Iraq, The Project, is Doomed
A chat with Pierre-Jean Luizard, scholar at the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and author of the new book, La Question Irakienne (The Iraq Question), published by Fayard.
Q. I am very interested in the negative reaction from Iraq’s neighbors as to the future identity of the country. The federalism embedded in the Constitution worries Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. The prospect of the victory of the “yes” vote and the decentralization of power favoring the Shi’a and the Kurds are also worrisome. Is the federal model going to threaten stability in Iraq?
Right now, countries in the region are naturally worried--with the exception of Iran. Iran believes that it has assured its lasting influence in Iraq through the Shi’ite community, which is on the threshold of taking power. Arab countries and Turkey, where, as we know, Sunni Islam is the predominant religion, are concerned by the possible partition of Iraq along communal, ethnic and religious lines. If federalism is pushed to its extreme, these countries are convinced that Iraq will become a permanent source of instability and that the chaos will spill over far beyond its borders. In addition to this, I should mention the anti-Shi’ism and the distrust of the Kurds which are prevalent in countries with a Sunni majority, especially in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi Islam, officially at the reigns of power, is known for its virulent anti-Shi’ism. Iraq finds itself in double jeopardy: there is the impossibility of building a united country underpinned by its communities, as Iraq is now, and the partition of Iraq along these same community lines which will condemn Iraqi society to endless inter-community wars.
Q. If the new Constitution is accepted by the Iraqi people, what is it going to yield?
First, we have to wait for the results of the referendum to see if they are contested by any part of the populace. The delay insisted upon by the Elections Commission before announcing the results is feeding the fears of Sunni Arabs, who dread widespread manipulation in the majority Sunni Arab Province of Nineveh (Mosul), in order to deprive Sunni Arabs the legal and non-violent possibility of defeating the Constitution. We should remember that a two-thirds “No” vote in three provinces is sufficient to defeat the Constitution. We already know that Al-Anbar Province (Fallujah) and Salah-Aleddin Province (Tikrit) were able to must the two-thirds necessary to reject the Consitution. This makes the results from Mosul the deciding factor on whether or not the Constitution will be adopted. If the Constitution is accepted, then there will be an immediate outcry from the vast majority of Sunni Arabs, who will claim fraud and probably rightly so. They will likely conclude that the possibility of peacefully rejecting the Constitution and the ongoing process was denied to them. When this happens, we can expect to see a return to widespread violence, including by those who were betting on a chance for inclusion in political reconstruction.
Q. What is going to be the fate of the Sunni community in the new Iraq?
According to the Constitution, the fate reserved to Sunni Arabs in Iraq will inevitably be that of a powerless minority without access to natural resources. We know that the Shi’a have set a non-negotiable precondition that at least two provinces will be able to form a super-region similar to Kurdistan if a third of the Provincial Council or ten percent of voters approve. This is the swindle which the Sunnis must confront after publication of the results of the referendum, because they were made to believe that everything would be negotiable after the vote. If the Shi’a and the Kurds forge a unified block, then the Sunnis will find themselves in a situation which the vast majority of them will reject.
Q. We are seeing a small minority still supporting Saddam Husein during his trial. Isn’t there more or less the risk of a military putsch by the different groups and ethnicities in the country?
Today, Saddam Hussein is merely a symbolic figure, even for the insurgency. Sunni Arabs, who formed the social pillar of his régime, also wound up being persecuted by Saddam Hussein, especially the Dulaym and the Joubouri tribes. The only Iraqis today who have some nostalgia for the old régime are limited those in Saddam Hussein’s clan, especially around Tikrit, his hometown. There is no longer any risk of seeing the old dictator return to the political forum, where he would be seen as a figure of the past. The Sunni insurgency demands Islam or a nationalist Arab vision in which there is no room for Saddam Hussein.
The political reconstruction being carried out under US aegis is a Lebanese-style communitarian reconstruction: You take the victims of the old system, founded by the British in the 1920’s (The Shi’a and the Kurds), then you start constructing a new system based on these communities. Contrary to the Arabs in the 1920’s, the Shi’a and the Kurds will very likely find their expectations frustrated when they realize that the new system, in which they appear to be the chief beneficiaries, cannot be stabilized and that, consequently, their power is dependent upon a long-term foreign military presence. You have to remember that what divides the Sunni Arabs from the winners of the last election, the Shi’a and the Kurds, also divides the Shi’a from the Kurds and that the primacy of communitarian concerns has driven Iraqi political actors into making antagonistic demands on one another which in the end will prevent the new system from acquiring the even the most rudimentary stability.
Q. What other basis is there, besides a communitarian one, in a country where the Number One requirement of the population is the recognition of their identity?
Contrary to what you often hear, Iraq is not a mere juxtaposition of communities. The country represents a particularly strong identity, which has revealed itself over the course of history, especially during the 1920 revolution against the British Mandate in which Sunnis and Shi’a stood side-by-side in condemning handover of the country to the British by the League of Nations. However, this identity is above all Arab (80% of the Iraqi population is Arab), represented by the Shi’a majority among whom the resistance movement against European domination has always been guided by the Shi’ite religious authorities, who even welcomed into their midst certain leaders of Baghdad’s patriotic movements during the insurrection, despite the fact that they were Sunni. The only region which really poses a problem is Kurdistan, which was never part of historical Arab Iraq. Kurdistan was annexed by the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq in 1925 at the insistence of the British after oil was discovered near Kirkuk. (At the time, the Wilayet of Mosul was also claimed by Kemalist Turkey). As we know, the promise of an independent state made to the Kurds by the Allies during World War I was broken. Today, in the current context of Iraq and the region, the Kurds have no other choice but to negotiate a new contract of coexistence with Iraqi Arabs which would protect them from represson and recognize their identity.
Federalism is certainly the best solution for the recognition of identity, but on the condition that it is not based on ethnic criteria which would be used to draw a frontier between Kurd and Arab and which, in petroleum-rich areas, would be the cause of endless war. On the other hand, an affirmation of partnership between Arabs and Kurds at the central government level which would allow Kurds anywhere in Iraq and not just in historic Kurdistan to expect their rights to be respected and recognized, would be the best solution.
As to the Shi’a, the recognition of their majority identity could be achieved by a concordat between the Iraqi state and the Marja'ayya (the Shi’ite religious leadership), somewhat like the Concordat between the Italian state and the Vatican. This way, the recognition of the different Iraqi identities would open up a public space permitting mutual recognition among all Iraqis in the new political system, instead of closing such a space as we see today where the different identities are forced into competition with one another having incompatible community demands.
THE AMERICAN FAILURE
Q. Is the trial of Saddam Hussein, which is about to begin, going to serve any purpose in the reconstruction process?
The vast majority of Iraqis recognize that the trial cannot take place under current circumstances and that it’s a travesty. Today, no one expects a veritable political trial of the former dictator. The reactions vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein are much more the result of a desire for vengeance. In the absence of any expectation of fair trial, which would not occlude the responsibility of the great powers--with the United State the first among them—in all the crimes of which he stands accused, many would prefer expeditious justice which would at least have the merit of being either a recompense for past suffering or a somewhat satisfying quaff for the desire for vengeance, which many Iraqis feel today.
Q. If the United States succeeds in Iraq, then the entire Middle East would slide into the lap of the Washington and would be under its tutelage for at least a century. Iraq is a key gamepiece in the Arab world, because it’s the most developed and the richest. Who controls Iraq controls the Arab world. What do you think?
If you are worried about the possibility of success of the current process under the aegis of the Americans, then let me reassure you. Based on my own analysis, I cannot see how the enterprise could succeed. The Americans believed that they could build an Iraqi state under their aegis, Lebanese-style, by forcing the various Iraqi communities into competition with one another. This is the basis they’ve been using for their reconstructon since it started.
But after having been the arsonists of an Iraqi society, which they have now permanently divided, the Americans have fallen into their own trap because now they cannot disengage from Iraq unless there is a sufficiently stable government with recognized legitimacy to which they can transfer power. As we are witnessing today, the vice of Lebanese-style reconstruction in Iraq is that not only is there always an odd-man-out (Sunni Arabs) but even those who are the chief beneficiaries, or consider themselves to be, will also come to display unreconcilable differences (the Shi’a and the Kurds). The Americans have handed over local power to community forces--the Kurdish parties in Kurdish areas and the Shi’ite militias in Shi’ite area. From that moment forward, the balance of force no longer permits them to find a consensus or to hammer out a compromise with Sunni Arabs. This was illustrated during the Consitutional referendum when the Americans attempted to make Sunni Arabs believe that the Shi’a and the Kurds would allow the Sunni voice to be heard in the ongoing process. The Shi’a officially declared that everything would be subject to renegotiation after the Consitutional referendum but at the same time they announced a non-negotiable demand: the possibility that two or more regions would unite to form a super-region. This made the assurances given to the Sunni Arabs--that renegotiation was possible after the adoption of the Constitution--devoid of all meaning because everything seemed predetermined from the start.
Q. Will the United States be able to hold on to a portion of the Iraqi oil fields after they leave?
In order to pull out from Iraq, the Americans need political stability and a legitimate government recognized by the entire Iraqi population—which will probably never happen. It looks as if they are condemned to remain militarily in Iraq as the occupying power which in turn will continue to feed the fires of communitarianism. The attempts to create a Shi’ite oil emirate in the south of the country in the image of the emirates and petromonarchies of the Gulf will never see the light of day and any profit which the US would derive from its presence in Iraq from a petroleum standpoint risks being reduced to nothing as long as instability and insecurity continue to prevent US companies from investing in Iraqi petroleum--the pricetag will remain prohibitive due to continuing insecurity.
Q. What will the region look like in ten years?
What will happen if the reconstruction attempted by the Americans in Iraq fails? It’s a hard question to answer. But if we believe that failure is inevitable, then perhaps the US will be better off by announcing a schedule for pullout today. Because the longer they put off the announcement, the worse things will get in Iraq—for them and for the Iraqis themselves. And even if the announcement of a pullout may be considered as a victory for al-Qaeda in Iraq, it’s better that it should happen today rather than a few years down the line when a US failure will have far more tragic consequences for the Western nations near the region.