A Review Article
Iraq, Preventing a New Generation of Conflict, Markus E. Bouillon, David M. Malone and Ben Rowswell (editors), a project of the International Peace Academy, Viva Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp xiv + 351, price not stated.
There could be no quarrel with the stated theoretical endeavour of this book. Iraq is a country that has gone through a quarter-century of war: first against a neighbour, then against the whole world, now against itself. A generation in the country has grown up with unhappy memories of isolation from the world. And any Iraqi who had the wherewithal to cast his or her eyes beyond the country’s borders, would have witnessed a variety of demonisation of the country and its leadership that grossly overstepped all bounds of reasonable discourse. Iraq now witnesses a virulent upsurge of ethnic enmities that are in part, the self-fulfilling outcome of relentless western propaganda. It is a situation that necessarily calls for not merely peace-making, but an effort at looking forward, to a vision that might enable a future generation to leave behind the bitter animosities of the last quarter century.
But beyond this statement of the obvious, a number of questions arise. Is reconciliation achieved through historical amnesia? Or is remembrance, the acknowledgment of error, and forgiveness the answer? If reconciliation is the object, is the truth at all germane? Does it matter, in other words, that the tragedy of Iraq – from the war of destruction waged in 1991, through the campaign of attrition by sanctions, to the climactic act of the U.S. invasion and the current state of internal meltdown – was constructed on a foundation of western duplicity and falsehood?
In an early contribution to this volume, Jon Pedersen warns against the temptation to “ascribe the socio-economic situation of present-day Iraq solely to the sanctions period, invasion, subsequent occupation and insurgency”. Playing safe in terms of the dominant wisdom, he places these episodes of an unfolding catastrophe in a continuum with all of Iraq’s “turbulent modern history”. This situation has not been helped by either the Iraqi regime or the international community, which in mutually adversarial reactions, have created a state “that relied on buying political support and quelling unrest through direct transfers and subsidies”. Such a state, says Pedersen, “is inherently unstable, because it rests on its ability to continue paying for the loyalty of the population”.
Soon afterwards, Pedersen states the self-evident truth, that the “shocks to which Iraq and its people have been exposed have had dramatic consequences for virtually every aspect of life”. All indicators testify to the fact that in 1990, in the uneasy interim between the conclusion of the war against Iran and the beginning of the war of destruction by the U.S., “Iraq had the second highest development score among its neighbours in the Middle East, behind only the United Arab Emirates”. With the first stage of the U.S. project consummated in the ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Iraq’s development indicators began a rapid descent. Within a decade, Iraq was registering the region’s second worst scores, next only to Yemen. This was, Pedersen concludes, “a sobering development for the country that had the fastest increase in literacy in the world between 1970 and 1985”.
What fate is likely to befall a state that allows its citizens access to the benefits of human development, while refusing to yield any powers that it may have concentrated within itself? The plain answer is that the state becomes an anachronism. Once the level of social development exceeds the limits that are prescribed by a repressive state -- and the regime begins to be seen as an impediment to further progress -- the fetters must be broken. Dictatorships seldom survive the rising awareness and aspirations of subject peoples.
In other words, the conditions for a democratic transformation were being created in Iraq as far back as the 1980s. The sanctions that the country suffered for 12 years following the Gulf War, effectively choked off this possibility, throttling the burgeoning confidence of its middle class, destroying hope and initiative, and concentrating immense powers in the Iraqi state, almost as a survival imperative for the country and its people. The U.S. invasion in 2003 completed the destruction of the Iraqi state.
Toby Dodge points out in a contribution titled “State Collapse and the Rise of Identity Politics”, that Iraqi society has been dominated since the day U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, by a “profound security vacuum”. Indeed, the “opportunities provided by the collapse of the state and the disbanding of the Iraqi army were seized upon by a myriad of groups deploying violence for their own ends”. A foretaste of the ethnic animosities brewing under the facade of Iraq’s liberation, came with the bombing in August 2003 of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf – a revered site of the Shia Muslim faith – which killed over a hundred, including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq or SICI). Forces of ethnic hatred were perhaps unleashed then, though they were yet to attain their most virulent expression. That indeed, happened in February 2006, when the Al Askariya shrine in Samarra was bombed.
“The main driving force behind violence in Iraq is the absence of state institutions”, says Dodge. Iraq on the eve of the 2003 invasion, he points out, was a state on the verge of collapse. Enervated through wars and sanctions, the Iraqi state could not handle the additional pressures generated by the invasion and plunged rapidly towards complete breakdown.
This reading clearly merits reassessment. By early 2001, when the Bush administration brought a cabal of neo-conservative conspirators into the portals of power in Washington DC, the policy of sanctions against Iraq had been thoroughly discredited. Its enormous toll in human suffering was a matter of public record, through successive reports from multilateral bodies. And the silent protests of earlier years were rapidly yielding to acts of conscience by international volunteers, intent on breaking the sanctions regime and exposing its illegitimacy.
It was this alarming prospect that Bush managed to checkmate in the explosive aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., which endowed him with the moral authority to pronounce an anathema on Iraq as part of a supposed “axis of evil”. The revelations that have emerged about the Bush cabal’s instinctive reaction to September 11 -- and the frenetic efforts that followed to build a case for war against Iraq -- lead definitively to the inference that the dismantlement of the Iraqi state was not an unintended consequence, or the spontaneous outcome of internal infirmities, but very much part of the U.S. design.
Dodge makes a persuasive case against partition, which is a policy that has been gaining an increasing number of advocates on the liberal end of the U.S. political spectrum. He argues that ethnic separatism is not the issue, but the “absence of institutional and coercive state capacity across the whole of central and southern Iraq”. While constructing this case, Dodge omits a crucial point: the advocates of partition, who today tend to be from the liberal end, are only echoing a proposal made as far back as 1999 by the arch neo-conservative, David Wurmser, in a breathlessly perfervid book titled “Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein”. Partition, or more euphemistically put, confederation, was curiously, also the formula advanced in 1995 by King Hussein of Jordan, who made an abrupt switch that year, immediately after signing a peace agreement with Israel, from being a sympathetic but helpless witness to the tragedy of a neighbouring state, to being an active proponent of its dismemberment.
When structures of the state are dismantled, there should be little wonder that people fall back on ties of kinship and community as their sole bulwark against a threatening environment. Abdul Salem Sidahmed points out that an element common to all the political groups that have established themselves in the post-invasion environment, is “their subscription to Islamism”. In this respect, the political parties that matter are of the same stripe as the insurgency, often enough, the front organisations of groups that are pursuing “politics by other means”. A closer look indicates though, that “Islamism” for most political groups, is “more a vehicle for mobilisation than a vision to reconstruct the state and society”. Pan-Islamism however, cannot really be a formula for unifying the fractured country, since the “multiple identities” of modern Iraqi society were built around quite distinct narratives and “actual or perceived grievances vis-a-vis the state or other communities”.
Iraqi nationalism too does not amount to a formula for composing the ethnic enmities unleashed by the occupation, says Sidahmed. This is because Iraqi nationalism has always been a “conflict-driven” ideology, fuelled by the various wars the country has been engaged in, among which the U.S.-inspired sanctions count as "war by other means". Moreover, Iraqi nationalism in the current context is built on a foundation of hostility to the Shia-Kurdish alliance that has been the dominant force in determining the country’s new constitutional shape.
Given all these constraints, Sidahmed is at pains to underline the virtues of modesty in framing political objectives. There is nothing modest though, about the nature of the task involved, which is nothing less than winning broad consent for a secular political dispensation, a civic nationalism that recognises “citizenship as the basis of all rights and entitlements”. Among several other things, this necessitates the fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources.
Such a regime, simply put, remains a remote possibility, given the potentiality inherent in the new constitutional order for the secession of the Shia south and the Kurdish north. David Cameron points out that the 2005 constitution adopted by a national assembly conspicuously lacking in Sunni representation, exhibits a “pronounced decentralist bias”. It has a relatively short list of federal powers and a limited number of shared responsibilities between the centre and the provinces. All other powers rest with the provinces and where authority is shared with the centre, it is explicitly stated that the provinces enjoy paramountcy. There is also a provision in the constitution that allows provinces to determine, through popular referenda, their mutual aggregation into “regions”. The Kurdish “region” in Iraq, a reality in fact since the U.S. cordoned off the area in 1991 and declared it a "no-fly zone", became a reality in law in 2005. There is also a strong possibility that the Shia dominated provinces in the south will opt in the not too distant future, to group themselves into a distinct “region”.
There are contributions in this volume on the role of the Sunni militants, as also the Shia vigilante groups that have become major players on the Iraqi political scene. After remaining united on a program of rejectionism in the earlier period, the Sunni groups we learn, split into two distinct tendencies in a later phase, one deciding upon a process of engagement with the new constitutional order. This decision was driven as much by the fear of being fatally marginalised, as by the possibilities of collaboration that were opened up by schisms within the Shia groups and the emergence of an Arab nationalist strain that opposed the growing dependence on Iran.
The political reality in Iraq is far more complex than the media can really comprehend, given its dependence on shorthand descriptions like Sunni, Shia and Kurd. As this volume documents, southern Iraq in fact, witnessed pitched battles between rival Shia militias. But a significant development since, is that the Mahdi Army of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, representing a political tendency relatively autonomous of Iran, has stood down, allowing the rival Badr Brigade effective pre-eminence in the south. The pilgrimage city of Najaf, in turn, has emerged as the de facto citadel of Shia power, securely within the influence of the al-Hakim clan and its patrons in Iran.
Clearly, the Shia south is increasingly asserting its independence of the central authority, even without invoking the constitutional provisions for regional autonomy. The Kurdish north enjoys a greater measure of autonomy, though it lacks the capital city of its ambitions. The Iraqi constitution in one of its most contentious clauses, provides for a referendum, to determine the future of the city of Kirkuk, a hub of the oil industry and the putative capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was widely recognised at the moment the constitution was adopted, that this would be a flashpoint in the evolution of the Iraqi polity. That indeed has turned out to be the case, with the sensitivities involved being so acute, that the constitutional deadline of December 2007 has passed without the modalities for the future referendum being agreed.
One of the contributions in this volume looks at Kirkuk as a laboratory for peace-making. But the reality, becoming increasingly apparent today, is that it is more likely to be the point at which the geopolitics that the new Iraq is supposed to be central to, will unravel. Far from gaining control over Kirkuk, Iraq’s Kurds in December 2007 suffered the mortification of seeing Turkish forces engage in a series of major armed raids on their territory, including air strikes, to destroy what were allegedly, safe havens for Kurdish guerrillas operating in Turkey. These actions were carried out with full U.S. approval and possibly the provision of “actionable intelligence”. On a damage control visit to Kirkuk on December 17, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was refused a meeting with the deeply offended Iraqi Kurd leadership.
This clearly is the moment at which the objectives of restoring peace and redressing the grievous damage suffered by generations in Iraq, needs to reckon with the imperatives of the truth. The U.S. misadventure has seriously unsettled strategic equations in one of the world’s most combustible regions. And the law of unintended consequences has kicked in with a vengeance, greatly adding to the strategic power of Iran – another of the countries in Bush’s fancifully named “axis of evil” – and enhancing the strategic vulnerability of Turkey, a vital U.S. ally. Ever since the Gulf War of 1991, U.S. policy in Iraq had been stalemated by an uneasy awareness of these possible outcomes. But unbridled neo-conservative arrogance and the vengefulness unleashed by September 11, meant effectively that more sober counsels were discarded in the urge to reorder the world. In the process, the people of Iraq, no strangers to suffering, have been visited with a more acute phase of their collective trauma. How the authors of this tragedy have escaped public scrutiny and sanction for conduct that can only be deemed criminally racist, is perhaps a question that needs closer examination, if the ultimate object is the restoration of peace in Iraq.