While the majority of Iraqis know that the current Sunni-Shiites tension did not exist before 2003, no one can deny that after five years of U.S. occupation, sectarian tension is now a reality. Sectarianism is another disaster that was brought to Iraq by the war and occupation of Iraq.

The U.S.-led invasion did not only destroy the Baath political regime, it also annihilated the entire public sector including education, health care, food rations, social security, and the armed forces. The Iraqi public sector was a great example of how millions of Iraqis: Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular, all worked together in running the country. The myth that the former Iraqi government was a “Sunni-led dictatorship” was created by the U.S. government. Even the Iraqi political regime was not “Sunni-led,” let alone the rest of the public sector. A good way to debunk this fairy tale is through a close look at the famous deck of cards of the 55 most wanted Iraqi leaders. The cards had the pictures of Saddam, his two sons, and the rest of the political leadership which most Iraqis would recognize as the heads of the political regime. What is noteworthy is that 36 of the 55 were Shiites. In fact, the two vice presidents were a Christian and a Shiites Kurd.

Sometimes I feel like Iraqis and Americans are analyzing two different wars happening in two different countries. In one narrative, there is a civil war based on ancient sectarian hatred where a U.S. withdrawal will cause the sky to fall. In the other, there is a country struggling under occupation to get its independence back where the occupation is not welcomed and it is causing political, not sectarian, splits and violence.

According to the Iraqi mainstream narrative, the foreign occupation is the major reason and cause for violence and destruction. Foreign intervention is not only destroying Iraq’s infrastructure, but it is also splitting Iraq’s formerly integrated society. In addition, Iraqis are fighting among each other over fundamental questions about the future of their country, but the central conflict is not between Sunnis and Shiites, it is between Iraqi separatists and nationalists. Unlike other countries in the region such as Lebanon, the Iraqi sectarian tension is still reversible, because it just started five years ago. More importantly, it isn’t main driver fueling the Iraqi-Iraqi conflict. This “hidden” conflict is between separatists and nationalists.

The “Hidden” Conflict: Separatists vs. Nationalists

Loosely speaking, separatists favor a “soft partition” of Iraq into at least three zones with strong regional governments, similar to the semiautonomous Kurdish “state” in Northern Iraq; they are thriving on foreign intervention (Iranian, U.S. or other powers’ influence); they favor privatizing Iraq’s massive energy reserves and ceding substantial control of the country’s oil sector to regional authorities. Nationalists reject any foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs and they favor a strong technocratic central government in Baghdad that is not based on sectarian voting blocs. They favor centralized control over the development of Iraq’s oil and gas reserves while keeping them nationalized.

This Iraqi-Iraqi conflict is in many ways similar to the U.S. civil war: Iraqis who are for keeping a central government are fighting against other Iraqis who want to secede. But the major difference is that the United States was not under a foreign occupation that was destroying nationalists and funding and training separatists. Numerous polls that were conducted over the past few years in Iraq show that a majority of Iraqis from all different backgrounds tend to be more nationalist than separatist. A majority of the population are for a complete U.S. withdrawal, for keeping a strong central government in Baghdad, and against privatizing and decentralizing Iraq’s natural resources.

More surprisingly to U.S. audiences, this nationalist-separatist conflict is apparent inside the Iraqi government itself. The Iraqi executive branch (the cabinet and the presidency) are completely controlled by separatists (including Shiitess, Sunnis, Kurds, seculars and others). But the legislative branch (the parliament) is controlled by nationalists (including Sunnis, Shiitess, seculars, Christians, Yazidis, etc.) who enjoy a small but crucially important majority.

The last couple of years witnessed numerous examples of how the Bush administration systematically took the side of separatists in the Iraqi executive branch against nationalists in the elected legislative branch, repeatedly bypassing the Iraqi parliament. In each of these cases, there was the potential for reaching compromises that would have satisfied both nationalists and separatists. However, the aggressive support of the U.S. government for the separatist executive branch against the parliament has made it impossible for Iraqis to settle their differences.

Understanding these nuances of the Iraqi-Iraqi conflict reveals how the war is a political struggle that will end as soon as the U.S. withdraws, not a religious war that will intensify after Iraqis take their country back. The United States is not playing the role of a peace-keeping force, or a convener of reconciliation. It is seen by a majority of Iraqis as one side of the conflict and will never be a part of the solution.

How to Help

On this side of the ocean, the U.S. government has managed to convince large portions of the “right” that the war and occupation of Iraq is “good for our safety” because it’s better to “fight the terrorists overseas so we do not have to face them here at home.” Simultaneously, the government managed to manipulate many people on the “left” into believing that a U.S. withdrawal would cause unprecedented bloodshed. “The invasion was not a good idea” some would say, “but now that we are there, let’s fix it before we leave.”

From an Iraqi perspective, both groups promote interventionist foreign policies that have no respect for sovereignty, independence, or international law. On the one hand, the best way to guarantee that no al-Qaeda or other extremist organizations will exist in Iraq is to let Iraqis rule the country by themselves. They have been living in Iraq and ruling it for the last thousands of years, and unlike the occupation authorities, they have been successful in protecting Iraq from the intervention of foreign countries and organizations.

While many Iraqis appreciate the sense of responsibility to fix what the U.S. invasion has broken in Iraq, and it has broken a lot, prolonging the occupation is only making the situation worse. There are other appropriate venues to support Iraqis after the last U.S. soldier and the last mercenary leave Iraq. This might include paying compensation, the same way Iraq has been compensating Kuwait and its people for the last 17 years through the United Nations Compensation Committee.
The best way to help Iraqis is to end the occupation of their country and to believe in their right and capacity for self-rule and self-determination. Setting a timetable for a complete withdrawal is the first step to help Iraqis begin the long process of reconciliation and reconstruction.

The 21st Invader

Unfortunately, the two ruling parties in D.C. are not planning to leave Iraq any time soon. The Republicans are openly speaking about leaving troops indefinitely, while the Democrats want to start withdrawing “combat” troops soon but they have three exceptions that could maintain up to 75,000 troops indefinitely in Iraq. These three exceptions are: training the Iraqi military forces, counter-terrorism operations, and protecting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Turning the current occupation into half or one-quarter of an occupation will not change anything on the ground in Iraq. Pulling out some of the troops and leaving some exceptions indefinitely is not a new strategy, it is a continuation of decades old military interventionism that will likely reduce some of the violence but it will keep the Iraqi people from starting the political, social, and economic reconciliation that is sorely needed.

Last November marked the 1245th anniversary of the construction of modern Baghdad by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur. During the last 13 centuries, Baghdad had been attacked and occupied 20 times before the U.S. army became its 21st foreign invader. Robert Fisk noted in one of his articles that in 1920 David Lloyd George, the prime minister of Britain, was facing similar calls for a military withdrawal. “Is it not for the benefit of the people of that country that it should be governed so as to enable them to develop this land which has been withered and shriveled up by oppression? What would happen if we withdrew?” Lloyd George would not abandon Iraq to “anarchy and confusion”. The time is different now, but the politics of the invaders still sound the same.

, Raed Jarrar is a consultant for the American Friends Service Committee. He is an Iraqi blogger and political analyst.