Skip to comments.Three Iraqs are better than one
Posted on 10/24/2003 12:18:24 PM PDT by yonif
The growing difficulties of the US-led coalition to set up a coherent form of government in Iraq, let alone a democratic one, raise a question which to most statesmen is unthinkable: Perhaps it is not possible to reconstitute Iraq as one state, and alternative options have to be considered, unpalatable as they may appear.
Like so many problems of transformation, such as in Eastern Europe, the difficulties in Iraq have deep historical roots. To try to blame everything on the heavy-handedness of the Americans - and their mistakes have been legion - is too simplistic and shallow.
Iraq was set up in the 1920s by the British, who had occupied the region since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Britain's policies were totally dictated by its imperial interests, and gave no considerations to the structure or the wishes of the local population.
What the British imperial planners did was to stitch together three very disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire and put at their head a prince from Hedjaz (now part of Saudi Arabia). The three provinces - Mosul, Baghdad and Basra - had very distinct characters and very different population structures. Mosul had a Kurdish majority, with significant Assyrian-Christian and Turcoman minorities; Baghdad was mainly Sunni; and Basra was predominantly Shi'ite. Throwing such disparate groups into one body politic doomed the newly invented country to decades of strife and oppression.
The old Ottoman Empire ruled these three provinces, as it ruled all its imperial possessions, through its historically autocratic means. The challenge facing the new Iraqi state was to try to create a non-repressive, relatively representative form of government in which all sectors of the population would find the expression of their political will.
This turned out to be a mission impossible. For this reason Iraq was - even before Saddam Hussein - the most repressive Arab regime. In a country where the Shi'ites were a majority, the Sunnis - who have been traditionally the hegemonic group in all Arab countries - were totally unwilling to allow the democratic process that would bring them under Shi'ite rule. A Shi'ite insurrection was brutally put down in the 1920s with the help of the British Royal Air Force; Kurdish attempts at autonomy before World War II 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 challenged, it was not an 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. This was suppressed by the British, not before hundreds of Jews in Baghdad were murdered in a wild farhood (pogrom) instigated by the short-lived pro-Nazi government.
Saddam was only the most extreme example of the fact that, given its geography and demography, the only way Iraq could have been ruled was by an iron fist. This dilemma continues today. The 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 which would put them - the historical masters - in a minority position.
Equally, one cannot see the Kurds in the north submitting themselves willingly to a Baghdad-dominated Arab regime, let alone a Shi'ite one (most Kurds are Sunnis). In the West there is little understanding how deep the Sunni-Shi'ite divide runs: but put yourself in pre-1648 European times, and you'll understand immediately.
So what can be done? The Yugoslav example has unfortunately shown that in multiethnic and multireligious countries deeply riven by conflict, partition and separation may be the only way to ensure both stability and democratization. There is no doubt today that Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia have, despite all difficulties, better chances of each becoming more or less stable democracies than if they would still have been fighting within the Procrustean bed of the former Yugoslavia.
Neither is federation an alternative, since 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 structure through a velvet divorce rather than be joined in an insoluble marriage.
So perhaps the time has come to think about three Iraqi states: a Kurdish in the north, an Arab Sunni in the center around Baghdad, and an Arab Shi'ite in the south around Basra. Repeating mantras about territorial integrity is good only as long as it ensures stability and avoids chaos. Again, as the fates of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have shown, once stability is replaced by strife, territorial integrity loses it meaning and legitimacy.
This is not to suggest a universal recipe for ethnically homogeneous states: it just argues that there are moments in history when democratization and nation-building need a minimum consensus, and in deeply divided societies these are 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 the present mayhem will continue and will get worse.
The writer is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This sounds good, but are the lucrative oil fields distributed accordingly?
Sounds like the Assyrians are SOL.
There's one more overweening factor here - it isn't our call. Despite all the hysterical blather to the contrary, we're not in an empire and we're not conquerors and they're not subjects. If they want to split the country let them.
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