Answer 3. All is not yet lost; it is just far more difficult than it need have been.

In fact, the interim government is not comprised of mere stooges. The new prime minister, Iyad Alawi, did work for MI6 and the CIA against Saddam, but he was not Ambassador Bremer’s or President Bush’s choice. He was chosen by a critical alliance of Kurds and Shi‘a Arabs on the Governing Council, against Bremer’s express preference for Adnan Pachachi—who had been Bremer’s stooge during the negotiation of the interim constitution.

Alawi appears to be pursuing a three-pronged strategy. First, he has sought to win the confidence of the Kurds after they threatened to withdraw from the Baghdad government. He assured them that he would abide by the Transitional Administrative Law, even though the U.S. government had not publicly stood by the interim constitution when it sought U.N. approval for the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty. That keeps Iraq on track for federal elections in January 2005, and the negotiation and ratification of the permanent constitution through the fall of 2005. Second, he has sought to offer an amnesty to those who did not surrender after the war and continued to fight the coalition. The strategy is soft-before tough-love: those who reject amnesty and political inclusion will face the full deployment of local and coalition forces under martial law. Third, he is trying to ensure that he projects a new, independent Iraqi government, with an Arab and Kurdish face, and with a strongly Shi‘a face in Arab Iraq.

Alawi’s difficulties are obvious. Kurds minimally want to avoid the re-centralization of Iraq. Many Shi‘a Arabs want a centralized majoritarian democracy—and some want it to be theocratic for good measure. Many Sunni Arabs still hanker after a neo-B‘athist restoration. Alawi is dependent, for now, on coalition forces. He has inherited a post-totalitarian rump state and some rapidly dumped modular American institutions and practices, as well as the ill will of Islamists, especially wahhabists. The history of Iraq does not inspire facile optimism in his future.

Many are predicting that Iraq will become a failed state, especially in Arab Iraq (Kurdistan is not a failed entity). It is already an established trope that the Bush administration has repeated, albeit faster, many of the errors made by the British in their intervention in Mesopotamia and Kurdistan during and after World War 1xiv, but some of these analogies are overdrawn, and too deterministic. I may be wrong, but I do not see a unified resistance to the new government; rather, most signs point to loose sets of armed networks of convenience, and I believe that the tactics of the resistance-organizers, especially the use of suicide-bombers, are no longer overtly, or sneakily, locally regarded as heroic, but rather as the actions of fanatics who are as willing to smash infrastructure projects that help Muslims as they are to attack Christian churches.

It is a mistake, however, to read the violence after the transfer of sovereignty as mere chaos, banditry, and criminal lawlessness. There is some of all of that, but there is also a political logic. The source of

most of the violence, which does not openly speak its cause for obvious reasons, is the Sunni Arab minority, which lost power when Saddam’s B‘athists were removed by the U.S. It is from this community that well-organized violence has been orchestrated: suicide-bombs against Kurdistan’s two largest parties, the Shi‘a holy shrines, Christian churches, and attacks against the coalition forces, the new police, and the Governing Council and its successor, the interim government. It is an insurrection against loss of dominance, one that opposes democracy because that will ratify the Sunni Arabs’ loss of power. The violence of Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army is the exception that proves the rule: most Shi‘a Arabs see no need for violence because they will be the primary stakeholders both in the interim government and after free elections (which they support). If Iraq works, it will be the first predominantly Arab state in which Sunni Arabs have been deposed from power since colonial times, which explains why Sunni al-Qaeda wahhabists are in tactical alliance with ex-B‘athists, and in undeclared war against Shi‘a Arabs, Kurds, and the smaller minorities.

Iraq has no analogous cultural unity to Japan or Germany, which were re-built under American auspices in the late 1940s. It is not, and cannot be a nation. If it is to work it must be a pluri-national federation—which is not the advice that has recently echoed within the White House. Iraq is deeply diverse: Kurds and Arabs comprise different nations; Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims are often as divided as Protestants and Catholics in early modern Europe; and the big three communities encompass small pockets of other religious and linguistic minorities (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkomen, and Yezidis). The CPA’s slogan that all should be “just Iraqis” was facile, inappropriate, and widely rejected.

A federation, which may later earn the shared respect of its citizens, can be built. It may even be rebuilt as a democracy, and perhaps even as a secular state (or a religiously pluralist and tolerant state) that treats women as equals and not as chattels. But these are tall orders, which will be extraordinarily difficult to deliver both in the negotiation of the permanent constitution (which I address at length in a forthcoming bookxv) and on the ground. Suffice to emphasize here that the rebuilding of Iraq cannot be engineered, either by insiders or foreigners, around the illusion that it has been, is, or can be one nation.

The recognition of Kurdistan and its just constitutional treatment by Arab Iraq will be the decisive test of whether there can be a federal democratic Iraq. Kurdistan can disprove the thesis that people of predominantly Muslim beliefs cannot become democratic, secular, or tolerant of other nationalities and other ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities. But that will happen only if it is given sufficient freedom to demonstrate its capacity to do so—by the rest of Iraq, by Iraq’s neighbors, and by the great powers. U.S. policy under President Bush or President Kerry must absorb the full implications of this lesson if Iraq is not to be added to the list of “failed states.” Whether Arab Iraq’s major politicians and publics can concur on a generous constitutional rapprochement with Kurdistan next year, and on their own constitutional governance, is not something I presume to know. But we can all agree that the alternatives will be unpleasant.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

FEATURE: Hard Questions, Uneasy Answers
By Brendan O'Leary
Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis

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xiv See inter alia Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (Columbia University Press, 2003), John Keay, Sowing the Wind: Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East (W.W. Norton, 2003).

xv See Brendan O’Leary. John McGarry and Khaled Salih (eds.) The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), especially chapters 2 and 4.