One might think so to see the latest news of scores dead in coordinated attacks on Shiite targets that bear hallmarks of the Sunni-aligned terrorist organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq. These attacks appear to be in retaliation for moves by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who barely waited for the last U.S. helicopter to lift off before calling for the arrest of his vice president, Tarik al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, for running secret terror and assassination squads. Hashimi is now hiding out in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Maliki has warned the Kurds against harboring him.
To understand the exact texture and consistency of the shit now hitting the Iraqi fan, however, it is necessary to review some tangled history.
Iraq is one of the more infamous examples of an “artificial” country—riven by internal strife largely because its borders were drawn by imperial powers without regard to where actual cultural and ethnic boundaries lay. It was part of the Ottoman Empire until the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres (a subcommittee of sorts of the Treaty of Versailles), when, as among the losers of the First World War, Ottomans saw their possessions outside Asia Minor parceled out to European victors under League of Nations auspices. Under that dispensation, the British ended up with Iraq, Trans-Jordan, Palestine, and Kuwait, and the French got Syria and Lebanon, while the Ottomans were left with a rump Turkish Republic. (Saudi Arabia gradually established itself as an independent kingdom to the south of Iraq in a more complicated process.)
Of all these territories, with the exception of the much smaller Lebanon, the boundaries of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia (as Iraq was then called) corresponded the least well to any “naturally” bounded cultural area. Northern Iraq was populated by Kurds, whose homeland also extended into neighboring areas of Iran, Syria, Armenia/Azerbaijan, and, of course, Turkey. In the 1920s two separate attempts to establish a Kingdom of Kurdistan were put down by Turkish troops in southeastern Turkey and by the British in the Mesopotamia mandate.
The rest of Iraq, to the south, was mostly divided, with significantly less geographic clarity, between Arabs who followed Sunni Islam and those following Shi’a Islam—Islam’s deepest sectarian divide, as fundamental as the Catholic–Protestant divide in Christendom. (Kurds, too, are predominantly Sunni.) There are also smaller minorities, such as Turcomans, but they dominate only small areas. Here is a rough map of the three major ethnic areas of 20th-century Iraq:
(The areas colored white are areas where almost no one lives; we’ll get to that oddity of geography later.)
In 1932, the U.K. granted independence to the Kingdom of Iraq, installing Faisal I as king. Faisal, a Sunni Arab, had fought alongside T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in the Arab Revolt during the First World War and had been king of the short-lived British puppet state in Syria immediately after the war. Faisal’s dream was to unite Sunnis and Shiites in either a confederation of sovereign Arab states or an Arab superstate including much of the former Ottoman empire. Faisal remained, however, a close ally of the British forces that had installed him. Part of the agreement under which Iraq became independent was that the British would remain a military presence and play a role in shaping Iraqi politics. Resentment of close ties to the British was a source of constant internal tension in the new country. After the Second World War, as Western powers scrambled to preserve commercial interests in former colonies and in the oil-rich Middle East in particular, the Iraqi monarchy was an eager member of the U.K.-led Central Treaty Organization, or Baghdad Pact, which also included Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey—an organization designed to preserve Western oil interests along a swath running the length of the Near East.
In 1958, the Iraqi army staged a coup d’état, executing Faisal II and his family, declaring a republic, withdrawing from the Baghdad Pact, and aligning itself with the Soviet Union. In a subsequent coup, in 1968, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party installed as president Saddam Hussein, a megalomaniacal but incredibly shrewd tyrant who stayed in power for decades mainly by playing superpowers against one another. Hussein’s rule consolidated Sunni rule over a country where a majority of Arabs are Shiite (Shiites making up 60-65% of the population), and Hussein made sectarianism a point of conflict where it had not been before. Hussein was mostly socialist and secular, but the Iranian revolution of 1979, which installed a Shiite theocracy next door in an unaligned country with a powerful military, made him paranoid about the possibility of an uprising among the mostly poor and disenfranchised Shiites in southern Iraq, including the so-called Marsh Arabs of the Tigris and Euphrates delta lowlands by Iraq’s narrow coastline, wedged between Iran and Kuwait. This fear more than anything else prompted Hussein in 1980 to provoke a war with Iran, with the avowed goals of expanding its coastline by annexing areas that included Khuzestan, the only Sunni-Arab-dominated province in Shi’a-dominated Iran, just east of Iraq’s coast.
By this point, Iraq and Iran had both isolated themselves from most of the international community (Iran through the hostage crisis and other atrocities). Western and Eastern powers in the Cold War supplied arms to both sides in the long Iran–Iraq War, and to some extent probably hoped both would lose; certainly, no outside powers were making as much money out of the region’s oil as they would like. Iran’s alliance with Kurdish peshmerga rebels in northern Iraq led to Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds, often called genocidal, including the 1988 Halabja poison-gas attack, which killed thousands—using, it needs to be remembered, internationally banned chemical weapons provided clandestinely by the U.S. government, in the mistaken hope that they might be used against Iranian civilians instead of Iraqi ones.
The Iran–Iraq War ended in 1988 with no clear winners, gigantic death tolls on both sides, and the border pretty much where it had been at the beginning.
Frustrated in these attempts to expand power abroad, even as he consolidated it brutally at home, Hussein chose as his next target Kuwait, the oil-rich coastal city-state to the south. Sunni-dominated Kuwait had been a much more autonomous member of the Ottoman Empire than Iraq, although at times it had come under the jurisdiction of Basra, now Iraq’s southernmost (and incidentally Shi’a-dominated) province. In 1899, Kuwait aligned itself with the U.K., further loosening its ties to Constantinople. Britain’s motivation here had been an economic rivalry with the German Empire, which, in the decades before the First World War, had been consolidating its ties with the Ottomans. During the period of Faisal’s rule, Iraq had eyed Kuwait hungrily but never wanted to risk antagonizing the British. The Ba’athists, with their anti-Western Arab nationalism, saw Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961, and its subsequent close ties to Saudi Arabia and the West, as a further affront to its national pride. In 1990, after Kuwait amped up its oil production, thus depressing Iraqi oil revenue, Hussein invaded Kuwait, using mostly misty-eyed nationalistic rhetoric, claiming that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq. It is perhaps significant, too, that, as with the attempted annexation of Khuzestan, the annexation of Kuwait would have tipped Iraq’s population toward a Sunni majority, and would have encircled the Shiite region with Sunni areas. (Never mind that Kuwaitis, to a man, resisted and rejected Iraqi sovereignty; Hussein had no allies on the ground there.) In the Iraq–Kuwait War (a.k.a. the Persian Gulf War—a.k.a. the Second Persian Gulf War, if you count the Iran–Iraq War as the first one), President George H. W. Bush Sr. led a coalition of the U.S., the U.K., and other Western allies, under United Nations auspices, to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, doing significant damage to Iraq’s infrastructure in the process, though not going to so far as to remove Hussein.
One of the results of that February 1991 Blitzkrieg was an even more severe economic stranglehold on Iraq by the international community. The Iraqi military, one of the region’s strongest, was all but dismantled, and the war’s victors established two “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq—policed on a daily basis for more than a decade by U.S. and other air forces—to prevent Ba’athist reprisals against those populations. These no-fly zones were also a sort of guilty consolation prize offered to populations who had falsely hoped, in 1991, that Bush Sr. might either remove Hussein or assist them in their own uprisings.
For Iraq’s Kurds, the northern no-fly zone became the closest thing to autonomy that they had experienced in their lifetimes, even though the latitudinally drawn southern border corresponded only roughly to any boundary between Kurdish and Arab areas. The whole enterprise irked the government of Turkey, which quite reasonably feared that a quasi-independent Kurdistan could emboldened the brutally repressed Kurds in neighboring southeastern Turkey. Turkey also saw this pseudo-state as an affront because of their loan of air bases to the U.S. and its allies in the war (a favor Turkey did not repeat when the next gulf war came around).
The allies were less keen to allow similar autonomy to the southern Shiites in and around Basra, not only because the Shiites’ nationalist feelings were more vague and less historically grounded than the Kurds’, but also because the southern no-fly zone included many large Sunni areas; in fact, it practically rubbed up against Baghdad’s southern suburbs. Also, the West shared what had been Hussein’s initial fears—that Iraqi Shiites could become dangerous allies of Iran. Saudi Arabia, which had also lent its military bases to the allies, felt (and today still feels) itself to be in a Sunni-vs.-Shi’a mini-superpower struggle with Teheran. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait together held in those days what was thought to be a huge portion of the world’s known oil reserves—perhaps as much as a quarter of them. Turkey, already squarely in NATO, was an ally the U.S. could afford to alienate a bit, but Saudi Arabia was not. So, although the southern Shiites were protected somewhat from Ba’athist retaliation, they were, unlike the Kurds during this period (1991-2003), not allowed a regional government of any sort.
In 2003, as part of the War on Terror inaugurated by President George W. Bush in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. led an unprovoked and globally reviled invasion of Iraq. This became one of America’s longest wars, with famously shifting objectives. First, in 2003, Bush and the U.K. prime minister Tony Blair disingenuously (to put it mildly) portrayed Saddam Hussein’s regime as on the brink of attacking the West with weapons of mass destruction. By the time those lies had been definitively exposed, the goal was refocused to removing Hussein from power. When that was achieved, the rationale for remaining there (despite Bush’s initially avowed aversion to “nation-building”) was to stabilize and democratize Iraq and keep it unified—thus, the U.S., the U.K., and their allies found themselves presiding, sometimes helplessly, over a bloody civil war among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian militias.
A convincing argument can be made that all along the West’s goal had been to clear aside obstacles to Western economic exploitation in what had been in 2001 one of the only three countries strategic to oil interests with which Western oil companies could not do business—the others being Afghanistan (strategic as an avenue to the sea for central Asia’s inland oil fields) and Iran. The war in Afghanistan that the U.S. waged just after the September 11th attacks and then Bush’s second-term ramp-up to a possible war against Iran (a plan permanently shelved when John McCain failed to succeed Bush) could be held up as further evidence for that interpretation. In that respect, the war has been, from a Western perspective, a qualified success—unless one is so rude as to bring up the fact that, despite Bush’s statements to the contrary, al-Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before the Iraq War but now does.
One of the immediate and inevitable effects of the democratization of Iraq under U.S. auspices—and one thing one cannot take away from Bush is that Iraq does indeed now have elections—was that the slight majority of Shiites in the country now held majority power and that it was the Sunni minority, including former Ba’athists, who feared marginalization and disenfranchisement. With the predominantly-Sunni Kurds withdrawing more and more from mainstream Iraqi political life and refusing to side decisively with either Sunni or Shi’a Arabs, the Shiites’ hold on power is even more secure. Much of the U.S. and other occupiers’ energy over the last eight years have involved keeping Sunnis’ and Shiites’ fingers away from each other’s throats, with varying degrees of success. There was a certain balance provided by the occupiers’ ambivalent interests in Iraq’s internal dynamics: while the West made a good show of dismantling the Ba’athists’ political, military, and secret-police institutions, the West was also not eager to see that power vacuum filled by Shiite radicals potentially sympathetic to Iran.
In 2006, Senator Joseph Biden (now Obama’s Vice-President), who had played an active role in NATO’s successful intervention in—and mediation to conclude—the Bosnian War in the 1990s, co-authored and pushed through the U.S. Senate a non-binding resolution in favor of partitioning Iraq into three quasi-independent entities, very similar to the internal partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Dayton Accords. Some versions of this plan called for an independent Kurdistan, a southern “Shiastan,” and a Sunni rump Iraq abutting Syria and Jordan. But that proposal was anathema to the U.S. and Iraqi governments and got no traction. The fear was that, unlike the situation in Bosnia, the veneer of confederation would quickly shatter, resulting in an Iranian client state with a capital in Basra and an independent Kurdistan on the brink of a war with Turkey that would divide NATO far more fatally than the Bosnian War ever had.
In any case, at that point in the Bush administration, occupation of Iraq seemed as though it might go on forever, so why not just keep U.S. troops there to stabilize the situation? Moreover, the Iraqi civil war between Sunni and Shi’a militias did eventually calm down, not least because (again, echoes of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, for which the term ethnic cleansing was coined) civil strife had forced Shiites and Sunnis into more sharply defined segregation—urban neighborhood by urban neighborhood, village by village. If nothing else, this makes for an unhappy peace.
But with this month’s rather precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops—and thus the just-under-the-wire fulfillment of one of Obama’s most urgent and popular campaign promises—Sunnis no longer feel like a protected minority, nor do Shiites any longer feel immune from a resurgent Ba’athist coup d’état or some other such sectarian calamity. Kurds also fear being drawn into Sunni–Shi’a conflict and feel more vulnerable than ever to the occasional Turkish foray over the border to hunt down rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. was even nice enough to let Turkey use some of its lethal drone aircraft as a parting gift on their way out of the region. So is it now time for Iraq to split apart?
Iraq’s Kurds mostly hope so. This moment may be the best if not only true chance to establish an independent Kurdistan, and if Shi’a and Sunni Arabs in the rest of Iraq start killing each other in even greater numbers, all the more reason to leave. (For those drawing Yugoslavian parallels, think of Slovenia separating off with such alacrity partly so as to stay out of the crossfire of the impending Croat–Serb showdown.) Kurds understand that NATO countries have been wary of supporting an independent Kurdistan mainly out of deference to Turkey’s meshuggeneh form of hypernationalism. But with Turkey having sat out this most recent Iraq War and western Europe unwilling to budge on letting a country with Turkey’s abominable human-rights record even be considered for European Union membership, Kurds have reason to hope that Turkey may no longer be a factor and that, like Palestine or Kosovo or Taiwan, they may eventually be able to assemble a motley but slowly expanding coterie of Western countries that recognize it. All it would take is a small number of E.U. or NATO allies to support a Kurdish state, and Turkey would back off. Even more so if Iran (which showed in the Iran–Iraq War that it has no concrete fears of its own internal Kurdish uprisings) decides to support a Kurdish state. Turkey has no problem shitting all over its own minority citizens, but it doesn’t have any stomach for fighting outside its borders, or for a showdown with Iran’s vast and sophisticated military. Before Iraqi Kurdistan can declare independence, though, it need well defined borders, which it does not currently have. There are large areas where Kurds and Sunni Arabs live in mixed communities (see the map below), and some of those areas have oil and are likely to be fought over.
Turkmens, too, hanker after the autonomy Kurds have enjoyed and would be perfectly willing to disrupt any attempts at Kurdish secession as a way of securing their own autonomy. Turkmens have slivers of territory that would never make a viable state, but they have their pipe dream of an independent homeland named Türkmeneli covering much of Kurdistan. The Assyrians, too, may make some trouble if a Kurdish state starts to gel in earnest.
But if Kurdistan can expect to hit some bumps on the road to statehood, it will be nothing compared to the bloodbath of a Sunni–Shi’a partition. There, we could see a descent into civil war which could begin very soon and would differ significantly from the sectarian strife during the U.S. occupation. For one thing, there would be no one to restrain Shiites from seeking direct or indirect help from Iran in fighting Sunnis, and here Iran would feel it had a greater stake than in the Kurdish question. Iranian intervention would in turn prompt the Saudis to feel that they needed to step in to help contain Iran’s influence on their northern neighbor. Iran, with its support for the now embattled minority Shiite regime in Syria and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, has long been suspected of angling to consolidate the various links in a Shiite belt that would stretch from Persia to the Levant. (See my earlier blog post on how this dynamic may play out within Syria’s current civil war.) And Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as a bulwark against such a spectre. With so many of the conflicts of the 2011 Arab Spring—in Syria, in Bahrain, in Yemen, to say nothing of Lebanon’s decades-long conflicts—revolving around Sunni-vs.-Shi’a sectarianism, the Saudis and Iranians at times seem to be gearing up for a showdown for influence in the region. Iraq is sadly positioned to be the front line in such a battle should it come to pass.
Moreover, refer to some of the maps above showing the distribution of groups within Iraq, and note the empty, white areas, or some of the southern areas marked as “Shia Arab / Sunni Arab.” Those are parts of Iraq where virtually no one lives. Like much of Saudi Arabia, these are uninhabitable wastes of sandy desert where communities cannot thrive, criss-crossed only by lonely highways, nomads, and oil workers. That’s right, oil workers—for these no-man’s-lands are precisely the most potentially oil-rich areas of Iraq. It is one thing to draw boundaries based on where Shiites and Sunnis live; it is another to decide which groups gets which chunks of oil-rich desert. If the American war in Iraq and the recent sectarian strife have been chiefly in cities like Baghdad, Najaf, and Fallujah, a decisive war to divide Iraq into Shiite and Sunni states would be fought in the deserts, and the vast untapped oil reserves beneath would be the prize. Saudi Arabia, with its sophisticated U.S.-equipped military and its familiarity with this type of terrain, would find it irresistible to push for an oil-rich Sunni state on its northern border—especially if a hostile Shiastan controlling all of current Iraq’s coastline would make a Sunni separatist state dependent on Saudi Arabia for bringing its oil to market via the sea. One can imagine fierce battles for every mile of the currently undefinable border.
One of the saddest aspects of this is that there is currently no significant national identity among the populace as “Sunnistanis” or “Shiastanis.” If Iraq is broken up this way, it would not be like Yugoslavia, where ancient fully-formed national and historical identities merely needed to be dusted off after the brief Communist interregnum. If post-Iraq Arab sectarian national identities come into being, they will be fragile concoctions of European, Iranian, and Saudi power plays in the region. Nor will they even have the stable identities of tiny post-Ottoman invented city-states like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubaii. These will be quasi-nation-states, and their borders will be bloodily contested forever—or at least till the oil runs out.
But at this early stage, can we say that a secessionist civil war like this is where Iraq is actually headed? Well, one ingredient of civil war—full-fledged sectarian militias—is well in place. The U.S. had tried only half-heartedly before war’s end to dismantle a Ba’athist successor organization called the Sunni Awakening. Part of the problem is that the Awakening’s leader, Sheikh Abu Ahmed Risha, had helped turn the tide in the civil war in 2006 by rallying ordinary Sunnis against al-Qaeda, eroding the influence of a pro-Qaeda Sunni separatist movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq.
A charming image from the Islamic State of Iraq’s website
The Awakening also provided a bulwark against Iranian influence. This wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. had betrayed and abandoned an ally, but in fact the Awakening has been left largely active and in place, simply feeling more encircled and embittered. Also, Shiite militias such as the Badr Brigades and the fanatical millennialist Mahdi Army have now become largely peaceful political organizations since the Shiites now run the country, but they never disbanded and if the Sunni Awakening and other Sunni militias reassert themselves, then these militias may take up arms again, and Maliki will surely not be able to control them.
The Mahdi Army always lends a festive air to Basra’s community events
The weeks and months ahead could take Iraq in any number of directions. One thing is certain, however: the farther Iraq descends into chaos, the harder Obama will find it to portray the withdrawal from Iraq as a success as he runs for reelection, and a depressingly small number of American voters will be able to recall that it was the Republicans who started the mess in the first place.