The Collapse of Iraq
By Nayyer Ali MD
Over the last few weeks we have witnessed the collapse of Iraq as a unified state. Created after the First World War out of the pieces of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was initially a British colony that gained independence after the Second World War. A monarchy emplaced by the British was overthrown by the army in the 1950’s, and the Baath Party took power in the 1960’s, with Saddam Hussein becoming the uncontested dictator in 1979. He then went on to attack Iran in 1980, and invaded Kuwait in 1990, both of which ended badly for him, but left him in power. George W. Bush then launched the biggest disaster in American foreign policy history (geopolitically much worse than Vietnam) by invading Iraq and completely bungling the occupation.
The problem of Iraq is an age-old one that the nation-state system has had great difficulty with. How do you create a nation out of multiple ethnic groups that live in different regions? If the groups are well-mixed, like African-Americans or Latinos in the US, there is no geographic basis for separatism, but when each group has its own region, even the most liberal countries have trouble holding together. A vote by Quebec for independence from Canada in the early 1990’s failed 51-49%, and the Scots are going to vote on independence from Great Britain this September. One of the main causes of the Second World War was the desire by Hitler to incorporate all the German dominated regions of his neighbors, such as the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After the Cold War ended, Czechoslovakia itself split peaceful into its Czech and Slovak halves, while Yugoslavia split violently into six different countries.
The region that is now Iraq comprises three main groups, the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the center, and the Shia from Baghdad to the south. When the Ottomans ruled for centuries, they primarily relied on the Sunni Arabs, as the Shia were seen as favoring their rival the Shia Persian Empire. The British too ruled through the Sunni Arabs, and the Baath Party under Saddam Hussein privileged the Sunnis. While Sunnis under Saddam who challenged his rule were just as ruthlessly treated as anyone else, the system as a whole clearly relied on the Arab Sunni population, and the bureaucracy and Army Officer Corps were dominated by Sunni Arabs.
Bush’s war for “democracy” destroyed all that. But Bush failed to see how a democratic Iraq also meant an Iraq that was going to empower the Shia majority and marginalize the Sunni. When his proconsul Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army after the invasion, he sent thousands of Sunni officers with military training into unemployment and left them obviously embittered. Meanwhile, the policy of de-Baathification, under which anyone who had been in the Baath party could not hold a job in the new government, meant in reality that Sunni Arabs lost their jobs and were replaced by Shia. By holding elections under a constitution that did not protect the Sunni minority, the new Shia Prime Ministers ran the country purely for the benefit of their sectarian group. The basic requirements for the insurgency had been laid and Iraq exploded in the next several years.
The other disastrous choice the Bush team made was not to understand the essential political economy of a petrostate. In these countries, the government is not funded by taxes collected from the people, who then demand some accountability from the government. Instead, the government gets tens of billions in oil revenue from abroad, and then gets to parcel out that money in a vast sea of patronage and corruption. With some foresight, the Bush team could have knitted Iraq together and mitigated these tendencies. For example, they could have made every Iraqi adult a shareholder of the Iraqi National Oil Company, and the oil revenue would then be paid out to each shareholder monthly as a check. Provincial and Federal governments could then tax those payments to fund themselves, but in such a system, every Iraqi could feel they were being treated with some fairness. Instead, the oil revenue has become the plaything of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to the immense rage of the Sunnis and the frustration of the Kurds.
The civil war in Syria over the last three years has created a cadre of armed extremist Sunni fighters, some of Iraqi origin, who then took advantage of the deteriorating situation in Iraq to attack the mostly Shia Iraqi army units in the Sunni region in the north. In the face of a few thousand lightly armed fighters, the Iraqi army simply melted away, abandoning their equipment, uniforms, and vehicles. At this point Iraq exists in three pieces, a Kurdish region in the north which is part of Iraq on paper only but has its own military and treats its border with the rest of Iraq as a foreign border crossing, a Sunni region which has no oil fields but is now totally under its own control, and the Shia region from Baghdad to the south. What happens now?
Clearly neither the Shia have the power to retake the Sunni cities and countryside nor can the Sunnis capture Baghdad and the south. The Kurds are looking for an opportune moment to leave Iraq. The only hope is for Nuri al-Maliki to be replaced by a neutral figure, and for the three groups in Iraq to come together and make a new national compact. Given the bad blood and deep mistrust each group has toward the others, this is not likely to happen. The other option is a formal division and the creation of three states out of the current Iraq. In the end this is where we are headed, an outcome which is actually bad for Iran, as it means that its influence in Iraq will be lessened geographically, and its land route to the Assad regime in Syria, which runs through Sunni western Iraq will be cut off. It will also be bad for the Sunnis as they will be left with a rump state with no oil of its own and landlocked with a civil war in Syria still raging next door. The role of extremist Sunni Islam will have to be sorted out and will be a grave concern to its neighbors and the West. For the Shia, it will be likely a positive result, the violence of the Sunni insurgency will end with partition, and Shia Iraq holds most of Iraq’s current oil fields. The Kurds will be the biggest winners, finally achieving the full independence they have been seeking for 25 years.
George Bush’s folly cost trillions of dollars and killed a hundred thousand people or more, and the world continues to pay the price for it. Obama should stay away and let the Iraqis sort things out for themselves.