“…But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.” – The Melian Dialogue.
To those untrained in the nuances of world politics, military strategy, or history, Iraq has no other descriptor besides a historic military quagmire. Until recently, Iraq has been the center of the power games and proxy wars between world powers, great and small, and fought upon by Iraqi security forces, their coalition (and later American) partners, and multitudes of non-state actors; some religious or tribal militias, other insurgent forces, and lastly foreign terrorists.
As the momentum of the Syrian Civil War heightens, the American military quagmire known as the Iraq War has spread across borders into Syria, snowballing into a conflict that further interventions by Russians and Iranians. The Islamic State did not exist during the Baathist Era, but it was a well-documented consequence of the Iraq War.
This paper will focus on the political decisions that have made life better or worse for the common Iraqi and I will argue against why Iraq is not an endless war, explain the Kurdish question, and conceive an honorable future and end to one of humanity’s most bitter and brutal conflicts.
In the Peloponnesian War between the Greek powers Sparta and Athens, the island of Melos, must decide either to surrender to the Athenian Navy or to fight in hopes that their Spartan allies will avenge their likely defeat. Of course, the Spartans do not come to the Melian’s aid and the people of Melos lose to a superior force of the Athenians leaving many of their men dead and their women and children to the slave’s fate. Thus, “question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.”
However, in the case of Iraq, it is not so clear cut. The country of Iraq, in totality, has the complexity of a spider web. With the removal of the Baathist regime, its replacement through the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and New Iraqi Government, America has paid much in blood and treasure in its occupation and winding down of the Iraq War when it utilized the Melian Dialogue in its pre-war calculus. In Iraq, it is not the strong who will exact what they can from the weak, but it is the weak resisting against the strong.
Unfortunately, Iraq is the classic case of the weak banding together against the strong – as the regional centers of power; which include Saudi, Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian interests; have all converged in their support of political factions of Iraq – whether it is the Sunni insurgency, Shiite-led government, or the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan and therefore, have a stake in the future of Iraq.
Additionally, instead of victor, the United States has played the role of occupier, nation-builder, and later arbiter between the country’s complex internal and external interests. Therefore, the ongoing narrative concerning the future of Iraq cannot be a future won as a short, victorious war, but it must be a future won by as a long, political peace.
Part One: The Endless Conflict
Firstly, I cannot conclude that Iraq is the Endless war.
All wars come to an end if the peace secured between belligerents can be reconcilable and lasting. In the modern era, Total War in the Napoleonic model has been less likely, however low-intensity, internal conflicts within states have become more common. Many of these internal conflicts have an interested, foreign component influencing a desired outcome. As an outcome of American foreign intervention, Iraq is in a state of civil war.
In part one, The Endless Conflict I will make the case that the Iraq War, the insurgency, and later the conflict between the Iraqi Government and DAESH is a proxy war taking place in the greater political and religious struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. America remains allied to the fledgling and weak Iraqi Government, however under President Obama, it has become less interested, more indifferent, and less responsive.
Since the March 2003 invasion, Iraq has been in a state of low-intensity warfare. Whether one labels it as a civil war, the insurgency, or the war against ISIS, the Government of Iraq has been fighting against an insurgency hell bent on its dissolution.
While the war itself is not endless, the sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs and the issue of the Kurdish Question have seemingly been endless issues that have wide ramifications for the future of Iraq.
These issues have existed since the founding the modern Iraqi nation-state. Carved from the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra by the British and the French, Iraq is can be simplified as having the Kurdish people to the North, near Mosul and Kirkuk; the Sunni Arabs existing in the heartland of Iraq around Baghdad, and lastly, the south, Basra, is home to the Shi’a Arab community.
Beneath the ground of the Shi’a and Kurdish homelands, oil is abundant, with Iraq having the world’s fifth largest reserves in oil (Sky 47). However, since time immemorial, the Iraqis have been led by a Sunni elite under British colonialization, a kingdom, a republic, and the Baathist regime. Therefore, a vital interest for any Iraqi Government, whether the old regime or new, are the oilfields of Basra and Kirkuk. If not for religious reasons, the curse of resources bind the three major factions into a seemingly endless conflict over control of the country’s oil.
“Historically, Sunni regimes have maintained their political dominance by keeping the Shi’a weak and divided. A variety of techniques – co-option, rewards, and punishment – have been employed to preclude the emergence of coherent, unified Shi’a opposition force capable of challenging Sunni dominance,” (Anderson 174). Under any Sunni Regime, the Shi’a have always kept to the shadows as their religious doctrine commits them to political passiveness in the secular world – a doctrine which would later be broken by the Political Islam of Iran and the democratic reality that Iraq has more Shi’a than Sunni.
“In numerical terms, the Shi’a number 14 million people, most the Iraqi population” (Anderson 166). Nearly sixty percent of the population are believers of Shi’a Islam, including the Kurdish population. This is not a co-incidence. Cities such as Najaf and Karbala hold a special place in the theology of the Shi’a – Najaf is the religious capital of Shi’a Islam and Karbala was the final holdout for the first Imam as he was slain by the Sunni. During the Baathist era, the public display of many Shi’a rituals, holidays, and politics have been strictly forbidden unless it was for the benefit of Saddam (Anderson 178).
Sectarian tensions were high during the old regime, while the Sunni Arabs of the heartland held political power (especially if they were from the Tribes of Tikrit), the Shi’a Arabs held little power and rarely were they promoted to senior positions of government. Instead, they considered themselves Arab Nationalists in their promotion of the state and fought fiercely against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (Anderson 167).
However, a more politically active Shi’a community does exist today in Iraq – Al-Da’wa. During the old regime, Al-Da’wa was led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Under the old regime, the Al-Da’wa party was heavily against the anti-Shi’a discriminatory policies of the Iraqi state. “From 1977 onward, both al-Sadr and Al-Da’wa became the primary targets of the Ba’ath regime,” (Anderson 178) because of their militant behavior. Before his assassination, the Ayatollah could pronounce, “If it is necessary to assume a fighting position, I have spent this existence for the sake of Shi’a and Sunni equally in that I defended the message that united them and the creed that embraced them in body,” (Anderson 179).
Another important factor is the Iranian connection. Through the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCRI), the Iranian had attempted to spread their Islamic Revolution into Iraq. Because Iraq held the holy city of Najaf and Karbala, it holds a place of deep honor amongst the Shi’a and of course, many of the Grand Ayatollahs of Shi’a took their training in Najaf, including the first Supreme Leader of Iran. SCRI would act as an Iranian fifth column in Baathist Iraq and today, the al-Da’wa party is still considered as a proxy of Iran. Today, the militarized arm of SCRI, the Badr Organization still operates inside Iraq in support of the current Shi’a regime.
Today, the Shi’a are more fortunate than during the old regime as their numbers help in their representative outcomes. They control the coveted oil fields in Basra, its parties hold key positions in the legislature, including prime minister, and much of Southern Iraq is held politically by the Shi’a parties.
“To date, the identity of Iraq has been determined by Sunni Arabs. Thus, Iraq has been strongly pan-Arab and secular… If the Shi’a dominate the politics of Iraq, the seismic shift in the hierarchy of power will create friction around the issue of who gets to define the nature of the Iraq,” (Anderson 191).
As Anderson had exceptionally predicted, the Sunni Arabs have lost their power to define the identity of Iraq. As the fortunes of the Shi’a Arabs soar, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq are paying dearly for the decisions of the old regime.
“As the historical record clearly indicates, the power hierarchy in Iraq has been dominated by different groupings of Sunni elites since the inception of the Iraqi State,” (Anderson 195) and “The association of the Iraqi Sunnis with Arab nationalism, secular politics, and the dominance of institutions of governance were manifested in their final, powerful form in the regime of Saddam Hussein,” (Anderson 200).
The main population of the Sunni Arabs comprise of both tribal and urban populations, most which lie between the so-called “Sunni Triangle” of the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Rutba (Anderson 211). The Sunni, whether under the monarchy, republic, or Baathist have always tried to rule Iraq through pan-Arab and secular means of control and many Iraqis had considered that government rule was synonymous with Sunni rule, as they are the “natural ruling class” of the country.
As he had played with the Shi’a population of Iraq, Saddam had played favorites with the Sunni ruling class. Firstly, he installed loyal tribes into the political, institutional, and security apparatuses of state. Secondly, he utilized his dictatorial power to create fear amongst the Sunni Arabs to create friction against apostate Shi’a Arabs and seditious Kurds. Therefore, although the Sunni were in charge of Iraq, Saddam had created an ecosystem in which only specific Sunni Arabs would benefit based on their loyalty to the regime, whereas the Shi’a and Kurds were popular tools to keep his Sunni and subjects in check.
With the fall of the old regime, Ambassador Bremer had quickly whisked together the creation of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and decreed CPA Order No. 1: the De- Baathification of Iraq. “The new leaders were determined to ensure their total control of the state, despite having a limited domestic constituency. They lobbied the CPA to carry out broad de-Baathification to punish those who had cooperated with the former regime and to prevent their return to public life,” (Sky 40). Like the end of World War II and de-Nazification of Germany, the United States and its allies decided to rid of the vestiges of the old regime by purging the Baathists from power. Along with the disbandment of the Iraqi Army, the de-Baathification policy would lead to great civil unrest in Iraq, such as in Kirkuk:
“In the province of Kirkuk, de-Baathification was particularly problematic as it increased ethnic tensions between the Arabs and Kurds. It had become a witch hunt, rather than a means of achieving justice for past wrongs. It was important to remove those Baathists who were guilty of crimes against humanity. But there also needed to be some mechanisms for reconciliation. If we placed many people outside the system with no means of supporting their families, this would only lead to unrest,” (Sky 40).
Sunni or Shi’a, many Baathist members of the old regime were told to stop their work or disarm, and go home because the new Iraq did not want war criminals running government. Because the old regime was mostly Sunni Arab of Tikriti extract, much of the pain of de-Baathification was disproportionately fell upon the old regime’s Sunni ruling class. Additionally, the military, again disproportionately led and staffed by Sunni Arabs, had been told they were not wanted. In effect, their kinship benefits with the old regime led to unemployment and discrimination in the newly Shi’a-led New Iraq.
These would be the seeds of the Sunni Insurgency – whether Nationalist or Islamist, the policies of de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army had led former Sunni Baathist military officers, teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians towards the creation of the Sunni Insurgency.
Today War in Iraq is in its fifteenth year. The war is not an Endless Conflict but considering the real concerns between the sectarian division of Iraq into Shi’a and Sunni camps, which include the former regime and the new government, the only outlet for these political factions is conflict. Each, for historical or present grievances, have decided to craft a new future for Iraq or defect and choose to destroy it. The war could end today or tomorrow, but the scars of the Baathist era cannot be truly healed and this makes the conflict endless between the rulers and former rulers of Iraq.
Part 2: The Kurdish Problem
“The Iraqi Kurds may be seen in two ways. The first and common way is to view the Kurds as victims, both of the central government and neighboring powers. The second, almost opposing, position is to see them as an agent provocateur, acting as proxy forces for states opposed to the incumbent regime. In both cases, it is the fact that the Kurds are a marginalized geographically and politically within the Iraqi State… which has resulted in them being both victim and provocateur,” (Anderson 216).
Besides the Endless conflict between the Arabs, there stands the Kurdish problem. As with the Shi’a, the Kurds have felt political discrimination, political violence, and harbor much political hatred against the old Sunni Arab regime.
The Kurds are Iraqi, while they may be Shi’a, Sunni or of the old faith, they are not Arab. They are 25 percent of the Iraqi population (5 Million), and while they know Arabic, they speak their own languages and live in the mountainous regions between Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. They have never had their own nation-state, but after the first Gulf War, they were granted great autonomy that their state of Iraqi Kurdistan is a de-facto state with its own working organs of state and standing militaries called the Peshmerga.
However, there is the Kurdish Problem. The Kurds want their own nation state, but for Iraq to succeed, Iraqi Kurdistan must be part of a one-state solution, which includes the traditional Ottoman divisions of Mosul – in which the Kurds belong, Baghdad – the Sunni Heartland, and Basra – the home of the Shi’a.
Within the mountainous north, Kirkuk is the ancestral homeland of the Kurds. Because it is oil-rich, the city has been fought for by all sects and political factions of the country – Kurd, government, or insurgent. During the Old Regime, Kirkuk was the site of Saddam’s Arabization policy, which dislocated Kurds and in their place Arabs would relocate into Kirkuk. The obvious intent of this policy is to gain access to the oil wealth at the expense of the Kurdish people. Under Saddam’s regime, the Kurds were the targets of his Anfal campaign in which over 5,000 Kurds lay dead from his use of chemical weapons.
Conversely, going into the first Gulf War and the American Invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds have enjoyed great autonomy and protection of the United States. As a partner, the Kurdish have helped supplied the New Iraqi Army with Peshmerga fighters to fight DAESH, but the greatest dilemma is that the Kurds do so only if it will benefit the Kurds. As Anderson states, “History threatens to repeat itself, with the Kurds once more being seen as provocateur, as they will undoubtedly struggle to maintain their gains, and then as victims, as their autonomy and aspirations are sacrificed in order to secure the authority of the Iraqi government,” (Anderson 220).
If they the Kurds aren’t united against the central government or an external threat to their autonomy, the Kurds will fight amongst themselves. This disunity is between the Kurdish Tribes and Urban Intelligentsia, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) parties, and to a smaller extent sectarian divides. Their rivalry with each other is an example of the Kurdish Problem – the whole of Iraq needs the Kurds to stand together with the Sunni and Shi’a parts of Iraqi civil society, but the Kurds will rebel against the government or squabble against themselves.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of Iraqi Kurdistan was its reliance on the Old Regime: “The survival of the de facto Kurdish state was dependent upon the continued survival of Saddam himself. With Saddam in power, the Kurds enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship with Baghdad (Anderson 248). However, this symbiotic relationship between oppressor and the oppressed would end on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003. “It is undeniable that the personal desire of the members of the Kurdish leadership and the vast majority of the Iraqi Kurdish population was to see the demise of Saddam and the establishment of multi-party democracy in Iraq. However, the potential losses to the income of the parties, to political standing in Iraq and international community, and to the security and of Iraqi Kurdistan…” would be considerable if the invasion did not succeed,” (Anderson 249). It would imply that the status quo between Saddam’s regime and Autonomous Kurdistan was preferable than the current situation, however as in a post-Saddam Iraq they are much more vulnerable – they are now formally part of Iraq and their oil revenues must be distributed to central govern on top of each other.
Lastly, as a partner, the Kurds aren’t exactly the best friends, as “in times of extreme weakness, Iraqi regimes have been prepared to offer much to the Kurds, only to renege on the deal once power of the center has been consolidated. The crux of the Kurdish problem in Iraq is a fundamental incompatibility between the level of autonomy demanded by the Kurds and that which the central government have been prepared to tolerate.” (Anderson 252). While many central governments and outside powers have “used” the Kurds, the Kurds have used and betrayed others in the same fashion.
Part 3: The Future of Iraq
There have been many models of how to configure the future of Iraq – whether it is Federalism, Confederation, Two-State Solution, or a Three-State Solution. There are obvious pros and cons of each, but allow me to write my own solution for the future of Iraq.
Iraq is a diverse country that was created during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its artificial creation because of Sykes-Picot. While the Arabs have dealt with each other for centuries regardless of sectarian allegiance, the Kurdish Question and their desire and determination towards statehood creates a complex situation along with the reality that the “Iraq War is really a proxy war” for the power rivalries between Turkey, Saudi-led Gulf States, and Iran.
Unlike the Melian Dialogue, might does not make right as we have seen with the frequent American interventions into Iraq and Syria. The weak have weapons that the strong can never take away and that is they have won the “hearts and minds” of the people – which is something an occupier can rarely do.
Before any solution can be put on the table, there must be a simple realization: Jeffersonian Democracy cannot work in Iraq. Through their rejection of feudal and later imperial overlords, the Iraqi people will only accept a political solution that uniquely Iraqi – not Iranian, Not Saudi, and not American. The solution must be able to encompass all aspects, cultures, sects, religions, and peoples of Iraq.
In my mind, Iraq must stay staunchly a secular state run by Arabs and Kurds, as they are the three largest populations of Iraq. The country must remain unitary with provinces that continue to seek supply from the central government.
With the reality being that government reflects the Shi’a majority of the country, the minorities of Iraq which includes Sunni Arab, Kurdish Assyrians, and Christians must be protected by some sort of constitutional protections.
In the meantime, the political parties of Iraq must evolve beyond identity politics – there should be no Shi’a, no Sunni, no Kurd, and no Arab parties but there should some sort ideological left-right split for the best policies to be formed. If not a developed party system, then let the country have a grand coalition of parties to have a unified front.
Much of the country’s problems is the sectarian divides of the country. The Shi’a control government and seek to maximize their take at the expense of the Sunni middle and Kurdish north. The oil lies outside of reach of the Sunni Triangle, while Basra and Kurdistan remains reach from oil. Many talks about federalization seeks to tie oil revenue with the division of Iraq, but with further decentralization – especially in the American model – would hinder the Iraqi center from giving each division a fair share of the oil profits.
Perhaps America still has a role in Iraq. As I have written, the United States has gone from occupier and instigator of much of the country’s woes towards a more balanced arbiter role between the different factions of Iraq. In fact, the United States had failed much by its 2011 drawdown of American forces in Iraq, perhaps it is time that the new Iraqi Government and the United States finally enact a proper Status of Forces agreement to allow for the permanent basing of military to fight ISIS (formerly Al-Qaeda in Iraq).
Today, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army are fighting ISIS in Mosul after capturing Ramadi with American assistance. With the war going across borders into Syria, making the Iraqi War, an international problem, the proxy wars of Iraq and Syria have combined to create an atmosphere of destabilization in the Middle East.
Lastly, the United States must not betray their Iraqi partners again as in the case of Obama’s dislike of Iraq, its leader, and its war. The United States must advocate for the Iraqis to create a political solution, while the Americans protect the sovereignty of the people of Iraq in determining the future that is right for Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni Arabs.