The massive expression of religious sentiment in Kerbala this week has political significance beyond the symbolism of the end of Saddam's repression. Saddam repressed popular religious rituals because they provided the environment for a wider expression of political and social grievances. Now the Iraqi masses are taking to civic engagement and have begun to articulate political demands that reject occupation.
Both Shia and Sunni religious leaders have emerged as voices for unity and as legitimising authorities for political action, not necessarily as substitutes for political leadership. Last Friday's prayer at the Imam Abu-Hanifa shrine in Baghdad reflected the coming together of Shias and Sunnis in times of crisis, and the commemoration of Imam Hussein at Kerbala has also been conducted in a manner that emphasises freedom rather than ascendancy.
Iraq is under a foreign military occupation that has shown little respect for international law, and the people of Iraq need institutions that can symbolise their unity and prevent the US from hijacking their national will. Iraqis have suffered decades of war, sanctions and dictatorship - the country now needs the support of friends and the extensive involvement of UN and humanitarian organisations. However, a distinction must be made between such involvement and commercial, political and cultural intervention through the illegal channel of occupation.
The occupation forces came with an administration blueprint and detailed policies formulated by the US state department. Under the pretext of a search for banned weapons, foreign troops are continuing the destruction of Iraq's civil administration and attempting to install a new apparatus answerable to them. Former Iraqi exiles have been financed and organised by the US government and are being set up in positions of authority. This is not liberation.
For a decade now, Iraq has been disarmed both literally and proverbially. Its people have endured, under sanctions, astronomical rises in infant mortality, malnutrition and disease. Having instilled terror and fatalism through this latest one-sided military campaign, the occupation forces unleashed criminal elements in Iraqi society on to the fabric of the society itself, and against its institutions and culture. Troops have assisted the destruction of that which is indispensable for a stable civic life. Population, land, employment, business, the banking system, schools, hospitals, public utilities, public sector institutions, industrial plants, food and medicine warehouses, shops and even homes have been looted and destroyed. Under the pretext of security operations, the forces of occupation smashed into public buildings, leaving them unsecured. Occupation troops were able to control extensive oil facilities while claiming lack of capacity to protect civil facilities.
British and US military commands in Iraq have tried to bypass the entire Iraqi state administrative infrastructure, and appear to be working to dismantle central state institutions in order to replace them with a weak framework and stronger ethnically and tribally based local administrations. The attacks on Iraq's culture and institutions are perceived by many Iraqis as part of this effort to undermine the country's national integrity and identity.