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Published in the 16-31 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Iraq: unraveling of unity?
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

Karamatullah K. GhoriThe deadly spate of bombings that marred the solemn observance of Ashura in Baghdad and Kerbala, on March 2, was an uneasy pointer to how fragile the Iraqi national unity has become under the baneful American occupation of Iraq. Much more sinister than the horrendous toll of life, the blood bath seemed to signal the unraveling of Iraq's unity and territorial integrity.

Iraq was a product of colonial convenience for the British imperialism following its triumph over the Ottoman Caliphate. The focal interest of the imperialists in the war was to administer a fatal body blow to the four centuries of Ottoman domination of the 'Fertile Crescent' and other parts of the Arab lands. The unsuspecting Arabs were inveigled with promises of their total control of the 'liberated ' lands whilst the British and French expansionists had already secretly carved out the Ottoman possessions as their own booty of war. Iraq, in the end, was contrived as a sop to assuage the Arab sense of betrayal and treachery.
Bush was never keen, or even interested, in promoting any Iraqi cause save his own. He invaded Iraq to implement his neo-con agenda of subjugating the Arab world, with Iraq as its first gambit. There is mounting evidence coming on stream steadily that his agenda was scripted as much for his convenience as for that of his soul-mate, the arch-Zionist Ariel Sharon. Both still have a lot at stake in Iraq and the wider Arab world. 

Iraq was not only artificial in the form it was conceived but carried the seeds of its own destruction in its womb because of the odd mix of ethnic and sectarian groups that were cobbled together into an Iraqi nation. A succession of autocratic regimes held Iraq's fragile unity intact by sheer brutality. Saddam's quarter century rule was the best or worst example of raw power keeping the country's disparate factions in thrall by unbridled recourse to force. The American invasion of last year uprooted that brutal regime but has singularly failed to administer its after-math.

Iraq's latest interim constitution, hammered out under intense American pressure by a supine and cowering Iraqi Governing Council, on March 1, is being hailed by American votaries and apologists as a major 'achievement.' The Bush administration feels particularly relieved; it is "terrific" to a loyalist Colin Powell. Bush, after all, has so much riding on Iraq in the upcoming autumn elections in which he will be fighting for his political life.

It is obvious that the Governing Council has been badgered by the Bush viceroy, Paul Bremer, into hastily overcoming (or putting on the back- burner) all their differences on substantive issue to hand over to him a hideous document that carries the seeds of potential internecine conflict. The time- table for the whole exercise-writing an interim constitution, organizing ersatz elections for a constituent assembly and patching together a pliable interim government at Washington's beck and call-has been herded all the time by Bush's personal agenda. He would like to go before his electors with a facetious claim that he has licked the Iraqi problem. Indeed he is counting as much on his electors' gullibility as on the hand picked Iraqi surrogates to smoothen the way for him to take the American people for yet another ride.

But whilst Bush has good reason to be jubilant on this break-through, there is no capital for optimism, much less celebration, for the Iraqis, both the people and those puppets who have been swaying on their alien piper's beat. By papering over several divisive and as yet intractable issues, such as the exact demarcation of rights for various sectarian and ethnic entities in the Iraqi Federation, they have only bought themselves time to fight over them another day, at an increased cost to Iraqi unity.

Bush was never keen, or even interested, in promoting any Iraqi cause save his own. He invaded Iraq to implement his neo-con agenda of subjugating the Arab world, with Iraq as its first gambit. There is mounting evidence coming on stream steadily that his agenda was scripted as much for his convenience as for that of his soul-mate, the arch-Zionist Ariel Sharon. Both still have a lot at stake in Iraq and the wider Arab world. And now the goal for Bush is to use Iraq as a prop for his re-election bid in which the news of 'constitutional progress' in Iraq makes good headlines, for him as well as for the loyalist coterie in Washington.

Sweeping substantive issues, and their settlement, under the rug has long been a kingpin in American policies, vis--vis the Middle East. American inaction in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has damned any prospect of progress in the peace process and given Ariel Sharon a free hand to use maximum state terror against the Palestinians. This is also what the Zionists and their Christian-Right allies in America clearly want-freedom to brutalize the Palestinians and cleanse the West Bank of them.

Likewise in Iraq, the agenda priority is not to seek solutions to the endemic problems of Iraqi polity. Instead, it is to cobble a pliant Iraqi administration to serve America's long and short- term objectives in Iraq itself and the region. Never mind if the apple-cart, built under duress, comes unstuck on the day after the November Presidential election. Bush's interest is in using the present accord only as a crutch to cross the election barrier. The wound of the Iraqis may be festering but Bush deems it sufficient to only apply a Band -Aid on it to hide it from world's view.

But there is a lot at stake for the Iraqis, now and in the future, irrespective of what happens at the U.S. polls. The future Iraq and that of its 24 million people is of far greater importance than the outcome of the November election. And the ripple effect of what transpires in Iraq will travel far beyond the national frontiers of Iraq.
The most sensitive issue in a post-Saddam Iraq is that of religion and its place in the country's governance. The Iraqi Shiia majority's rights and interests were ruthlessly suppressed under the long Baathist rule. It's quite natural for it to assert its democratic right to rule in a free Iraq, which might send shivers down many a spine, not necessarily in Iraq alone. The Shiias are also conscious that the key to their triumph in a democratic dispensation would be their unity. They have thus been speaking as one voice, articulated by Ayatollah Sistani. It is highly unlikely that they would allow any internal or external factor to trifle with their unity or a united platform to promote and preserve their interests.

The Americans, allergic to any articulation of Shiia religious platform, have robustly tried to undermine it. Bremer callously and unabashedly blackmailed the Governing Council with the threat of wielding his veto as the assenting authority, to ensure that Islam was not mentioned as the template for law-making in the interim constitution written at his behest and under his command. So the Governing Council has taken the line of least resistance and instead of declaring Islam as 'the source' of legislation has sufficed to state it as only " a source".

However, in succumbing to raw American pressure, the Council has only postponed the issue that is certain to haunt the future law- makers of Iraq, who would neither be so beholden to the Americans nor would always look over their shoulder at the imperial viceroy. They will have a freer hand and operate in a different ambience.

Bremer's brazen hostility to Islam, as Iraq's lode -star in the painstaking search for a viable system of governance for a country inherently parochial, is reminiscent of that arch-imperialist, Lord Curzon. The then British Foreign Secretary gloated over the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, in March 1924 at the hands of a self-proclaimed secularist, Ataturk. He triumphantly boasted in the British Parliament: " the point at issue is that Turkey has been destroyed and shall never rise again, because we have destroyed her spiritual power: the Khilafah and Islam." But contrary to Curzon's curse, Turkey rose again and Islam there survived Ataturk's secularism and much more. Tomorrow's Iraq may also force Bremer to bemoan his false victory and prove him as wrong as Curzon..
Of an equal importance and sensitivity, as well as prone to upheaval, is the issue of the rights and interests of the non-Arab and ethnically distinct Kurds in a new Iraq.

Like the Shiias of Iraq, the Kurds too suffered heavily at the hands of the Baathists. But they fared much better once the Americans had broken Saddam's back by imposing their arbitrary 'no-fly' zone over northern Iraq, soon after the Gulf War. The Kurds, insulated against Saddam, were sheltered and nurtured under the American security umbrella, thus whetting their appetite for more.

The Kurds would like to press home their advantage in a new Iraq by extending their domain to include more territory and resources. They have their eyes on Kirkuk where half of Iraq's known oil reserves are located. But neither the Shiia majority, nor any other minority, would agree to this egregious demand. The Turks, next door, have their own well-known sensitivity on this issue. Access to oil would make the Kurds powerful and rich and prone to declare their independence as a sovereign people. This is anathema to the Turks who wouldn't be above using force to stamp it out. Successive Turkish governments have served categorical warnings to this end. The Americans know it too and largely for this reason, leaned on the Kurds to stay their hand and stand down on Kirkuk, for the moment at least. 

There is, however, no guarantee that the Kurds would stall on the issue forever, or not use it as a bargaining counter for other equally outrageous demands, thus threatening the fragile unity of Iraq.

Also left unresolved is the potentially explosive issue of armed militias of various political factions, topped by the Kurdish Pesh merga that numbers more than 50 thousand. The Americans, in their anti-Saddam fixation, armed this Kurdish force with sophisticated weapons in order to raise its combative power against Baghdad. The Kurds now see this force as their best guarantee that Baghdad will not suppress them again, and will be most reluctant to disband it unless there are cast iron guarantees for their autonomy.

The largest and most well-organised Shiia faction, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq ( SCIRI ) also has its own fighting force, the Al Badar Brigade, numbering at least 20 thousand. It would be easier to disband this group once the Shiia majority is assured of its predominance in a genuinely democratic Iraq, but not before that. They were traumatised by the brutal murder of their charismatic leader, Baqar Al Hakim, last August. And there was fresh reminder for them of America's inability, or unwillingness, to protect them, on the heels of the constitution drama in Baghdad. The gory Ashura mayhem in Kerbala and Baghdad, within hours of the unveiling of the interim constitution, have done little to persuade the Shiias to keep faith in the occupation forces' ability to ensure the sanctity of their lives or interests in Iraq. It may simply impel them to take control of their affairs themselves.

This is but only tip of the Iraqi iceberg. Still submerged under the surface are the rights of the visible Sunni minority that had monopolized political power in Iraq since its birth as a country. It would be hard for the erstwhile elite to reconcile to the new political reality in their domain, just as it has been hard on the Pakhtoons of Afghanistan to share power with the Tajiks or the Hazaras. This is not to mention the aspirations of other minorities, such as the Turkomans and a clutch of Iraqi Christian factions, all of them itching for a share in power.

Saddam's demise may be a blessing to most Iraqis. However, the aftermath has released myriad, centrifugal, forces like those of a Pandora's box. Iraq's unity is likely to come under serious and severe strain in the months following the putative transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi's on June 30th under Bush's self-serving time- table. But that will be of no concern to Bush whose gaze is only riveted on retaining the White House.

However, Iraq's future hangs in the balance, not merely because the Americans have done little to instill any sense of national unity in their conquered land. The devious American slogan to usher in democracy in the 'liberated' Iraq, without fostering a meaningful blueprint for it, has unleashed a demon that may be beyond the capacity of the Iraqis to control. The scramble for power in a vacuum can easily unravel the state conceived in turmoil.

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