Saddam's Harsh Reprisals Leave Deep Rifts in Iraq

THE Iraqi Army's crackdown on armed rebellions in the north and south has reasserted Baghdad's control over the country - but left deep internal schisms. While Baghdad has maintained Iraq's geographic integrity, the Kurds' uprising and subsequent flight in the north and the crushed Shiite rebellion in the south widened the gap between the ruling Baathist leadership and its ethnically diverse populace.

The fact that Baghdad and the central part of the country did not join the rebellion helped stop it from turning into a civil war. Fear of the sectarian nature of the rebellion in the south and the ethnic uprising in the north discouraged the Sunni majority in the center from joining in, say ordinary Iraqis and prominent intellectuals in the capital.

In addition, opposition groups lacked both a broad, grass-roots infrastructure and the unity needed to present a viable national leadership.

Political graffiti in southern and northern cities controlled by the rebels reflected this clash of interests. In the south for example, the graffiti was predominantly religious and even sectarian. The south's slogans could not rally the support of Kurds or Sunnis. "There is no Imam but Ali, we want a Shiite leader," was their rallying cry, residents of Basra and Karbala said.

Residents confirmed that Iranians were present in the rebel leadership, lending credence to Baghdad's claim that Tehran was trying to set up a a pro-Iranian Islamic government in the south.

Pro-Iranian Islamicists also appeared to be competing with the predominantly secular opposition to control northern cities and villages. Although pro-Iranian slogans in both Arabic and Persian appear in northern cities, the Islamic influence seemed stronger in rural areas.

There were almost exclusively Islamic graffiti on the walls of mud and brick houses of Kurdish villages along the highway between Kirkuk and Suleimaniyya. The damaged houses, burned vehicles, and corpses that littered the road and meadows testified to the fierce battles between the Army and the Kurdish militias.

Initially, the opposition used Radio Free Iraq to broadcast its message. But the fact that the radio was Saudi based alienated many Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, who resented the opposition's growing association with the United States and its Arab allies.

"The opposition has been a real disappointment. It is not only that they live in the comfort of London and Damascus away from the suffering of the Iraqi people, they have become completely dependent on antidemocratic governments like Syria and Saudi Arabia," says a female artist whose brother is a key opposition leader.

Even if the rebellion were foreign backed, it involved widespread protests that the leadership can not afford to ignore.

In all the major cities, organized rebels and angry residents burned down the symbols of the state: civil administration buildings, the courts, and the ruling Baathist Party headquarters. Baathist officials and intelligence officers were rounded up and sometimes executed on the spot, according to eyewitnesses.

Arabs, Turkomans, and even Kurds in the north complained that in some cases even civil servants were harassed and threatened. The same was reported by Shiite civil servants in the south.

"We fled the rebels because my brothers are in the party," said 18-year-old Sanaa Daher, a Shiite in Basra.

"I was harassed and asked to leave Kirkuk because I work for the government-run oil refinery," said Adel Abdullah, a Kurd who was afraid of rebels' retaliation.

The harshness and scale of the revolt largely reflected the accumulated anger and frustration of years of repression.

But in a society where clans still shape social and political behavior, political retribution triggered tribal feuds and deepened schisms.

In the south, what started as political retribution in some cases extended to retribution against family members and relatives of the same clan.

The Army's use of heavy force - the government argues that it had no alternative to prevent the fragmentation of the country - has also deepened Kurdish and Shiite alienation from the central government.

In Basra and Karbala, holy cities for the Shiites, residents appeared defiant as they passed soldiers and tanks.

The Iraqi Army's shelling of the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala, where the rebels took sanctuary and tortured Baathist officials, is likely to widen the gap between the Baathist regime and Shiites.

Although the destruction of the cities in the north is minimal compared with the complete wreckage of Basra and Karbala in the south, the flight of the Kurds as soon as the rebels warned them of the Army's approach shows lost confidence in the government.

This reporter saw thousands of Kurdish families on their way back to the northern cities Kirkuk and Suleimaniyya, when they realized that the Army had not used chemical weapons.

Yet unless the government seriously seeks national reconciliation through a genuine democratization process, analysts and even some Baathist officials admit, the fragmentation of Iraq - with or without foreign intervention - remains a real possibility.

This article is based on observations made during trips to Kirkuk, Arbil, Suleimaniyya, Basra, Amaara, Karbala, and Najaf.

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