by Michael Hammerschlag Nov 5, 03
--“Our armies do not come your lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators”-British Gen. Stanley Maude 1917
As distasteful as it is, it seems clear America is going to be driven out of Iraq, within 9-12 months. This country won’t endure 2 or 5 or 20 dead Americans a day forever, and Karl Rove may pull the plug on Iraq at any time to save Bush’s plummeting reelection hopes. It’s likely a rushed Iraqi-ization of the war and pullout of Americans will occur─ what comes after will be a bloodbath. Since WW1, Iraq rulers have come from the 15-20% Arab Sunni minority, who maintained savage control over the 60-65% Shiite majority* and the 19% Kurdish non-nation (who are Sunni, but never part of the leadership). The second the American military presence is removed, the tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen will fight the trained Sunni Iraq Army and Baathists in a Civil War that could be Bosnia across a country the size of California, Beirut in a place with the third largest oil reserves¹; maybe even the mass slaughters of Rwanda. European countries were correct in opposing our unwarranted invasion, but they are blinded by their resentment and deeply mistaken in demanding a quick US withdrawal. Still, when commentators accurately describe why ‘we can’t leave Iraq’, one must add in parentheses (“till we do”).
The huge bombings of the Shiites at the Najaf mosque and the vicious bombings of the UN and Red Cross are probably the opening shots in this coming War. They are convinced America can be dealt with- first they’ve ensured no other governments will send sizable quantities of troops, and guaranteed their countrymen endless hardship without the solace of international relief agencies. The UN was emotionally shattered by the bombing- don't expect them to send more lambs to the killing zone. The rebels attacking US, Shiite, UN, and relief forces are from 6 groups: Baathist and Saddamites re-seeking their position at the top of the food chain; Sunni Army people who also want to reassert their dominance over the Shiites; people out to revenge killed, injured, or humiliated relatives in the invasion, occupation, or 12 year sanctions (which killed maybe 2/3 million); criminals released under Saddamnesty; foreign jihadists lured to Iraq by our reckless invasion; and radical Shiites who want to control their sect, think they could persevere in a Civil War, and still think of America as the Great Satan. There are way too few troops to do the job in Iraq, but against a guerrilla war, more troops are just more targets, and it’s probably already too late.
Iraq was created by Imperial British fiat in 1920 out of the Mesopotamian dust from 3 provinces of the 380 year Ottoman Empire. It never existed before: the northern Kurdish third was actually supposed to become a French protectorate until the prospect of huge ‘awl’ reserves made the Brits include it (discovered in Kirkuk in 1927). It has been historically ungovernable, even during the 37 year British established monarchy- it’s most stable non-dictatorial period- they had 50 changes of Government. In 1933, Iraqi King Faisal said, “There is still no (Iraq) people but ..masses.. lacking any patriotic ideal, connected by no common tie, prone to anarchy, and always ready to rise up against any government whatsoever.” The Brits allowed a small Sunni elite dominance of the Army and government and countenanced the sidelining of Shiite and Kurdish aspirations (at 31 million, a bigger ethnic group than the Palestinians, Chechens, Tibetans, Mayans, and Northern Irish combined); but had to put down a countrywide 1920 revolt with the loss of 6500 lives and the annihilation of several towns. “How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in a vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration that they never asked for and do not want?” lamented The Times of London then. The monarchy was destroyed by a violent military coup in 1958; further coups in 1963 and 1968 created a semi-socialist totalitarian state under the Ba’ath Party.
There may be a way to prevent or limit the onrushing civil war, though it would open us to real charges of nation building: partition Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish states: a Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south below Baghdad, without forced migrations. For 12 years we de-facto already did this with the no-fly zones, which saved the Kurds and southern Shiites from terror from the skies. Iraq was cobbled together from wildly disparate elements, and has never functioned without suppression. We must overcome our natural arrogance in thinking we can transplant our successful multicultural modern society onto a tribal society riven by millennium old hatreds and divisions. Sometimes good fences make good neighbors- giving each faction a homeland that they can feel safe in may settle enflamed passions and prevent the need to battle for total control. Iraq is a pressure cooker, with the lid kept on for 40 years only by the murderous savagery of the Baathists and Saddam. 130,000 US troops aren’t able to prevent preliminary explosions; but the flashover into steam will be horrific. Dividing Iraq won’t be easy- south Baghdad’s Saddam (Sadr) City is a 2 million strong Shiite slum and a million Kurds live in the central region- but it might provide enough breathing room for the factions to build functioning societies, before dealing with each other. The Shiites could go radical or look towards Iran by themselves, but that might happen anyway. The ancient Kurds, who are the largest homeless ethnic minority on earth, spread across an Iraq size area of 6 nations, might finally have a nation of their own. Instead of killing them, maybe the EU could prevail on Turkey to provide a little corner of their mountains (and perhaps Iran too, whom the Kurds are closest related to) for a Kurdistan.
Launched by lies, this war was based on fantastically hopeful or foolish assumptions- so there was no planning for the aftermath. From our failure to provide MP’s and our troops allowing the looting and trashing of every institution (thinking it was a blow against Saddam?), to failing to immediately guard or destroy the huge numbers of weapons dumps, to taking our sweet time in restoring electricity, to insisting on vastly inflated sweetheart contracts to American rather than Iraqi companies; blind stupidity and monumental arrogance reigned. The argument that we should fight terrorists in Iraq rather than Washington is preposterous- there were none in Iraq until we turned up the lights for every jihaddi mosquito in the world. We helped create the jihaddi movement in the 80’s by our righteous support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. When that ended, Osama turned them against America almost to find a raison-d’etre; but George W. Bush has given them a real reason to hate… and fueled a war against us that might last a generation. With 1.2 billion Muslims and the wonder of worldwide television, resistance will just grow in Iraq. All our desperate and noble efforts at reconstruction may be for naught. If and when we pull out, a savage civil war will be another source of outrage for self-appointed holy warriors, who may then come to DC. Breaking up Iraq might not stop the volcanic struggle for primacy to come, but it can’t hurt, and we’d better try something, since we invaded it and broke it against the wishes of the world. Maybe we can repair it in several pieces. Or we can watch for the next decade as the bloody sirocco swirls.. and the world blames us.
Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. In 1920, the center of Iraqi resistance, where the Laurence of Arabia-like Colonel Leachman was cut down (and chemical weapons were produced in the 80’s), was... Fallujah.
“When we have made Mesopotamia a model state, there is not an Arab.. who wouldn’t want to be part of it.”- Brit. Colonial advisor Gertrude Bell, 1921
*As oppressed minorities, it’s likely Kurds and Shiites are undercounted, and they have a huge birthrate, so the highest end of their pop range is probably most accurate, meaning the Shiites have a 4 to 1 majority over the recent Sunni rulers, but the Sunnis have more training, weapons, wealth, and education.
¹Apparently Canada is #2 in oil reserves.
Saddam's capture has predicated a burst of pro-war optimism, as if his downfall justifies the war, but may not reduce attacks on American troops. Almost wish they had just killed him- he still could be inspiration for attacks on the trial, or leaders. For 14 years this creature has dominated our news; now it will be another year before we stop hearing about this $170 billion man.
Michael Hammerschlag has written commentaries + articles for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Media Channel, & Moscow News, Tribune, and Guardian. He was a correspondent in Russia from 1991-1994, was scheduled to fly over Manhattan on 9-11, and has written on airline security. His website is http://hammernews.com e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mesopotamia 1917-1920 A Clash of Loyalties, Sir Arnold Wilson,1931, Oxford University Press
The Kurds, James Ciment, 1996, Facts of File Inc.
Smithsonian Magazine, “Iraq’s Unruly Century”, May 2003
Iraq- Old Land, New Nation in Conflict, William Spenser, 2000, 21st Century Books
New Yorker, “Invasions”, John Lee Anderson, March 24, 2003