Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January 20th, 2012

Blame It On the Iraqis: Christopher Hill Goes Rural

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 20 January 2012 13:50

In his tireless efforts to convince the world that political problems in post-withdrawal Iraq cannot possibly be attributed to his own tenure as the US ambassador in Baghdad from 2009 to 2010, Christopher Hill today presents a new twist to his narrative.

Having apparently realised the failure of his previous attempt to explain that it is all the fault of Iraqis, Hill now informs us that the really, really deep sectarian conflict in Iraq is rooted in the rural parts of the country. According to Hill, we other mortal Iraq analysts who focus on the politics of Baghdad (“urban bias”) are incapable of seeing the big picture because we are not privy to the ambassador’s unique rustic insights. Forget about Baghdad and its artificial coexistence between sects; instead consider the countryside: “Trips outside of the capital to Sunni-dominated Anbar or Shia-controlled southern Iraq often reveal a country much more focused on, and animated by, the Sunni-Shia divide. And this phenomenon did not begin with the US-led invasion. It had a thousand-year head start.”

It is hard to know where to begin. For example, did Hill take note of the recent episode in Dhi Qar where a Sunni soldier, Nazhan al-Jibburi, sacrificed his life to stop a terrorist attacking mainly Shiite targets and immediately had streets and new-born Shiite children named for him? 

Maybe that was not rural enough. Let’s venture further away from the urban distortions of the real Iraq and try to reach the rural purity that Hill doubtless found, unadulterated of course by any possible presence of American security details or other distractions of non-Iraqi origin. Did Ambassador Hill consult some of the best anthropological material on Iraq like the Marsh Dwellers of the Euphrates Delta by SM al-Salim (1962) relating to Chubayish (between Basra and Dhi Qar) or Shaikh and Effendi by R.A. Fernea (1970) relating to Daghara in the mid-Euphrates? There really is not much about sectarian conflict in those volumes.

But maybe the 1970s were exceptional. Maybe the 1960s were exceptional too. Perhaps the generally peaceful monarchical period and the late Ottoman eras were exceptional too? If the ambassador is so sure about a “thousand-year head start” for sectarian problems, why doesn’t he at least do us the favour of enumerating some historical empirical examples of bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq, say between 1650 and 1970, to back up his own impressions?

Today, Hill is telling us that Iraqiyya is essentially a Sunni party, and as such it should by definition accept a secondary role in Iraqi politics. There are many good reasons for Iraqiyya to reconsider its relationship with Maliki, but the idea of accepting that “Shia majority rule is an immovable fact of life” just isn’t one of them. The examples of Shiites bitterly disagreeing with each others are simply too many for Iraqis to accept this kind of simplistic and essentialist formula for their politics.

Do these problems really have nothing to do with the “conflict paradigm” of Iraqi politics that seems to have been a staple of most US ambassadors in Baghdad from Paul Bremer, via Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker to Hill himself? Does Hill not realise that some of his own policies actually abetted sectarian tensions – for example when he was apologetic about the de-Baathification excesses of early 2010?

One good thing about the latest revelation by Hill is that it may help explain some of his own Delphic policies: Most of the time, Hill was out in the desert, hiking with camels and doing anthropological research, hopefully to be published in a soon-to-come landmark tome!

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