Skip to comments.Three Iraqs, not one
Posted on 10/25/2003 7:39:52 AM PDT by slimer
Op-ed: Three Iraqs, not one
Saddams regime was merely the most extreme manifestation of the harsh underlying fact that Iraqs geography and demography condemned it to rule by the iron fist. Nor has Saddams fall changed this fact
Americas mounting difficulties in setting up a coherent form of government in Iraq, let alone a democratic one, inspire a question that most statesmen consider unthinkable: is it possible that there is no way to re-constitute Iraq as one state, and that alternative options must be considered, unpalatable as they may appear?
Like so many problems in the re-birth of states wounded by dictatorship Eastern Europe is a good example Iraqs difficulties have deep historical roots. To blame everything on the heavy-handedness of the Americans is too simplistic and shallow, even if their mistakes have, indeed, been legion.
Iraq was established in the 1920s by the British, who occupied the region after the Ottoman Empire disintegrated at the end of WWI. Their policies were dictated by British imperial interests, and gave no consideration to the wishes, interests, or characteristics of the local population.
What British imperial planners did was to stitch together three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire and put at their head a prince from Hijaz (now a part of Saudi Arabia). The three provinces Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra each had very distinct characters and very different population structures.
Mosul had a Kurdish majority, with significant Assyrian-Christian and Turkoman minorities; Baghdad was mainly Sunni; and Basra was predominantly Shiite. Throwing such disparate groups into one body politic doomed the newly invented country to decades of strife and repression.
The old Ottoman Empire ruled these three provinces as it ruled all of its imperial possessions through its historically autocratic means. The challenge facing the new Iraqi state was to try to create a non-despotic, relatively representative form of government in which all sectors of the population would find an expression of their political will. This turned out to be an impossible mission. For this reason Iraq even before Saddam Hussein always suffered the most repressive regime of any Arab state.
In a country where Shiites form the majority, the Sunnis traditionally the hegemonic group in all Arab countries were totally unwilling to allow any democratic process to jeopardize their rule. A Shiite insurrection was brutally put down in the 1920s (with the help of the British Royal Air Force).
Similarly, Kurdish attempts at autonomy before WWII were drowned in bloody massacres of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and even the Assyrian Christian minority a relatively small group, with no political ambitions was exposed to murderous assaults in the 1930s.
Under these conditions, with the Sunni ruling minority constantly feeling threatened, it was no accident that the only attempt in any Arab country to establish something like a pro-Nazi fascist regime occurred in Iraq in the early 1940s under Rashid Ali al-Khailani. The British suppressed this misadventure, but not before hundreds of Jews in Baghdad were murdered in a wild farhood (pogrom) instigated by the short-lived pro-Nazi government.
Saddams regime was merely the most extreme manifestation of the harsh underlying fact that Iraqs geography and demography condemned it to rule by the iron fist. Nor has Saddams fall changed this fact: anti-US violence is not only an expression of anger at foreign occupation; it is also a Sunni attempt to abort the establishment of a democratic order that would put them the historical masters in a subordinate position.
Similarly, one cannot see the Kurds in the north submitting willingly to a Baghdad-dominated Arab regime, let alone a Shiite one (most Kurds are Sunnis). There is little understanding in the West of how deep the Sunni/Shiite divide runs. Put yourself in pre-1648 Europe, a time when Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other with abandon, and youll understand the enmity immediately.
So what can be done? Yugoslavias example shows that in multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries deeply riven by conflict, partition and separation may be the only way to ensure stability and democratisation. There is no doubt today that Croatia and Serbia despite their difficulties stand a better chance of becoming more or less stable democracies than if they were still fighting for mastery among themselves within the Procrustean bed of the former Yugoslavia.
Nor is federation an alternative as the terms of the federation itself become the bones of contention (see Bosnia or Cyprus). Even the pacific Czechs and Slovaks found it easier to develop their respective democratic structures through a velvet divorce rather than be joined in an unworkable marriage.
The time has come to think the unthinkable, about creating a Kurdish state in the north, an Arab Sunni one in the centre around Baghdad, and an Arab Shiite state in the south around Basra. Repeating mantras about territorial integrity the conventional wisdom of international relations is productive only as long as it ensures stability and averts chaos. Again, as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union showed, once strife replaces stability, territorial integrity loses its strategic meaning and legitimacy.
This is not a universal prescription for ethnically homogenous states. The point is simply that there are moments in history when democratisation and nation building coincide, and that in deeply divided societies the minimum consensus needed for both to succeed simultaneously is difficult to achieve. All this may run contrary to conventional wisdom, but who thought that the USSR would disintegrate? Creative and innovative thinking is needed about Iraq; otherwise todays mayhem will continue and worsen. DT-PS
Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Personally, I do not believe that "Democracy," as it is being touted, will work even in the three States envisioned by the writer. But his proposal would at least go some way towards averting some of the crueler manifestations that are usually associated with the imposition of "Democracy" in the Third World. I bump this as a plea against those cruel manifestations of disasterous folly.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
Granted, Wilson became something of a Utopian--particularly after the Europeans inflated his ego, to try to entangle us in their plans--but he did, at least, respect the concept of ethnic self-determination. It was Wilson's policy, which encouraged the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire (about which, I have very mixed feelings). But Wilson, for all his faults, would almost certainly favor the approach that the writer suggests--as would I.
I have very mixed feelings about Wilson, because I am strongly opposed to his actions with respect to the League of Nations. But calling the present crop of Utopians in the Administration, "Wilsonian," really does seem far fetched to me.
Again, I am just trying to make an academic point. I applaud your efforts to inject some common sense and historic perspective into the Iraqi debate.
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