// archives

Shia Arabs

This tag is associated with 5 posts

Zarqawi’s Demise

7 June 2006

Zarqawi’s Demise

By Gwynne Dyer

There is a lesson for us all in the sudden, violent death of terrorist leader Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq on Tuesday. It is this: Never call a meeting.

Osama bin Laden probably hasn’t called a single meeting since 9/11, so he’s still alive and kicking almost five years later. He sends out inspirational video or audio tapes from time to time, but he’s not actually running anything, because that would require him to be in daily touch with lots of people — and if he were, he would be dead by now. They’d spot him using a satellite phone and drop a missile on him, like the Russians did to the Chechen rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, or somebody would just turn him in for the $25 million reward.

Zarqawi HAD to hold meetings, however. He had to organise atrocities, coordinate logistics, talk on mobile phones, and thus expose himself to attack on a daily basis, so eventually he ran out of luck. He will not be missed, especially by the saner parts of the Iraqi resistance movement — but he has probably already done the state of Iraq fatal damage.

Zarawi was a foreigner, and most of his fighters were foreigners too, religious fanatics from all over the Arab world who cared no more about the lives of Iraqis than they did about their own lives. The more doctrinally pure among them believed that there should not even be an Iraqi state; like all Muslim countries, it should be absorbed into a single world-spanning Muslim state run according to strict Islamist principles.

It was the US invasion of Iraq that gave Zarqawi and his friends the chance to move in, but they never dominated the resistance movement. From the start, the great majority of the people fighting the American occupation were native-born Sunni Arabs. Some of them, mostly former Baathists, were nationalists who simply wanted the Americans out. Others were religiously motivated radicals, long repressed under Saddam, who also wanted to impose strict Islamic law on the country. But none of them wanted to abolish the country. Most of them did not even want a civil war.

That was where Zarqawi’s influence was greatest, and worst. His gruesome enthusiasm for slowly beheading defenceless hostages and circulating the videos was bad enough. Indeed, although bin Laden and Zawahiri were eventually persuaded in 2004 to adopt “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” as Zarqawi named his organisation, they never had any control over him, and they worried that his obvious delight in cruelty would alienate people from the cause. But Zarqawi’s strategy of trying to trigger a civil war in Iraq by murdering Shia Arabs in large numbers was as infectious as it was effective.

Logically, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs should not seek a civil war because, as a mere 20 percent minority in the country, they are almost certain to lose it. But there is no other strategy that is likely to restore the Sunnis’ former dominance over Iraq either. When no good strategy is available, people will often opt for bad strategies rather than accept defeat — and Zarqawi offered the Sunnis the strategy of civil war.

Like many religious fanatics, he hated people of his own religion whom he saw as heretics even more than he hated infidels, so he had no compunction about blowing Shia Arabs up in large numbers simply because they were Shia. He saw a Sunni-Shia civil war as the best way of destabilising the government that the US occupation was trying to install in Baghdad, but also as the best way to ensuring the emergence of a permanent base for Islamist radicals in the Sunni Arab parts of the country, which would probably end up beyond Shia control even after a eventual American withdrawal.

It was Zarqawi’s people who carried out all the early atrocities against Shia civilians — the bombing of the Najaf shrine in August 2003 (85 dead), the coordinated attack on Shia mosques during Ashoura ceremony in March 2004 (181 dead), the car bombs in Najaf and Karbala in December 2004 (60 dead) — and they had the desired effect. Death squads from Shia militias began killing Sunnis in retaliation, the mainstream Sunni resistance started to fight back with the same methods, and Iraq was trapped in the same spiral of violence that doomed Lebanon to fifteen years of civil war.

Zarqawi is dead, but he has probably achieved his purpose. Baghdad central mortuary is now receiving close to fifty mutilated bodies each day, almost all of them victims of sectarian killings, and every month the number rises. It’s probable that two or three times as many dead end up in other mortuaries or are simply found and buried by their relatives without any official record. The situation in Iraq will probably get much worse, but it is already past saving.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Logically…war”)

Iraq 1918-2006 R.I.P.

11 December 2005

Iraq 1918-2006 R.I.P.

By Gwynne Dyer

After so many fake “turning points” in Iraq, at last a genuine one: the election on 15 December really will settle something. Unfortunately, what it will do is confirm that the unitary Iraqi state that has existed since 1918 is nearing its end, to be replaced by God knows what.

The Kurdish-speaking north of Iraq is already a separate state for all practical purposes, with its own army and budget. The Kurdish authorities only cooperate with the Shia Arab majority of the south in order to keep the Americans happy and the Sunni Arab minority down, but they are already signing contracts with foreign oil companies whose revenues, if they find oil, will go only to the Kurdish government. Kurdistan may not declare formal independence in this decade because Turkey might overreact, but in reality it is already gone.

The Shia Arabs, who outnumber the Sunni Arabs about three-to-one but were always dominated by them politically until the US invasion, are determined to consolidate their new supremacy, and if that alienates the Sunnis, well, so be it. The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, immensely influential among Shias, issued a statement last week that effectively ordered the faithful to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of 17 Shia religious parties that seeks a Shia-run Islamic state. Most Shias will obey the order.

Most of the Sunni Arabs will also vote in this election, unlike the one they boycotted last January, because they do not want to be locked out of the debate over Iraq’s future. But if most people continue to vote on a communal basis — and they will — then sheer numbers guarantee that the Kurdish-Shia coalition will win again. That will probably be fatal for Iraq.

The Sunni Arabs, now only 20 percent of the population, have monopolised and abused power in Iraq not just under Saddam Hussein or the Baath Party or the British empire, but continuously since the centuries-long rule of the Ottoman regime, which raised Sunnis above Shias because of its own sectarian loyalties. It is possible to imagine a different kind of democratic transition in Iraq that did not turn Sunni

Arabs into a besieged and embittered minority, but the American invasion made it inevitable.

The Kurds were always unhappy within Iraq (as they are within Turkey and Iran and Syria) since they were cheated out of their promised national state by the British and French empires in the aftermath of the First World War. The Sunni-Shia rupture within Arab Iraq, however, was far from inevitable. Even ten or twenty years ago, despite the long rule of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, the 80 percent of Iraqis who speak Arabic did not define themselves mainly in sectarian terms.

The sort of non-violent democratic revolution that transformed Czechoslovakia in 1989, South Africa in 1994 and Ukraine in 2004, all of them potentially fragile multi-ethnic states, could also have transformed Iraq in the fullness of time, if time had been available. The Kurds might have left anyway, as the Slovaks left Czechoslovakia after democratisation, but the Arab core of the country need not have splintered.

Such a non-violent revolution could have come in Iraq sooner or later: Arabs are not fundamentally different from other human beings. But the violent overthrow of Baath Party rule by a foreign invasion was bound to produce a violent resistance movement among the Sunni Arab minority who had been driven from power, and that resistance movement has led to the current sectarian polarisation in Arab Iraq.

The US occupation authorities in Iraq are now desperately trying to engineer the return to power of Iyad Allawi, the man whom they appointed as prime minister in the first “transitional” government in 2003. For Washington, he is ideal: Shia but secular (to attract the majority of Shia Arabs who don’t want to live in a theocracy), an ex-Baathist (to reassure Sunni Arabs of his Arab nationalist credentials), and a CIA employee of

long standing (to reassure Washington). But it’s hopeless: one widespread election poster shows a face that is half Allawi’s, half Saddam Hussein’s, asking “What is the difference between the two?”

Out of 115 battalions in the new “Iraqi” army, only one mixes Shia and Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia religious party, controls the Interior Ministry and its 110,000 police, and has decreed that no non-Iraqi Arabs may enter Iraq until the election is over — although Iranians, Turks and other foreigners may continue to come and go freely. And the voting will be largely along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Allawi will be lucky to get 25 seats in the new National Assembly. The Shia religious parties will probably take 110-115 of the 275 seats and form another coalition with the Kurds, who will get around 50 seats. The Sunni Arab list will get 50-55 seats and be frozen out of power once more.

So Iraq will probably break up over the next year or two, with Kurds and Shia Arabs in the oil-rich north and south abandoning the recalcitrant Sunni Arabs of the centre for the Americans to deal with. And when the United States pulls out, as it inevitably will sooner or later, where does the “Sunni Triangle” that extends from Baghdad west to the Syria border go? That is the million-dinar question, and the wrong answer could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down..

Most people know that Africa’s colonial borders, however senseless they might be in ethnic or economic terms, were made sacrosanct by the old Organisation of African Unity because to allow the possibility of changing frontiers would open the road to a hundred years of border wars. Fewer people realise that the borders in the Arab world are equally arbitrary and equally vulnerable.

If the frontiers that define the countries of the eastern Arab world, all drawn between 1918 and 1932 by European empires and Saudi conquests, are called into question, then the world’s premier oil-producing region faces a generation of border wars. Iraq never made much sense as a country, but its destruction could have very large consequences.


This is a longer article of 1000 words. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6, 9 and 11. (“TheSunni…sectarian terms”; “The US…the two”; and “Allawi…once more”)

Iraq: Deadlock by Design

14 March 2005

Iraq: Deadlock by Design

By Gwynne Dyer

Six weeks after the 30 January election that White House press flacks hailed as the “purple revolution,” the new Iraqi national assembly opens (opened) on Wednesday, 16 March — but there is still no new government in Iraq. Partly that is because of the attitude of the Kurds, summed up last month by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in a “New York Times” interview: “If the Kurdish people agree to stay in the framework of Iraq in one form or another as a federation, then other people should be grateful to them.” And partly it’s because the US wrote the rules in such a way that the Kurds would have a stranglehold on the political process.

An opinion poll conducted in Iraq recently by Zogby International showed that 82 percent of Sunni Arabs, and 69 percent even of Shia Arabs, want the US out “now” or “very soon.” (The main reason for the high Shia turn-out in the January election was that their religious leaders told them a Shia-dominated assembly was the quickest way to get the Americans out.) But the Kurds of Iraq, around one-fifth of the population, want the US occupation to continue, as it guarantees a weak Iraqi state and maximum freedom of action for them.

Since Sunni Arabs, another fifth of Iraq’s population, largely boycotted the election, the new national assembly will be dominated by the Shia Arabs and the Kurds The coalition of religious Shia parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, won a slim majority in the new assembly — 140 seats out of 275 — which would entitle it to form a government almost anywhere else. But the rules written for the assembly by former US proconsul Paul Bremer require a two-thirds majority to pick the new president and vice-presidents, who in turn select the prime minister. That means that the Shia party has to make a deal with the Kurds.

The Kurdish parties managed to submerge their differences and offer the voters a single political front, the Kurdistan Democratic Alliance, which won 75 seats in the assembly. Any coalition government in which they are a key partner will not be able to demand that US troops leave Iraq (an outcome that would have appealed to Mr Bremer) — and the Kurds also have a few demands of their own.

What the Kurds really want is independence from Iraq, but their mountainous homeland in the far north of Iraq is next to Turkey, which worries about the separatist aspirations of its own large Kurdish minority and has threatened to invade to prevent an independent Kurdish state from emerging on its eastern border. So for now the Iraqi Kurds are willing to stay in Iraq for a price, but their price is very high.

The Kurds don’t just insist on the presidency (which the Shia have already conceded to them). They want an autonomous Kurdish region that elects its own government, collects its own taxes and decides how much to send to Baghdad. They want to keep their own separate army, the formidable Pesh Merga militia, allowing no other armed forces in Kurdistan without their permission. They want to control all natural resources on their territory and decide how revenues will be split with the federal government.

Moreover, their territory must be expanded southwards to include the Sinjar region, the city of Khanaqin, and the city of Kirkuk. None of these areas now has a decisive Kurdish majority, largely because Saddam Hussein encouraged Arab immigration into them and drove many Kurds north, but the Kurds are demanding the return of all Kurdish refugees to their homes (which often involves the expulsion of their current Arab occupants). Above all, they want the oil-fields around Kirkuk, which produce around half of Iraq’s oil.

It’s a long list, but in effect the Kurds already have it in hand, as they have controlled most of the territory they claim under US protection since the end of the first Gulf War in1991, and now control most of the Kirkuk area too. The new “Iraqi” army that has been created under the US occupation has no ability to drive the Kurds back — indeed, many of its troops in the north ARE Pesh Merga wearing a different uniform — and the US would not allow it to be used in that way anyway.

The Shia coalition cannot contest the Kurdish claims by force — but neither can it accept them without being seen by most Arab Iraqis (including its own Shia supporters) as a traitor to Iraq. That is why it’s taking so long to create a new transitional government in Baghdad, and may take quite a while yet. This is not just petty bickering over government jobs: the basic structure of the future Iraqi state is being negotiated between the Kurds and the Shia Arabs right now (with practically no Sunni Arabs present at the table).

Paul Bremer did not design this whole mess, but he did write the voting rules that give the Kurds an effective veto on any coalition government in the new assembly (and a veto on the new constitution, too, if and when it is finally written). One is tempted to see a Machiavellian calculation here: maybe we lose the rest of Iraq, but at least we get to keep Kurdistan and half the oil. However, the temptation should be resisted. The Bush administration hasn’t even accepted yet that it has lost in Iraq.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“What the Kurds…very high”; and “It’s a long…anyway”)

Iraq’s Election

31 January 2005

Iraq’s Election and the Coming Shia Revolt

By Gwynne Dyer

Good can come out of evil. A democratic, peaceful and independent Iraq could yet be the final result of the US invasion of 2003, whether that was precisely what the Bush administration intended or not. But it still doesn’t seem very likely.

Sunday’s election was just one more in the series of “turning points” that have been touted in Washington as the beginning of the end of the insurgency against the US occupation: We had the appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the “handover of sovereignty” to a revamped but still appointed “interim government” in June 2004, and now this election: all allegedly watershed events, but the river’s flow has not been reversed.

True, the election was not the bloodbath that had been widely predicted. Shia Arabs voted to claim the long-denied dominant position in Iraqi politics that their numbers (60 percent of the population) entitle them to, Kurds voted to reaffirm their current semi-detached relationship to the Iraqi state, and Sunni Arabs mostly didn’t vote. That 57 percent participation figure probably conceals a 75 percent or better rate among Shia Arabs and Kurds and 40 percent or less among Sunni Arabs.

It is mainly Sunni Arabs who are waging the fight against the United States in Iraq right now, and this does not suggest that the “resistance” (al-muqawama) is about to go into a decline. Indeed, Lieut.-Gen. James J. Lovelace Jr., the US army’s top operations officer, predicted last week that some 120,000 US soldiers would have to stay in Iraq for at least two more years — and “a worst-case scenario would be a lot more.”

Add in 30,000 US Marines and Special Forces, 10,000 British troops, and the few thousand remaining odds and ends from the rapidly departing third-country contingents, and that means 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq until at least the start of 2007. In fact, the Pentagon, at least, is still counting on an even longer stay. The media chatter about “exit strategies,” as though the White House were desperately seeking a fast way out of Iraq, but there is no evidence that the Bush administration has yet accepted that the game is up there.

John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent defence research group, recently told “The Independent” that he counted twelve “enduring bases” under construction by the US in Iraq. There was other evidence that the US intended a long stay, too: “How many fighter jets does the new Iraqi army have? None. How many tanks does it have? None. What do you call a country with no tanks and no fighter planes? You call it a protectorate. They’re so far away from giving Iraq a normal military you don’t even have industry seminars salivating over the prospect of selling them stuff.”

So official Washington still expects to stay, and almost all Iraqis want US troops to leave quite soon. The votes will be counted within a week or less, the new assembly will meet by the end of the month, and there will be a more or less elected government (minus most Sunni Arab votes) in place by the end of March. That’s when it gets really interesting.

So far, all the Iraqi officials since the fall of Saddam have been American appointees who can be counted on not to bite the hand that feeds them — like Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a former CIA agent who returned from exile.with the invading US troops. Now there is the prospect of elected Iraqis who may demand a US military withdrawal. First among them are the Shia parties brought together under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s keadership in the United Iraqi Alliance (the “Shia house”).

These parties have their own militias and most recruits to the new Iraqi army and police force are poor Shias, so they will probably not hesitate to demand an early US withdrawal if they take the leading role in a new coalition government. But they may also be excluded from that government. Secular Shias fear that the mullahs secretly intend to create an Islamic state like Iran despite their constant denials, and they have voted in surprisingly large numbers for Allawi’s group of parties, the Iraqi List. Allawi, too, is Shia but secular.

It is widely assumed that the Shia are keener on an Islamic state than the Sunni, but they are not: a recent poll showed that Sunni Arabs are twice as likely to favour a full-fledged Islamic government as Shia Arabs. This sudden Sunni piety has much to do with the fact that the Sunnis , who are losing their traditional place as Iraq’s ruling minority, are the ones in revolt, and therefore the ones most drawn to radical forms of Islam. But it does raise the possibility of an anti-American alliance between the Sunni rebels and the Shia religious parties.

If Allawi can create a basically pro-American coalition out of his own secular Shia party, bits and pieces of secular Sunni parties, and the Kurds, then Sistani’s “Shia house” could end up frozen out of power. That may be the only way to forestall a demand by Sistani’s allies for an early American departure, so Washington is likely to push it. And if Sistani is frozen out, then perhaps his patience (or that of his younger colleagues) runs out at last. Then the Shia revolt begins in earnest, and America’s security problems in Iraq quadruple overnight.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (*Sunday’s…reversed*;and “Add…there”)