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”)