Both the U.S. and Iran have a multitude of reasons to end their escalation of violence, but one of them may be this: In the country they each use as a proxy battleground – Iraq – a grassroots movement has challenged the ancient tradition of revenge as a justification for violence.
Iraqis know well the needless toll of revenge violence from their own tit-for-tat mass killings, done mainly by Sunnis and Shiites. Such violence erupted after the 2003 American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And again during the rise of an Islamic State caliphate in 2014. Yet with the defeat of the caliphate as well as a maturing of Iraqi democracy, both the government and civil society groups made concerted efforts to mediate between Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups to ease communal tensions and prevent acts of revenge. In addition, the country’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for no revenge killings.
Last October, this movement toward inclusion erupted in a mass protest of young people to end sectarian divisions, which have driven revenge violence as well as led to dysfunctional government. Under the current constitution, power in Iraq is divvied up by ethnic or religious groups, leading to perverse patronage and mass corruption. The protesters recognize that their prosperity and an end to religious-based violence require a shift to a higher identity as Iraqi citizens.
“Yazidis, Sunnis, Christians, we are all here to just be real Iraqis and support each other for freedom and for a good life,” said one protest organizer. The protests have forced a prime minister to offer his resignation and the parliament to work on reforms.
For taking this stance, more than 500 protesters have been killed, mainly by Iran-backed militias. Last week, after the U.S. killed Iran’s top general behind the militias, Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani, many protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square took little solace in the killing. They also realized Iran’s responding act of vengeance – shooting missiles on U.S. forces in two Iraqi bases – was yet another example of their country being victim to revenge violence. Iran itself described the attack as revenge.
In conflicts, retaliation can often be a deterrence. Revenge violence, however, is usually based on feelings about honor or dignity, not tactical defense. Like many other countries, Iraqis may be awakening to the dangers of bitter revenge as a motive for killing. To short-circuit their own country’s potential for cycles of violence, they are demanding moderation, restraint, and inclusiveness of their own leaders. Perhaps their cry can be heard in Tehran and Washington.
To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.