Gilbert Achcar: In the past six months, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated in a truly frightening manner, proceeding inexorably toward the actualization of the worst-case scenario -- the worst for Iraq, that is, which is not necessarily the worst for Washington, as I shall explain.
The outcome of the December 2005 parliamentary election was quite bad for U.S. plans in Iraq. The official results confirmed that the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) once again secured a major voting bloc in the parliament (128 seats out of 275), although they did not get the majority that they enjoyed in the previous assembly. That was foreseen, however, as the January 2005 election had been boycotted by most Arab Sunnis and its outcome was accordingly quite exceptional. Nevertheless, the loss of 12 seats by the UIA was rather less than the 22–seat loss by the Kurdish Alliance, while the coalition list headed by Washington's henchman, Iyad Allawi, suffered a very serious decline, falling to 25 seats from 40, which had already been a poor showing.These results meant that, had any of the "Sunni" coalitions -- whether the Iraqi Accord Front (44 seats), which is a coalition between the Islamic Party (i.e., the Iraqi "moderate" branch of the Muslim Brotherhood [the Association of Muslim Scholars being the "hard-liners" originating in the same tradition]) and traditionalist Arab Sunni tribal forces; or the Iraqi National Dialogue Front alone (11 seats), a motley Arab nationalist coalition including present or former Baathists who disavow Saddam Hussein's leadership -- agreed to join an alliance with the UIA, they would have secured together an absolute majority in the parliament.
The whole situation was clearly a setback for Sadr, however. As I mentioned earlier, he had tried hard to convince the Sunni Arab parliamentary and extra-parliamentary groups to join in an anti-occupation alliance. He failed totally in that respect: The Arab Sunni parliamentary groups rejected his advances, and stuck to their alliance with the Kurdish parties and Washington's proconsul. On the other hand, the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is very close to the Arab Sunni insurgency, disappointed Sadr bitterly: He couldn't get them to condemn Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda branch in strong terms (Sadr even wanted them to excommunicate Zarqawi's group), and his radical anti-Baathist attitude was equally a stumbling block in his relations with Sunni Arab nationalists. He has complained that of the Sunni groups he approached before the December election and asked to adhere to his "Pact of Honor," none have signed it.
The next major blow to Sadr's strategy of trying to build an anti-U.S. alliance with anti-occupation Arab Sunni forces was the single event that contributed most to fueling the sectarian tension between Arab Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq -- I mean, of course, the attack against the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra on February 22, 2006. This sectarian attack unleashed reprisals on a large scale by Shiite militants infuriated by the unending series of murderous sectarian attacks to which their community had been subjected ever since the occupation started. In these reprisals, Sadr's ragtag "Mahdi Army" was apparently very much involved. Not that Sadr gave a green light for this -- on the contrary, like most other Shiite leaders, he tried his best to cool things down -- but since his militias are much less centralized than the quasi-military SCIRI Badr militia, Sadrist militiamen obeyed their impulses before considering any other option and before getting to listen to the voice of political rationality.
At any rate, these unfortunate events were hugely exploited by an odd array of forces -- including U.S. friends, pro-Zarqawi Sunni fundamentalists, and pro-Saddam Baathists -- in order to discredit Muqtada al-Sadr among Arab Sunnis and to destroy any appeal he might have had for both his uncompromising anti-occupation stance and his reputation for being very much independent of Iran. All that Sadr had achieved politically in the previous period, in terms of building his influence on a pan-Arab (Sunnis and Shiites) Iraqi basis, was thus shattered along with the dome of the Al-Askari Mosque.
To say this is to point to what I hinted at already, namely that the slide of Iraq toward the worst-case scenario for its population does not necessarily represent the worst-case scenario for Washington. Actually, most of what has happened in recent months in Iraq, except for the publicity surrounding U.S. troops' criminal behavior, has suited Washington's designs. The sharp increase in sectarian tensions as well as the defeat of Muqtada al-Sadr's project played blatantly into Washington's hands. Along with many others, I have warned for quite a long time that, when all is said and done, Washington's only trump card in Iraq is going to be the sectarian and ethnic divisions among Iraqis, which the Bush administration is exploiting in the most cynical way according to the most classical of all imperial recipes: "Divide and rule." This is what Washington's proconsuls in Baghdad, from L. Paul Bremer to Khalilzad, have tried their best to put in place and take advantage of.
Seen in this light, the present flare-up in sectarian tensions is a godsend for Washington, to the point that many Iraqis suspect that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies stand behind the worst sectarian attacks. Note how the occupation seems now "legitimized" by the fact that many Arab Sunnis in mixed areas, who feel threatened, request the presence of foreign troops to guarantee their safety as they have no confidence in Iraqi armed forces.  What a paradox, when you think of the fact that Arab Sunnis were and are still the main constituency of the anti-occupation armed insurgency -- though surely not the only one: There has been a growing pattern of anti-occupation armed actions in southern Iraq that is hardly reported, if at all, in the Western media, or even in the Arab media for that matter.