Iraq’s future is best understood through the lens of its past, says the author Dilip Hiro. But, having failed to prepare for peace in a country where tensions between different ethnic factions and sects were masked by a regime of brutal repression, Iraq’s administrators risk fomenting further internal strife – and hastening the threat of a clash of civilizations

The future of a country is linked to its past as a plant is linked to its seed. So, to comprehend the present and speculate on the future, one must examine the past.

This approach applies as much to Iraq under occupation by the United States-led coalition today as it did when Mesopotamia was occupied by the British forces after the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the 1914-1918 World War.

Present problems facing the Anglo-American occupiers of Iraq stem from their unilateralist invasion of Iraq – a country that did not threaten either the United States, or the United Kingdom, or any of its immediate neighbours – in violation of articles 51 and 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter.

This was in stark contrast to Taliban-administered Afghanistan after 9/11, when the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 called on all states to “work together to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the terrorist attacks” on New York and Washington.

The current insecurity and guerrilla activity in Iraq are linked to what the US defence department did or did not do before invading the country in March 2003. The Pentagon focused almost totally on overthrowing the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the shortest possible time, paying scant attention to the post-war problems.

In their haste to reach Baghdad, the advancing American troops did not stop to cordon off the arms dumps they came across, leaving this task for later. But by the time they returned to these sites, almost all the weapons and ammunition had been looted by Iraqis, who buried them in their fields, gardens and backyards. As a result, Iraq is awash with small arms, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and even surface-to-air missiles.

The failure to prepare properly for post-war Iraq stemmed from three major sources: the impatience of president George Bush and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, eager to attack Iraq at the earliest possible opportunity; the rising opposition to war at home in early 2003; and the uncritical acceptance of the rosy scenarios painted by such Iraqi expatriates as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC).

According to the latter, Iraqi civilians would welcome the Coalition forces as liberators; the Iraqi military and police would switch their loyalties from Saddam Hussein to the Pentagon; and the dramatic surge in Iraqi oil output, following from the introduction of efficient American expertise, would pay for the post-war reconstruction.

Even when these predictions failed to materialize, the post-invasion US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, and its political masters in Washington went on to implement Chalabi’s subsequent recommendations: dissolve the Iraqi military, police and security agencies as well as the Ba’ath Party, and debar Ba’athists from jobs in the public sector and government. In other words, create a “Year Zero” scenario with its concomitant political-administrative vacuum.

This is contrary to what the United Nations did in Bosnia, for instance, where it applied a gradualist approach to dismantling the old regime.

These actions of the CPA had a catastrophic impact economically on Iraqis. Under the old regime one-third of all wage earners were dependent on the government. With the physical destruction of all the administrative ministries in Baghdad – except oil – and the disbandment of the military and police, unemployment soared to 60%-75%, with many of the jobless now being former soldiers and policemen.

The CPA committed these errors against the background of rising unpopularity of the Bush administration not only in the Muslim and Arab world but also in Europe.

This was quantified by a survey of 15,000 people in 21 North American, Middle Eastern and European countries by the Boston-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in mid-May 2003.

‘The [Iraq] war has widened the rift between Americans and west Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism and significantly weakened the global public support for the pillars of the post World War II era – the UN and the North Atlantic Alliance,” wrote Andrew Kohut, director of Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The survey showed that the anti-American feeling was particularly high in the Muslim world. The Pew Research Center’s latest figures for those who had unfavourable view of America, juxtaposed with the figures of summer 2002, were: Jordan 99% (75% previously), Palestinian Territories 98% (not available), Indonesia 83% (36%), Turkey 83% (55%) and Pakistan 81% (69%).

Since then these feelings have intensified in view of the press reports in November that – contrary to the claims of Bush and the British prime minister Tony Blair that they had exhausted all avenues of peaceful resolution of the Iraq crisis – Saddam Hussein offered a deal in February 2003 to satisfy Bush and Blair on all the important aspects of the crisis: weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, the Middle East peace process, access of American oil companies to Iraqi petroleum and democratization of Iraq.

According to these press reports, he proposed that up to 2,000 FBI and CIA agents be dispatched to Iraq to look for the WMD anywhere in the country. He pledged that he would go along with any deal that Israel and the mainstream Palestinian leadership agreed.

He promised to give US oil corporations a share in the exploration and extraction of oil in Iraq. And he promised free and fair multi-party elections in Iraq under international supervision in two years.

But so determined was Bush to invade Iraq that he refused point blank to consider Saddam’s offer and resolve the crisis peacefully.

This was in stark contrast to the manner in which the Bush administration had been handling the issue of the WMD of North Korea, another member of the so-called Axis of Evil.

Unlike Iraq, whose nuclear arms programme ended in 1991, North Korea reportedly already has between one and five atom bombs – as well as the means of delivery. Its missile technology is next only to that of the US and Russia. Yet, instead of threatening North Korea with instant annihilation or less, the Bush White House has been engaged in talks with it.

The conclusion that most Muslims draw from this is: North Korea is not a Muslim state, and that is why the Bush administration uses a “softly, softly” approach.

The failure to find WMD in Iraq – despite the $600 million spent over six months by the 1,400-strong US-led Iraq Survey Group – has further exacerbated anti-Bush feelings both inside and outside the United States.

In the Muslim world and outside, the rampant anti-American feelings have motivated many angry young Muslims to turn to terrorism, including suicide bombings – as freelancers, rather than as members of such organizations as al-Qaeda – and have made the world even less secure than before.

Those Islamists – who had believed all along that, in the name of combating terrorism, the Bush administration had embarked on a campaign against Muslims and Muslim-majority countries – were inflamed.

They argued that having attacked the Taliban-administered Afghanistan – which, in their view, was the only Muslim state to be administered strictly according to the Sharia (Islamic law) – the US then invaded Iraq, a country with a glorious Islamic history. Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic empire of the Abbasids for five centuries until 1258 when it was sacked by the invading Mongols. Today Iraq contains the shrines of six of the 12 Shia Imams, and two luminaries revered by Sunnis: Ali, a son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, who is buried in Najaf; and Abu Hanifa al Nomani, the founder of the Hanafi school within Sunni Islam, who is buried in Baghdad.

So, in religious terms, Iraq is next only to Saudi Arabia – which has Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.

It is little wonder, then, that militant Islamists have made a beeline to occupied Iraq from the Arab countries as well as from Europe. Little wonder, too, that the Islamist strand is one of the three that have come together in Iraq to conduct guerrilla actions against the occupying Anglo-American duo, their foreign allies and their Iraqi associates – the other strands being nationalist and ex-Ba’athist.

In a series of taped statements by Saddam Hussein that were broadcast before his capture by US troops in December, he consistently invoked Islam, calling the occupiers foreign infidels and describing the guerrillas as mujahideen – those who wage jihad, holy war. But Saddam is not alone in this. Many Sunni and Shia religious leaders also call the insurgents mujahideen and describe the Iraqis killed by the occupying forces as martyrs.

So while Bush continues to describe his invasion of Iraq as part of his “war on terror”, the end result is an increase in the size and threat of Islamist militancy both inside Iraq and outside.

As it is, a survey by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes in November 2003 showed that 70% of Americans did not think that the war that toppled Saddam Hussein had reduced the threat of terrorism.

By all accounts, Saddam Hussein’s despotism – guided by its own selfish interests – had insulated Iraqis from Islamist radicalism. Now the Iraqi people find themselves willy-nilly at the front line in the violent struggle between the US and Islamist militants. By invading Iraq on the pretext of getting rid of its WMD – while the UN inspections to that effect were still in progress – Bush provided convincing evidence to those who argue that his administration is intent on attacking Muslim nations.

The action also fuels the fears of those who believe that the world is heading toward the much-dreaded clash of civilizations – a concept first articulated by professor Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published in 1996.

Nation-building – but how?

While civilizations have long histories, the ideas of nation and nation-building are comparatively new. However, using the term “nation-building” for the post-invasion Iraq is misleading.

Iraq is not East Timor, a colony of Portugal taken over by Indonesia in 1975. Nor is it another Afghanistan, where a largely illiterate agrarian, tribal, multi-ethnic society has not outgrown its ethnic-tribal roots to acquire a shared feeling of belonging to one nation. By contrast, Iraq is a highly literate, urbanized society with rich agriculture and abundant oil resources. An independent nation since 1932, Iraq has a history that goes back to antiquity – to Mesopotamia. Its inhabitants have a strong sense of being Iraqi. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War strengthened Iraqi nationalism.

The discovery of oil in Iraq in 1927 encouraged the British Mandate to create a centralized state in order to harness efficiently the petroleum resources of the country. Despite the change of regimes in 1958, 1963 and 1968, the centralized nature of the state has remained unaltered.

Socially, the Sunni-Shia divide has been a fact of life for centuries, with Mesopotamia, consisting of the Baghdad and Basra provinces, alternatively captured by the Shia Safavid Empire and the Sunni Ottoman Empire – until 1638 when the Ottoman Turks finally conquered Mesopotamia and kept it, with the minority Sunnis monopolizing power and oppressing Shias.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British Mandate detached the (Sunni) Kurdish-majority Mosul province, with its as-yet-unexplored oil resources, from Turkey, and attached it to Mesopotamia, calling the resulting nation Iraq.

In the process they complicated the historic Sunni-Shia rivalry by introducing the ethnic factor into the equation: Kurds are racially different from Arabs, and their language is akin to Persian rather than Arabic.

While the minority Sunnis retained power first under the monarchy (until 1958) and then in the Republic of Iraq, where the Ba’athist Party seized power a decade later, the Kurds staged a series of uprisings which ended only in 1975.

During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the two Kurdish nationalist parties allied with Iran against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In return Saddam’s Operation Al Anfal against Kurds led to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Kurds.

Overall, Saddam held together Iraq’s multi-sect, multi-ethnic society with a compendium of Iraqi nationalist rhetoric (used incessantly during the eight-year war with Iran), manipulation of tribal loyalties, terrorist tactics and brutal intimidation. Now that Saddam’s jackboot is gone, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds will have to find a way to co-exist in harmony while exercising their democratic rights. This will come about only after a long period of honest debate and agonizing compromise – with the majority Shias reassuring Sunnis and Kurds that they would not be turned into second class citizens.

Failure to do so could lead to a civil war that would be disastrous not only for Iraq and the region but the world at large. The harmonization process will certainly be helped by economic reconstruction of Iraq. There the international community can help. But equity demands that the main burden of reconstruction be borne by those countries that – through their six-week invasion – caused massive damage to Iraq’s infrastructure, compounded by giving a free rein to Iraqi looters and arsonists after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

Though the CPA has not yet published the estimated loss to Iraq’s public and private properties due to the war and looting, its extent can be surmised by the fact that the destruction caused by the six-week Gulf War in 1991 amounted to an estimated $200 billion.

Economic reconstruction can only take place properly when there is a sense of security in the country. Seven months after the declaration of “major operations” by Bush, security remains elusive – while many Iraqis have come to realize that, in the final analysis, it is the guerrillas who are determining the pace and direction of the political process in Iraq.

They have noted how, after every major attack on the American targets, Bremer promised more authority to the Iraqi Governing Council. They have also noted that it was only after the guerillas had downed three US helicopters in early November that Bush summoned Bremer for urgent consultations, which resulted in Washington announcing that it would hand over power to a transitional Iraqi government by July 1, 2004.

But the road to a stable democracy does not lie in the US administration’s plan to turn a half-baked mess over to an Iraqi institution of dubious legitimacy. Rather, the White House should de-link the events in Iraq from president Bush’s electoral strategy.

This is best done by replacing the US-led occupation forces with peacekeepers from members of the 22-strong Arab League mandated by the UN Security Council. The Arab League has a history of playing a peacekeeping role in Kuwait and Lebanon, and polls show that 57% of Iraqis would accept Arab forces as peacekeepers.

This will allow Iraqis time to reach a consensus on how to reconstitute their multi-sect, multi-ethnic society and state along lines that will endure well into the future.

Dilip Hiro
Dilip Hiro was born in the Indian sub-continent and educated in India, Britain and America. He is the author of 25 books, both fiction and non-fiction – including War Without End: the Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response; Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians; Dictionary of the Middle East; and Iraq: A Report from the Inside. His articles on the Middle East, Islamic affairs and south and central Asia have appeared in many leading global publications and he has written scripts for stage, television and cinema.