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Iraq: Untying the Gordian Knot

Dr. Miklos K. RadvanyiIraq

Tragically, it is one of the most fundamental truths of human history that no one is more prone to commit violent and even heinous acts than a person who believes in being the innocent victim of real or presumed injustice.  Indeed, for the peoples of the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers the mentality of victimhood and the enduring sentiment of hatred toward everybody outside their families, clans, tribes, and religious communities had been from times immemorial the great preserves of their individual and group identities.

For millennia countless empires struggled for the mastery of al-’Iraq without enduring success.  Finally, during the 16th and 17th centuries the Ottoman Empire gradually established its claim over the territories surrounding the three large population centers of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.  The Ottoman sultans, who were also the Caliphs and thus belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam, saw themselves as the protectors of their empire as well as the guardians of true Islam against the heretic Safavid shahs of the Shi’a Persian kingdom.  Consequently, the sultan’s rule was characterized by supreme political egotism toward the inhabitants of the land. Adding insult to injury, the Ottoman bureaucracy was administratively unbelievably inefficient and politically extremely cunning.  Stoking the fires of ethnic and religious hatred served as cynical but useful tactics to control both tribal chiefs and the impoverished peoples in the area that between 1920 and 1932 became a British mandate.  

Tasked to prepare the three previously Ottoman provinces to become a modern unitary state by the League of Nations, Great Britain failed abysmally.  Following the Shi’a uprising, London decided to revive the Ottoman feudal society, dominated by the old military elite, the tribal notables and the scant urban intelligentsia.  Thus, after only twelve years of paternalistic meandering, Great Britain opportunistically claimed success, and the kingdom of Iraq was established in 1932.  Subsequently, one of the sons of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, the Sunni Feisal was declared king.

The Hashemite monarchy remained under the tutelage of Great Britain until the coup d’etat of 1958.  Powers in the royal court, the military and the economy were concentrated in the hands of few and mostly Sunni notables and their followings.  These individuals owed their positions and wealth to the paternalistic structure of the authoritarian state.  The monarchy relied on the military, while the top brass of the latter operated in an atmosphere of existential fear.  Shifting alliances in pursuit of absolute power contributed to the ubiquitous sense of instability and disloyalty.  British domination and local avarice gave birth to a succession of military interventions that culminated in the long reign of Saddam Hussein.

The autocracy that he established was both traditional and unique.  It was traditional because he reverted to the policies pursued under the Hashemite monarchy.  Tribal sheikhs geographically removed from the center of power in Baghdad, the Marji’iyya, the informal organization of the highest Shi’a religious authorities, and the wealthy entrepreneurial elements, were all subordinated to the regime, and rewarded as long as they remained absolutely loyal to Saddam Hussein personally.  On the other hand, Saddam autocracy was unique, because it was totally tailored to his personality.  Thin-skinned and control freak, tough and suspicious, he ruled by the highest degree of fear that was sustained by unrelenting and unpredictable brutality.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States was an unbelievable act of political idiocy.  President George W. Bush and his national security team were convinced by cunning and self-serving exiles that the invasion of Iraq and the simultaneous overthrow of the regime would be greeted unanimously by the entire country as liberation.  This dangerously delusional notion was compounded by the utter incompetence of Paul Bremer and his team of advisors.  Isolated both politically and physically from the rest of the country in the so-called Green Zone, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was completely divorced from reality and labored in a perfect political, economic, social and religious vacuum.  The absence of prudence and the existence of pervasive gullibility on the part of the Bush Administration resulted in multiple resistance movements against the Coalition forces.  The military surge of 2007 somewhat diminished the power of the insurgency, but President Obama’s equally incompetent and feckless non-policies gave rise to ISIS with its pan-Arab and pan-Islamic ideology.

Iraq is a broken non-state.  Yet, Iraq did not deteriorate suddenly.  Every occupying power had contributed to the mental and material poverty of the country.  Domestically, the gradual descent into the inferno of blind hatred hopelessly divided society.  Sunnis against Shiites, Arabs against Persians, the legacy of sectarian hatred against Iranian and Saudi ambitions – in other words, political and emotional absolutism that created the ultimate and irreconcilable historical and cultural catastrophe.

 The unilateral state does not work. Confederation will fail too. For this reason, Iraq has two alternatives.  Either a return to a Saddam-like autocrat who can manage a system maintained by brutal oppression, or real separation of the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.  Clearly, the first alternative is unacceptable for the world as well as the Iraqi peoples.  The second alternative is not perfect, but the only feasible solution.  In the main, it will prevent what Hegel termed as the repetition of history as a tragedy and as a farce.  Moreover, the vast majority of the peoples of Iraq want it.  The rest of the world, especially Iran and Turkey, will have to accommodate the wishes of the most affected, namely the Iraqi peoples.  Otherwise, the all pervasive hatred will engulf the entire region and beyond.