas than would otherwise have been
The attack by the occupation forces in Sadr City can only be
interpreted as an attempt to prevent Shiite opposition to the
constitution from being expressed as well. Until this week, the
district, where as many as two million people live, was being
widely referred to as the "safest" part of Baghdad due
to the ceasefire between the occupation forces and the Sadrist
militia. Now, just over two weeks from the referendum, there are
fears of a direct confrontation between thousands of young Shiite
fighters and the occupation forces.
The clash on Sunday comes in the wake of a series of provocations
that have intensified the resentment of Sadr’s loyalists
toward both the US military and the rival Shiite parties in the
Iraqi government—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da’awa organisation of Prime Minister
Tensions are running high in the main southern city of Basra,
where the British military arrested three Sadrist leaders and
stormed a prison last week to free two Special Air Service (SAS)
troops who were captured, disguised as Arabs and allegedly carrying
explosives, by local police said to be loyal to Sadr. (See "British
troops in pitched battle in Basra")
On August 24, just weeks after police affiliated with SCIRI
gunned down Sadrist demonstrators in the southern city of Samawa,
a mob of SCIRI supporters burnt down Sadr’s office in Najaf.
The office had been closed since fighting last year and was being
reopened as part of the Sadrist efforts to extend their influence.
In retaliation for the attack, Mahdi Army fighters attacked SCIRI
offices in cities and towns across the south, and Sadrist legislators
walked out of the parliament. The situation was defused only by
frantic calls for calm by Jaafari, SCIRI leaders and Sadr himself.
Sadr’s response to the recent incidents in Basra and Baghdad
has also been to call for calm. The layer of the Shiite elite
he represents has consistently sought to balance between the mass
anti-occupation sentiment of its base of support among the working
class and urban poor, and using the US presence to enhance their
political role and material position.
There are ominous parallels with situation in April 2004, however,
when the US occupation confronted a crisis due to the strengthening
insurgency in Sunni heartland cities like Fallujah and the agitation
among Shiites against the moves to install an unelected interim
government headed by pro-US exiles.
The Bush administration’s answer was to provoke a confrontation
and attempt to drown the resistance in blood. An offensive was
begun against Fallujah while the US military provocatively closed
a Sadrist newspaper and tried to arrest one of the movement’s
main Baghdad leaders. Spanish troops attacked and killed Shiite
demonstrators in Najaf. Within hours, Shiite youth had taken up
arms in Sadr City, Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Basra, Amara, and
towns across the south.
Thousands of Iraqis were killed or wounded in the fighting
over the following seven months—culminating in the US destruction
of Fallujah in November 2004. The American repression and terror
was the essential precondition for the installation of Iyad Allawi
as interim prime minister in June, and the election on January
30 this year that delivered control of the parliament to the pro-occupation
Shiite and Kurdish parties.
The Bush administration calculates it can push through the
draft constitution by the same method—vicious reprisals against
Iraqis who oppose the US agenda of subjugating the country and
plundering its oil. Two-and-a-half years into this bloody neo-colonial
war, with over 100,000 Iraqi and close to 2,000 American dead,
no credence can be given to the lie that the US occupation is
bringing "democracy" to Iraq.