Friday, October 14, 2005

Watershed or an abyss?

PV Vivekanand

IRAQIS vote on a draft constitution on Saturday as part of the American-engineered drive for "democracy" in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. American hopes of pacifying the people of Iraq are pinned on the draft constitution as the catalyst to restoring normalcy to the beleaguered country. However, others warn that provisions for regional autonomy in the draft would hasten the country's descent into a sectarian civil war that could eventually draw in neighbouring states. If anything, the effort at democracy could explode in the face of the US and push Iraq further on the path towards disintegration in view of the historic realities and ethnic divisions of the country into the majority Shiite south, and a Kurdish north and the Sunni-dominated centre where everyone wants part of the stake. It is only a matter of time the remnants of the colonial knots dating back to the days of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire are completely unravelled.
It has been 30 months since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The people of Iraq, who were supposed to have been "liberated" from the Saddam regime, now find themselves caught between the devil and the deep sea.
The insurgency in Iraq — some call it a war of terror, others call it a guerrilla war — against the US military presence in the country is growing steadily, with no sign of any let-up in the daily violence that has claimed tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 2,000 American soldiers in suicide bombings and ambushes.
Both internal and external forces are at play in Iraq. As the crisis is steadily turning worse, the deep hostility and distrust among the country's three major communities have burst forth. The US military has no formula to address the situation, if only because none of the three communities is willing to accept less than what it believes to be its stake in the country.
Shiites account for around 60 per cent of the 25-million population, Sunnis form some 16-18 per cent and Kurds represent around the same number as Sunnis. Sunnis always ruled the country despite their low numerical strength in the population. That situation ended with the invasion and ouster of the Saddam regime, but it has spawned a crisis that is snowballing beyond control.

Uncompromising postures

The positions of the three major communities in Iraq are more or less clear.
The Shiites, who dominate the south of the country, will not let go of their opportunity to gain absolute power by virtue of their majority in the population. They are demanding that the Sunnis and Kurds should recognise the Shiite power in the country and behave accordingly. They are willing to share power but only to the extent that their domination is not challenged.
That posture is not acceptable even to the US since Washington fears the Iranian influence among Iraqi Shiites and believes that a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad would only undermine the strategic American goal of containing Iran.
The Kurds are marking time for the realisation of their quest to set up an independent Kurdistan in the north of the country. The current president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd, and he is striving to consolidate the newfound Kurdish grip on power in Baghdad, but short of that the Kurds retain the option of independence in the north where they are running an autonomous regime since 1991.
An independent Kurdistan could sustain itself if it includes the oil-rich Kirkuk in the north. At present Kirkuk is out of the Kurdish orbit, but the Kurdish leadership has vowed to include it in their domain.
However, any Kurdish move to set up an independent state will face strong opposition from Turkey, which is mindful that its own Kurdish community could join their kinsmen across the border.
The draft constitution is automatically rejected if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote against it on Saturday. This was originally aimed at reassuring the Kurds, who are majority in three northern provinces, that they could effectively veto any charter that did not provide them with significant autonomy.
While the statute guarantees autonomy to the Kurds but it also opens the door for autonomy in nine Shiite-dominated provinces. Thus, with 70 per cent of the country's known reserves of oil and 60 per cent of the population, the Shiites could set up their own state if the crisis continues to worsen.
The Sunnis are in central Iraq have few natural resources compared to the oil and gas industries based in both the north and the south.
In theory, they could reject the constitution since they have overwhelming majorities in two western provinces and a smaller majority in a third, and that is a strong possibility, according to reports.
The Sunnis are angry that they were marginalised in the constitution-drafting process although they had joined it at the risk of assassination by insurgents who have opposed their participation. The Sunnis who participated say that they were given a pledge that a consensus document would be the result, but they were brushed aside in the final phase of the drafting as the Kurds and Shiites made their own deals.
The final blow to the Sunnis came when a provision was included in the draft saying all former officials of the ousted Baathist party would be excluded from the administration of the country. It meant a majority of the Sunni population being kept out.
The Shiite-Kurdish coalition in power says if the draft statute is voted out, then it would be disastrous for the country, but then the Sunnis believe the disaster is already upon them and could not get any worse.
One Sunni group has accepted a deal with the Kurds and Shiites under which the constitution could be reviewed and amended in four months after December's parliamentary elections.
The Iraqi Islamic Party agreed to the compromise with the understanding that the next parliament will set up a commission to consider amendments, which would later have to be approved by parliament and submitted to a referendum.
The compromise is seen to improve the chances that the draft constitution will be passed in Saturday's referendum. At the same time, other major Sunni parties are unlikely to accept the compromise.
Again, there is no guarantee that the Kurds and Shiites would keep their part of the bargain by allowing the Sunnis to make any major changes to the constitution.
There is a school of thought that it would be a good turn of events if the charter is rejected in Saturday's vote.
Their argument is that a rejection of the statute could be a blessing because it may encourage more Sunnis to participate in the political process.
According to Fareed Zakaria, former foreign affairs managing editor and editor of Newsweek International, if the charter is rejected in the vote, then "Sunnis (will) have demonstrated that they have real power. And they'll be re-incorporated. That the good-news scenario."
"The bad-case scenario," he says, "they're not able to defeat it... (Then the Sunnis) retain all the alienation, all the antipathy, and forge ahead not defeating it peacefully, but defeating it the way they're trying now, which is violently and through civil war."

Arab League effort

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa warned on Oct.8 that Iraq was close to civil war. In fact, he stopped short of staying that the country could split into three or more entities if no formula was found to address the ongoing crisis in the country. His warning reflected the growing Arab worries that Iraq is descending into chaos and the course could prove unstoppable with seriously negative repercussions for the whole region.
Musa has sent a team of Arab League officials to Iraq ahead of Saturday's referendum and his own visit there perhaps next month.
There are some who see a behind-the-scene American role in the League's effort. They believe that Washington has reached the conclusion that the US and its allies in Iraq would never be able to pacify the country to a level where a regime — of whatever political nature or ethnic shape — capable of maintaining the territorial integrity of the country could be installed.
Therefore the Bush administration wants the Arab League to pull the American chestnut out of the fire in Iraq.
Musa was seeking to convene a conference for reconciliation among all Iraqi sects. Towards that end, the Arab League team was under instructions to speak little and to listen to all sides, to avoid getting into any sectarian dispute and to maintain good relations with all groups.
But that is not likely to get anywhere any soon because the fundamentals in the draft statute are not conducive to any effort to hold the country together.
Referring to the provisions in the draft that allows "regional autonomy," Musa himself has stated:
"I do not believe in this division between Shiites and Sunni and Muslims and Christians and Arabs and Kurds. I find in this a true recipe for chaos and perhaps a catastrophe in Iraq and around it."
The outcome of the referendum will be key to any realistic Arab move because the League is seeking to forge a consensus on the new Iraqi constitution and to ensure the participation of all Iraqis in the political process. However, the League suffered a setback with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari refused to entertain the proposal for a reconciliation conference.
Probably, Musa himself would take up where the team left off when he visits Iraq.

Insurgency is growing

It is widely accepted — except of course by US President George W Bush and others in his administration — that the insurgency has only grown despite Washington's declarations to the contrary.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week: "The Iraqi insurgency has grown in strength and sophistication. From about 5,000 (Saddam) Hussein loyalists using leftover Iraqi army equipment, it has mushroomed into a disparate yet potent force of up to 20,000 equipped with explosives capable of knocking out even heavily armored military vehicles.
"The surface political process has stumbled forward, but the insurgency came up and kind of stayed that way," the LA Times quoted a US government analyst with "access to classified intelligence" as saying.
A disintegration of Iraq was widely predicted by many Arab leaders and Middle East analysts even before the US-led invasion of that country in March 23. For, such are the elements that had been at play and continue to do so in Iraq today.
Britain, which has first-hand experience in dealing with the Arab World, seems to catch on to the reality. Prime Minister Tony Blair's former special representative in Iraq Sir Jeremy Greenstock said recently: "If Iraq looks as if it's breaking down into a mosaic of different local baronies and militias, which might be a tendency if people look for security anywhere they can find it in society, then I think the coalition will have to think again about its presence."
According to former US Justice Department official John Yoo, the Bush administration was "spending blood and treasure to preserve a country that no longer makes sense as a state.
"The US might get closer to its goals in the Middle East," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "if everyone would jettison the fiction of a unified, single Iraq."

Historic realities

A division on Iraq would only be the manifestation of historic realities and facts on the ground that colonial powers tried to suppress after World War I when the dominant Ottoman Empire collapsed and Britain and France assumed control of the area.
The British bound together the three communities of Iraq into one entity and handed it over to a newly created monarchy while France maintained its control of Syria and Lebanon.
The monarchy was toppled in 1958, and after a disastrous 10-year rule by a semi-socialist, semi-autocrat regime, Sunni Saddam Hussein's pan-Arab Socialist Baathist Party grabbed power.
The only way the Baathists could keep the country together was brutal oppression of whoever challenged their supremacy or entertained the dream of breaking away. Iraq had always been like a high-tension steel coil pressed into a knot but ready to uncoil and spring if the knot was loosened. That is what has happened and the US has no way of recoiling it let alone knotting it.
The very need to keep the three communities knotted explained the ruthlessness of the Saddam regime, which brook no dissent whatsoever. Saddam believed in effective use of sheer police and military power and dispensed his way of justice against dissidents — summary execution, detention, torture and punishment for entire tribes and clans suspected of harbouring anti-regime thoughts.
A good number of Iraqis — they need not be Saddam loyalists or apologists — would agree that the country needed someone as ruthless as Saddam to hold it together as he did because a policy of brutal suppression and zero tolerance of dissent was the only way it could be held together as a single entity.
Saddam's grip on the country was pried loose a little when the US offered protection to the Kurds in the north after the 1991 war over Kuwait and supported their autonomous rule there.
But the US failed to offer similar support for the Shiites in the south because Washington feared the Shiites' loyalty would be towards their co-religionist Iran.
What the US did when it invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam in March/April 2003 was prying open the lid of the bottle that held the genie — in this case three or even more genies each with its own agenda. That was the eventuality that the US failed to foresee when it plotted the invasion of Iraq based on a web of lies and deception in order to serve the American quest for global domination and the Israeli quest for reign as unchallenged regional power and expansion in the Middle East.

The blame game

The US blames the Sunnis and "international jihadists" for the insurgency. Washington also accuses neighbouring Syria and Iran of allowing "foreign fighters" to enter Iraq and fight the US-led coalition forces and Iraqi security forces and stage bombings that kill Iraqi civilians.
According to the US, Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, said to be headed in Iraq by Jordanian Fadel Al Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab Zarqawi, is orchestrating the "foreign" part of the insurgency.
Waging the guerrilla war are also various Sunni groups, some of which might or might not have ties with Zarqawi.
Indeed, there are many in Iraq and outside who believe that Zarqawi is no longer alive but the US is using his name to suit its own purposes in the country.
In essence, there is no central leadership to the insurgency in Iraq and only common ground for everyone involved in the guerrilla war is the rejection of the US presence in the country.
The Sunnis oppose it because they believe they would not be able to play their rightful role as long as the US remained in Iraq. They might even be counting on support from some of the Arab countries against the Shiites' quest for dominance and power.
Most of them would continue to fight and resist the US-led effort to impose an American-friendly Shiite-led regime on them.
Thrown into the bargain are the Kurds in the north of the country who are marking time for the right opportunity to advance their quest for an independent Kurdistan.
At this point in time, the Kurds and Shiites are tied in an uneasy alliance in an interim government, but the bond would not stand the test of time, given the conflicting agendas of the two communities.
For groups like Al Qaeda, it is a matter of fighting the US and its allies wherever possible. They believe that the US has an anti-Muslim agenda and this needs to be countered everywhere in the world.
There is no dearth of foreign volunteers for the insurgency if only because of what is widely perceived as the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bias in the US policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Then there are those Iraqis who do not have a political agenda but have been turned against the US because of the loss or summary detention of family members and relatives. They pose a major problem for the US because intelligence would be hard put to identify them as potential assailants.
According to Iraqi intelligence estimates, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 hardcore insurgents in Iraq, with around 10 per cent of them being "foreigners."
These numbers are enough to keep the US military and Iraqi government forces too busy to build an effective security infrastructure in the country because the guerrillas are largely faceless. If the US is driven to such a level of desperation that it undertakes a summary "seek-and-destroy" against suspected Sunni villages, then it would only further undermine any hope of roping in the Sunnis in the effort to pacify the country.

Loyalty questioned

Recent events have established yet another stark reality — the security forces which being trained and prepared for the day where they take control of a democratic Iraq are also spit along sectarian lines.
A senior Iraqi commander, General Hassan Sawadi, who heads law enforcement in Iraq's second-largest city of Basra, has admitted that he could count on loyalty of only one of four of his policemen
The other three owe their allegiance to Shiite militia groups - the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army and Hizbollah in Iraq, a new group based in the southern marshlands — which means Iran, according to a United Press International report.
Iraq's National Security Adviser Mowaffaq Al Rubaie has admitted that "Iraqi security forces in general, and the police in particular, in many parts of Iraq, I have to admit, have been penetrated by some of the insurgents, some of the terrorists as well."
The assumption is that up to 50,000 men and women who worked for Saddam's repressive secret police and intelligence net and vanished after his ouster are now part of the Sunni insurgency along with soldiers of the former regime who lost their jobs when the US military disbanded Saddam's army.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was recently reported to have told a visiting US Congressman, "you call them insurgents, but they are the Iraqi army you dismissed against the advice of all your friends."
At least 60 per cent of the Basra police force is made up of Shiite militiamen, who owe their loyalty to their leaders who have their own agenda.
The 12,000-strong Badr Brigade is the armed wing of Iraq's main Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has close ties with Iran where its leaders lived in exile during the Saddam reign.
The Badr Brigade's main rival is the 10,000-man Mahdi Army, which is led by Moqtada Al Sadr, who sprang up as a Shiite leader to be reckoned with after the ouster of Saddam.
President Talabani wants Kurdish and Shiite militiamen to be deployed to fight the Sunni insurgents.
"If we wait for official security forces to be trained and effective enough to wipe out the insurgents, we will have a very long wait while the insurgency grows in strength," he was recently quoted as saying.
But, if the militias are sent to fight the insurgents, it would only hasten the arrival of a full-fledged civil war with volunteers for both sides entering the conflict area in from other countries.

Regional 'regime change'

Complicating the situation is the American drive for "regime change" in Iran and Syria, which are accused of helping fuel the insurgency across the border in Iraq, a charge flatly denied by both.
It is elementary that Tehran and Damascus, being aware of the US goal of "regime change," should not be expected to take whole-hearted action to help Washington pacify Iraq; for, they know too well that the American guns would immediately be trained against them if the US military succeeds in containing the guerrilla war in Iraq. Their strategic interest is to keep the flame of insurgency burning in Iraq tying down Washington's options there, with hopes that it is only a matter of time before they could wear down the US into calling it quits in the country.
The Bush administration had hoped that introducing democracy to the Iraqi people would help restore normalcy in the country since they would see a mechanism at work that benefits them in terms of daily life and spreading to other areas such as national unity and coherence.
However, the lack of American planning of what should be done to protect the interests of the Iraqi on the street undermined that goal from the world go, and today it is too late to correct the mistake.
"The expectation that political progress would bring stability has been fundamental to the Bush administration's approach to rebuilding Iraq, as well as a central theme of White House rhetoric to convince the American public that its policy in Iraq remains on course, " notes the Los Angeles Times.
"But within the last two months, US analysts with access to classified intelligence have started to challenge this precept, noting a "significant and disturbing disconnect" between apparent advances on the political front and efforts to reduce insurgent attacks.
"Now, with Saturday's constitutional referendum appearing more likely to divide than unify the country, some within the administration have concluded that the quest for democracy in Iraq, at least in its current form, could actually strengthen the insurgency," said the paper.
The reason is simple: The Sunnis might not be able to muster enough votes to reject the draft constitution, which, if passed in a non-amicable manner, would only fuel their fury and anti-American sentiments. That in turn would translate into increased guerrilla warfare.
Allan Topol, a veteran Washington-based lawyer, comments: "If and when a constitution is agreed upon in Baghdad, it will not mean that a single democratic nation will rise from the ashes of Saddam Hussein's police state. The signs are already crystal clear. Fissure into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities is inevitable."
The International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organisation that deals with conflict resolution around the world, also has warned that approval of the draft constitution could make things worse. It has called the US administration's Iraq policy "a case study of pinning too much hope on an electoral process without doing so much of the other work."

US 'options'

Today, the US is unable to figure out its options. It could not quit Iraq because it would be the biggest blow to the American dream of global domination and a deep humiliation of its role as the world's sole superpower.
An American departure at this juncture would only hasten the disintegration of Iraq which could turn out to be another Afghanistan of anarchy and chaos and a constant source of threat to stability of the region and much more a menace to Israel, the very country whose interests the US sought to protect through invading and occupying Iraq.
Of course, the US could stay on with an open-ended mission — as President George W Bush and his advisers and strategists affirm, albeit not in so many words — but it would have to pay a heavy daily price in terms of American casualties.
The guerrilla war would only gain strength and there is no way the US or any other military could contain it using force. It needs fundamental changes in American policies and the Bush administration is far from even contemplating such a thought. Washington is going in the wrong direction, and it has caught not one but dozens of tigers by the tail in Iraq.
Beyond that, however, is the real danger of Iraq breaking apart with major regional repercussions.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal has warned that Iraq is moving "towards disintegration, with a growing danger the country will dissolve into a civil war that will draw its neighbors into a broader regional conflict."
There will be a struggle for natural resources, he said, that will "draw Iraq's neighbours into a wider war."
Prince Saud said his country had warned the Bush administration of the dangers of Iraq's unraveling because of tensions between rival ethnic and religious groups, which he said were never as bad during Saddam's reign as they are today.
"The impression is gradually going towards disintegration. There seems to be no dynamic now that is pulling the country together. All the dynamics there are pushing the [Iraqi] people away from each other," he said.
As a result, Iraq is now a "very threatening" challenge undermining stability throughout the Middle East. "It will draw the countries of the region into conflict. That is the main worry of all the neighbours of Iraq," he said.

Perhaps a way out

Whatever agreements the US manages to engineer among the various Iraqi factions are all destined to be short-term deals. For, in the long run, the various groups at play in Iraq have their own agendas. Fundamentally, the Shiitesa and Kurds have little incentive to remain together as a single entity and country.
The Sunnis might have an interest that the country should not splinter, because the Sunni-dominated areas are not oil rich. If the Shiites and Kurds opt to break away, then what is left in central Iraq for the Sunnis and others would be virtually worthless in terms of oil and natural resources.
At the same time, the Sunnis also want to ensure that they are not left out of the corridors of power and influence.
In terms of both wealth and power, the draft constitution, in its present form, is loaded against the Sunnis.
It could be argued that the deal reached this week could ensure a "yes" for the constitution, but there is no guarantee that the obligations under the compromise would be fulfilled in a manner that satisfies the Sunni community.
The American optimism that endorsement of the draft statute leading to December elections for parliament would help cool the insurgency does not seem to be well-founded. We heard it at the time of the Jan.30 elections to the interim national assembly but what we saw on the ground was an intensification of the insurgency and there is little to indicate that the course of events would be any different this time around.
If anything, things could only worsen.Unless of course the US sets a firm date for withdrawing its forces from Iraq, takes its hands off the governance of the country and let the Arab League and the United Nations work out a fair and just compromise involving all Iraqi communities. Even at that, there is no guarantee of success, but consensus says that such an approach has the best chance, if any at all.