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Baghdad Zoo: Why “Gated Communities” Will Face Opposition in the Iraqi Capital

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)

23 April 2007

More than four years after the start of the Iraq War, the US military’s latest attempt to improve security in Baghdad by way of constructing concrete walls around sectarian enclaves in the Iraqi capital raises serious questions about Washington’s priorities in its Iraq policy.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the latest building boom on the part of the American military is that by no means does this represent an isolated incident. True, the Bush administration deserves some credit for at least nominally holding on to the vision of a unified Iraq in a context where facile partition plans are mushrooming in other circles in the United States. But at the micro level, violations of these lofty ideals of unity are now becoming so frequent that they threaten to render the official policy quite meaningless.

Already during the early days of the war, Washington did not shy away from sometimes using sectarian communities as building blocks. In late March 2003, for instance, General Richard Myers evoked the fact that “half of Baghdad’s population is Shiite” as a key factor that supposedly would facilitate the US occupation of the Iraqi capital. Then came the Bremer administration with its strong conviction that Iraq could be kept stable as long as an ideal formula for sectarian distribution of power could be arrived at. This was followed in 2005 and 2006 by serious attempts on the part of US officials to convince Sunnis to “think in terms of federalism” – all based on the erroneous assumption that this kind of territorial approach enjoyed widespread support in Shiite circles.

Ordinary Iraqis – Sunnis and Shiites alike – have already reacted angrily to the idea of “gated communities”. It is now high time that the wider world understands how these reactions are linked to a more basic ideal of sectarian coexistence and that solutions devised for the Balkans will often tend to be highly irrelevant in Iraq. Iraqis of different sects may be in violent conflict with each other, but they nevertheless detest the territorial expression of sectarian identities, which they traditionally see as belonging to the private domain. Above all, the enshrinement (takris) of sectarian differences in government structures is a long-standing taboo in Iraqi political discourse. In this way, the “gated communities” idea shares a major flaw with the Gelb–Biden plan of dividing Iraq according to sectarian criteria: it is a “solution” which the Iraqis themselves are not seeking. To many Iraqis, “gated communities” will first and foremost mean ugly, permanent scars – even if the idea may well have been conceived with noble intentions of “securing Baghdad neighbourhoods” in a climate of horrific sectarian violence.

When will Westerners realise that most Iraqis – with the exception of many Kurds and a few noisy parliamentarians from other communities – view sectarianism as a perversion and not as a legitimate basis for organising the country politically and administratively? When will US policy-makers understand that the best hope of national reconciliation in Iraq lies not in the search for a magical balance of power between sects (or even partition) but rather in the programmatic dilution of sectarianism? And not least, when will the US military recognise that the forced transformation of Baghdad’s population into sectarian citizens, caged inside tiny, sterile enclaves, could easily turn into an unparalleled propaganda triumph for al-Qaida’s campaign to destroy Iraq’s social fabric?

It is highly disturbing that physical separation schemes of this kind should appear to be a priority of the Bush administration in early 2007, at the expense of the political track towards national reconciliation (which is steadily fading into the background and does not appear to be benefiting from any “surge” windfall). Instead of running against the winds of Iraqi nationalism, Washington should seek to align itself with popular ideas of national unity. A renewed focus on constitutional revision may perhaps seem inopportune to US decision-makers right now, but the angry popular reactions to the “gated communities” idea demonstrate the extent of surviving nationalist sentiment among the Iraqi masses – sentiment that could be built on to crack the most divisive pet projects of Iraqi parliamentarians, and to create the basis of national reconciliation along truly centrist lines.

See also Other People’s Maps




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