Monday, December 12, 2005

Iraqalypse Now!

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

Hallmark and IVIC Productions are pleased to bring you the heartwarming holiday hit of the season.... Heartwarming, that is, if you get a warm, fuzzy feeling reading the Book of Revelation. That's right, over in Iraq "it's beginning to look a lot like..... DOOMSDAY!!!!!"

This being the second in my increasingly annoyingly pun-nishly titled posts on Iraq, why not take a stroll down Memory Lane to the post I wrote just after January's elections and see how it holds up today just after the December 15 elections to elect Iraq's first permanent (rather than transitional) 4-year government?

Last February, I wrote that, despite the not-too-bloody elections (only 50-odd people died), we shouldn't get too cocky:

"I'd like to caution against the feeling that any kind of turning point has been reached. We've heard that before. We heard that attacks were sure to decrease after the fall of Baghdad when Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished', after Uday and Qusay were killed, after Saddam was captured, after 'sovereignty' was transferred in June 2004, after we chased the rebels out of Fallujah. Each time, violence only increased, and the insurgency only got smarter, bolder, more sophisticated, more deadly."

What is the reason for my pessimism? As usual, ignorance is bliss and knowledge kindles fear and apprehension. If you're not scared yet, you've not been paying attention.

My Islam professor early on in this semester explained the Iraqi situation in terms of a business paradigm: the "yesable" proposition. (I know, it's awkward and improper English to boot, but that's what it's called.) Basically, it has been proven that a compromise, whether between individuals, corporations, or nations, can only be reached if each of the parties has their minimum demands met. A proposition that can at least satisfy the minimum demands of all parties is the "yesable" proposition that will resolve the dispute. Let's apply this to Iraq, shall we?

Ok, let's see, who are the parties in Iraq? Ah, yes, the Shi'a make up 60% of the population. Let's start with them. What do they want? Well, that actually depends on which Shi'a you ask. First, some background on Shi'a Islamic jurisprudence (it's critically important, I promise!). The main dispute that interests us is over what role religious leaders should play in the political life of the nation? All Shi'a believe that the supreme source of religious and poltical authority is a figure known as the Imam, a descendant of Ali, Muhammad's nephew. Only problem is that most Shi'a in Iraq and around the world are Twelver Shi'a and believe that the Twelfth Shi'a was forced to go into hiding to escape persecution, but he is not dead, merely transferred to some kind of alternate plane of existence and he will return at the end of days. Until he returns, at least some of his powers have been delegated to the Shi'a religious scholars.

Here is where things get tricky, as there are three schools of thought here: the first and most traditional school, holds that the religious scholars can only exercise the religious guidance functions of the Twelfth Imam, and not his political leadership functions. To this first school, for religious scholars to take any part in political life would be to usurp the rightful powers of the Twelfth Imam. We'll call this first school the Islamic Madisonians, as they would preserve a separation of mosque and state.

The second school of thought holds that, in extreme circumstances, religious scholars may get involved in politics, but only to the minimum extent necessary to end anarchy and restore stability, at which point, like Cincinnatus and George Washington, the scholars will retire from political life. This is the point of view held by the most influential man in Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. This is why Sistani has occasionally intervened, such as when he pressed the U.S. to allow the elections Iraq had last January rather than continue under the corrupt and often incompetent rule of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority. Sistani told Shi'a it was their religious duty to vote in January and has repeated that admonition this time, as well. One also sees his quiet influence at work in the fact that, at least until recently, the Shi'a refused to retaliate to the bloody attacks of the Sunni insurgents. Sistani knew that the only thing worse than having Sunni insurgents killing Shi'a would be for Shi'a to strike back in kind and spark the all-out Sunni vs. Shi'a civil war the insurgents have been trying to create. Civil wars tend to undermine stability, which is the cardinal virtue to Sistani's school.

The real danger comes from the third and most modern school. This school holds that, until the Twelfth Imam returns, the religious scholars have inherited not just the religious but also the political powers of the Imam and that they should use both of these powers to create a perfect Islamic society, a notion abhorrent to the other two schools which don't beleive a perfect Islamic society can be established prior to the return of the Imam. This school was founded by Ayatollah Khomenei who put his ideals into practice in his home country to create the Islamic Republic of Iran. We'll call this school the "Religious Wacko" school. The good news: most Iraqi Shi'a subscribe to the second school. The bad news: a young firebrand by the name of Moqtada al-Sadr is committed to the third school. And al-Sadr has built up a powerful militia, the Mahdi (or "Messiah") Army to replicate the Iranian Revolution in Iraq, making him and his many followers a force to be reckoned with.

Already one sees here a potential problem with nogotiating a solution to Iraq's problems: there is almost no common ground between the second and third schools. The Sistani school will obviously not accept the theocratic rule of the upstart al-Sadr but neither will al-Sadr and his followers settle for anything less.

Moving on, there is also a debate amongst the Shi'a about the role of religion in everyday life. Many, including al-Sadr and Sistani, want to institute some form of Islamic Sharia law in Iraq. Inheritance law according to Qu'ranic precepts should give the male descendants a greater share of the inheritance than the female descendants. The touchy subject of women's rights also falls under this area of Sharia law. Some Shia, such as Sistani, merely want family matters like divorce and inheritance handled in religious courts, with criminal matters handled by the criminal justice system. Al-Sadr seems to want everything to fall under the jurisdiction of Islamic courts. And let's not forget that many Shi'a are more secular in their attitutes, subscribe to the first school, and don't want there to be Sharia law or religious courts in Iraq at all. Hmm.... not much room for compromise here, either.

Maybe some common ground can be found with the Kurds, Iraq's most peaceful minority. As I saw it last February:

"The Kurds have long agitated for an independent Kurdistan that would encompass all the Kurdish-majority areas in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. While their population is spread over these 4 nations, they tend to view themselves as Kurds, not Turks or Iraqis who happen to be Kurdish. After the Gulf War of 1991…. They gained almost total autonomy from the central government in Baghdad and want to maintain that autonomy under the new government. At the very least, the Kurds will demand the creation of a 'Kurdish Autonomous Region', almost entirely self-governing, though that might not sit well with the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.

"The situation in the north is compounded by the competing claims of Kurds and Sunni Arabs to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the spiritual capital of the Kurdish people. Saddam uprooted many of the Kurdish families in the area and replaced them with Arab Sunnis more loyal to Saddam. Now, with Saddam out of power, many ethnic Kurds have returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their old homes, which have been occupied by Sunnis in their absence. This has led to conflicts between Arabs and Kurds that have jeopardized local stability..."

So, it looks like the Kurds won't settle for anything less than de facto independence (and some Kurdish factions might not even settle for that and go for the whole enchilada of full independence). Also, they want to regain the city of Kirkuk and the oil fields surrounding it and they want to control the profits from the sale of oil from their region.

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention the autonomy faction of the Shi'a earlier! Iraq has large supplies of oil in the north (dominated by Kurds) and the south (dominated by Shi'a). Like the Kurds, the Shi'a want to keep the profits from oil drilled in their region to stay in their region. There is, in fact, a large and growing movement for the heavily Shi'a oil-rich provinces of southern Iraq to band together into a "Shi'a Autonomous Region," like the one the Kurds want in the north. There are also those who want independence for the Shi'a South. Without having to share oil revenues to a national government in Baghdad, which would distribute the profits nationwide, they could secede from Iraq, keep all the profits, and become another rich Arab oil sultanate.

Of course, not all Shi'a like this option. And the Sunnis are predictably outraged. The sad truth is that at least 95% of Iraq's GDP comes from the sale of oil and oil is found only in the Shi'a and Kurdish areas. If oil revenues are distributed equally nationwide, the Sunnis are happy. If the Kurds keep their oil profits and the Shi'a keep their oil profits, the Sunnis are screwed. That is why they are pushing so hard for a strong central government and are dead set against allowing the Kurds and Shi'a to create autonomous areas. It’s in their own financial self-interest. Unfortunately, it also in the financial interest of the Kurds and Shi'a to have control over the oil revenues. When the self-interests of two groups are mutually exclusive, to expect a compromise is to expect too much of human nature.

About those Sunnis: a minority, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his fellow travelers, seems to want a Sunni theocracy along the lines of the Taliban. A larger faction dreams of bringing back the secular Ba’ath party and the days when oil resources overwhelmingly went to Sunni areas. Compromise between those two groups looks almost as remote as compromise between the Kurdish-Shi’a alliance and either of those two groups. Oh, and both groups are armed and have proven themselves willing to resort to the most brutal forms of violence to get what they want. There may be a “silent Sunni minority” with whom negotiation is possible, but even they would balk at Kurdish and Shi’a plans for the distribution of oil wealth.

Stability and Democracy? Ask Again Later.

So, looking into the magic crystal 8-ball of Iraqi politics, what does the future hold? First off, the most recent elections will change the composition of the National Assembly. The Sunnis, after boycotting January's election, were out in large numbers, so they will probably have a share of seats roughly proportional to their share of the electorate, roughly 20%, the same as the Kurds. As no one party is likely to get a majority, the real question is whether religious Shi'a parties like the current ruling party or the party of secular Iraqis from all groups led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will gain enough votes to form a governing coalition.

The candidate most palatable to Americans is Allawi. A secular democratic government? Sounds good to us! But will enough Iraqi Shi'a vote for this party to ensure its victory, or will they do as they did last January and vote for the umbrella group comprised of moderate Sistanistas in an uncomfortable coalition with smaller groups including hard-core theocrats like al-Sadr? I'd like to beieve the former, though the latter seems more likely. If the current Kurdish-Shi'a cleric coalition stays in power, it will probably grant some form of autonomy to the Kurds and Shi’a which will have to include keeping a substantial majority of oil profits in those two regions. In addition, it will impose Sharia law, at least in the area of family law. Neither development will suit the Sunnis, and the insurgency will continue and probably grow in numbers and strength.

Remember that Sunni party that swung its support to the Iraqi constitution back in October, helping to ensure that enough Sunnis voted for it to get it passed? Well, according to the Sunnis, they were promised by the Kurds and Shi’a that this supposedly “final draft” was nothing more than a rough draft that will be modified by the new parliament and approved by the voters in yet another election at an unspecified date next year. The Kurds and Shi’a have been remarkably silent on this subject of late, a silence that speaks volumes. What I am afraid happened is that the Kurdish-Shi’a coalition made promises to the Sunnis to get the constitution passed—-promises they have no intention of keeping. When the Sunnis wake up and smell the treachery, all-out civil war will probably result.

Let’s assume that the ruling coalition will keep its promises and that every part of the Constitution will be put back on the table early next year. The Kurds and Shi’a are happy with the document and will object to virtually any change. Assuming they still have a majority, they will have enough votes to block any Sunni proposals they dislike and the old constitution will go into force as is. By this point really angry, the Sunnis will launch a civil war. Alternatively, sweeping changes will be made in the document and the Kurds or Shi’a, having thought the matter setlled, will launch a civil war. All roads lead to disunion.

There is another possibility: Allawi's secular party wins an outright majority. This is the best case scenario. His party (composed of Shia, with smaller numbers of the other groups) wants a centralized government and would likely not allow the creation of autonomous regions. Then the million-dollar question is, will the Kurds or Shi’a resort to violence to monopolize access to oil wealth? If so, again, civil war.

An intriguing alternative could have Allawi form a coalition with Sunni groups (let’s assume those Sunni groups do really, really well in the elections) opposed to creating autonomous regions; a secular/Sunni national government could end up in charge of the new Iraq. As the last thing the traumatized Shi’a and Kurds ever want to see happen is an Iraq ruled again by the Sunnis, this could also lead to--c’mon guess, you already know the answer--civil war! Isn’t geopolitics fun?

Two final scenarios: First, what if the Iraqi Kurds do decide to declare independence? Turkey has already had to put down a Kurdish revolt within its borders at the cost of more than 35,000 lives, and its leaders fear that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will relight the flames of rebellion among Turkish Kurds. Turkish political and military leaders have stated point-blank that the powerful Turkish military will not stand idly by and allow the Iraqi Kurds to gain independence. In this scenario, Turkey attacks Iraqi Kurdistan in what will be a long and bloody campaign, no matter which side wins.

The absolute worst-case scenario is that the situation gets so bad that the Shi’a turn to al-Sadr, the Lenin of Iraq. As I framed it in February, “Sistani has the upper hand now, but the moderates in Russia (Kerensky, et al.) had the upper hand in post-czarist Russia, and as the situation turned from bad to worse, Russians turned to the radicals under Lenin. Similarly, the moderate Socialists in Weimar Germany gave way to the extremists under Hitler as the situation in Germany became increasingly desperate. If the situation under the new Shiite-dominated government doesn't improve, probably sooner rather than later, the Shiites will choose the radicals out of sheer desperation.”

If the Shi’a decide to go with al-Sadr, they will probably turn for help to their big Shi’a neighbor to the east, Iran. The same Iran that sponsors terrorism and has WMD programs, traits it could easily pass on to a Shi’a Iraq. It would be the greatest irony of all if a war that was started because of misguided and faulty claims that an Iraqi regime sponsored terrorism and had WMD, ends up with a regime in place that actually does sponsor terrorism and actually does have WMD programs which it got from its ally in the reconstituted Axis of Evil, Iran. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy!

Should we stay or should we go now?

Is victory still possible in Iraq? It depends on what you mean by “victory.” Victory in a military sense has probably always been impossible. Our troops move into a town and reclaim it from the insurgents. Within a week, the insurgents have set up shop in another town. When we move into that town, they reappear back in the first town we "re-liberated." That is the nature of popular insurgencies. Victory in the "war of hearts and minds", has probably been impossible since at least last year's revelation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Any chance we had to be seen as liberators rather than occupiers was lost back then. Increasingly, America finds itself irrelevant in Iraq. We can pressure the groups to compromise. But we long ago lost control over the process. The Iraqi people have to choose their own destiny, and we can do little but keep our fingers crossed that they choose a destiny amicable to our own and provide the security to allow them to do so.

I think I speak for most Americans when I say that my definition of victory in Iraq has always been the establishment of a strong, central, secular, democratic government that can maintain order and protect the rights of its people. That outcome is looking increasingly unlikely. There are so many factions in Iraq that even if several of those factions agree to compromise, there will still be so many more out there willing to continue the violence that some form of civil war seems inevitable. I hate to say it, but it might even be necessary. Iraq was cobbled together seemingly at random by the British out of three separate provinces of the Ottoman Empire that not previously had an awful lot to do with each other. It should therefore not be surprising that for most Iraqis, ethnic, tribal, or religious loyalty comes far ahead of any sense of nationalism. If compromise is impossible, it may be that it will take a civil war to create an Iraq that is stable, even if that struggle to reach a stable state takes generations and ends up with an Iraq that won’t resemble Iraq as it is now.

For the time being, what should be done about U.S. troops in Iraq? Though anything close to what I would consider victory in this war is still far away, I cannot support either the immediate or the phased withdrawal of troops on a timetable. For once, Bush is right: we can’t let the insurgents know when we’re leaving; otherwise they would lie low until we do and then rise up against the Iraqi government. Though the chance of failure is becoming an increasingly large probability, unless we stay in Iraq until we have trained an Iraqi army to defend itself, we will be dooming the Iraqis to certain failure.

The pro-withdrawal crowd has historical amnesia: in the 1980s, America financed an insurgency against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. As soon as the Russians withdrew, we lost interest, and instead of sending money and personnel to help rebuild the country and plant a strong democracy there, the world turned its back on Afghanistan. The former freedom fighters became warlords and turned on themselves, creating an unstable situation that led directly to the embrace by many Afghans of a regime that could ensure stability-—the Taliban—-and their financial backer, a man by the name of Osama bin Laden. You might have heard of him. We all know how well "Operation Ignore Afghanistan" turned out. As Iraq sits on right in the center of the Middle East's oil fields, the consequences of "Operation Ignore Iraq" will likely prove even more dire. If we withdraw from Iraq, America will appear weak in the eyes of the world and the terrorists will be emboldened like vultures circling a wounded gazelle. Yet, if Iraq degenerates into civil war with 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq powerless to prevent it, we will also look weak and probably wind up fighting on one side or the other and incurring massive casualities, a la Beirut in 1983. We have truly “grabbed the lion by the tail: we can’t let go and it is perilous to hang on.”

There is a moral reason to stay, too. Having gone in and disrupted their society and decapitated their government in Bush's misbegotten war of choice, we have a responsibility to stay until the Iraqis have a government that can maintain stability or until a government elected by the people tells us to leave, whichever comes first. Though my definition victory seems unlikely, and will not be achieved by purely military means, we have to stay for the sake of the Iraqi people and the chance they might soon seize this historic opportunity and build a better Iraq. We owe it to the Iraqi people. It’s the least we can do.


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