2000s >> 2007 >> no-1229-january-2007

Iraq in Chaos

According to reports in the papers and on the television, Iraq is now falling apart. Why?

After the September 11 2001 attacks on several American targets, it was obvious that someone was going to suffer. America had been involved, victoriously, in two world wars, virtually without enduring any damage at home. The US is now easily the world’s most powerful country, and it had been openly attacked. It is all reminiscent of what happens in the school playground. The biggest bully is hit, accidentally or on purpose, by a stray football, and therefore loses face; so he has to get back his status as a tough guy by beating up the first shivering youngster he can catch.

From an American point of view, the obvious targets were Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan was run by sympathizers with the extreme brand of Islam which had just produced the attacks on America, so an invasion could be justified by those who support American capitalism. The argument about Iraq was much harder. Saddam Hussein was an appalling tyrant, but he was what is called a secular Muslim. He hated fundamentalists. Anyone suspected of al-Qaeda leanings Saddam simply butchered, along with any other opponents he could get his hands on. But America had been much criticized for calling off its last invasion: it feared that to overthrow the Saddam regime would make Iran too powerful in the Middle East, and so it stood twiddling its thumbs while Kurdish and Shia opponents of Saddam, believing that at last help was coming, rose in force, and were brutally slaughtered.

If Bush seriously wanted allies, friends, and helpers, against al-Qaeda, Saddam was a leading candidate. But Bush had lost face, someone had to suffer, and Saddam was so revolting that no one could feel sorry for him. And, of course, Iraq has tremendous reserves of oil, second only to those of Saudi Arabia. So Iraq became the target. The awkward fact that many Iraqis would be slain could be ignored as irrelevant. (According to various estimates the dead are “only” 30,000, or perhaps 150,000, or 650,000 – but who’s counting? Certainly there are very many more than the 3000 killed in the September 11 attacks on the US) The fact remained that America had been openly assailed, so someone had to pay.

When it became clear that Bush and Blair were determined to invade Iraq, anybody who wondered what on earth was happening could have found out by getting a book out of the library. The country called “Iraq” had been invented by Britain at the Versailles Conference after the 1914-18 War, to put together the bits of the Turkish Empire which (since the Turks had been on the losing side) had fallen to Britain’s share. (It was called a “mandate”, but in effect the new country was incorporated into the British Empire; and it had the long-term effect that as Saddam’s thugs tortured, maimed, and killed, at home, or crashed into foreign countries, the required military wear was reminiscent of impeccable British uniforms.)

Britain had earlier promised to create “Kurdistan”, a homeland for the Kurds, since after all it was claimed that the 1914-18 War had been fought to protect the rights of small nations, such as Serbia and Belgium; but finally Britain decided that it wanted some of this Kurdistan for itself, so forgot the promise. At Versailles Britain’s bit of Kurdistan (with its oil wells) was put together with a Shia area further south (with more oil wells) along with a Sunni area in the middle which joined them together, and the resulting dog’s dinner was called Iraq.

This new creation ignored nearly 1400 years of Muslim history. In the new faith of Islam, religious leaders were so powerful that they controlled, or owned, everything of importance, and were therefore the ruling class. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D. a conflict broke out between his companions and his relatives for the future leadership of the movement, and thus the supreme power in the area now subject to Islam: one party favoured Muhammad’s best friend, Abu Bakr, the other party favoured his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The rewards of leading the new movement were so great that much fighting and bloodshed followed. The Sunni faction won, beating the Shia faction, but the contest had created much bitterness. Since then the two sides have hated each other with a venom in comparison with which Ian Paisley and the Pope are old chums.

In the Muslim countries, either there is a large Sunni majority and a small Shia minority, or a large Shia majority (as in Iran) and a small Sunni minority. In both cases the minority keeps its head well down and makes sure it presents no threat to the power of the dominant belief. That is how those countries have survived without civil war. But in Iraq, which was only cobbled together to suit British interests, there is a large Sunni minority – 20 percent, while the Shias are only 60 percent, since another 20 percent are Kurds (and other small minorities such as the Assyrians and Turkmen). Figures like those are a recipe for disaster. Not only is there the Sunni-Shia chasm, but since both parties are Arabs, the Kurds (consisting of often-persecuted minorities in several countries) hate them both almost as much as they hate each other.

Iraq was kept in order, and could only be kept in order, by a non-democratic regime. For the first part of its existence the British Empire provided the necessary autocracy: a rebellious movement in the early 1920s was settled by dropping bombs on dissident villages (which was where the young airman called Arthur Harris, later Bomber Harris, was converted to the virtues of area bombardment from the air – though of course the rebel Iraqis had no fighter aircraft or anti-aircraft weapons, so it was really a Sunday school outing, so to speak, for the bombers).

Britain then established a line of client kings, who were given a spurious “independence”. The last of the these client monarchs, Feisal II, was murdered with his whole household in July 1958, while his Prime Minister, attempting to escape from Baghdad dressed as a woman, was also captured and executed. Abdul Qassim, who led the rebellion, was similarly executed at the next coup in 1963. Then came a succession of dictators (sometimes supported by Britain, sometimes overturned if they got out of line), produced by vicious gang warfare among the strong-arm boys. The last one was perhaps the worst of them, Saddam Hussein, who like Stalin established himself firmly in power by murdering thousands of opponents in his own party and outside it.

None of this, though all of it is easily discoverable at the nearest public library, was apparently known to Bush or Blair. After the first excuse, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, was found to be false, the next claim was that the invaders were going to establish a united democratic Iraq. It was clear from the beginning to anybody who had a library ticket that the invaders could have a united Iraq if they wanted it, or they could bring democracy to the Iraqis if they wanted to, but what they could not have was a united democratic Iraq. The beginning of Iraqi democracy would also be the end of Iraqi unity. The hatred felt since Muhammad’s death between Sunnis and Shias had been exacerbated (if that were possible) by the fact that Saddam was a Sunni, and favoured Sunnis in his rule; so the detestation felt by Shias for Sunnis was redoubled. Clearly removing the iron grip of the tyrant Saddam would let loose all this desperate acrimony – and, of course, it has done. It is strange that none of the many high-powered advisers who surround Bush and Blair could work this out.

The net result of all the soldiers’ blood, Treasury billions, and hatred throughout the Muslim world, which the invasion has brought America and Britain, is that the Islamic fundamentalists (who lasted in Iraq only until Saddam could drag them to the gallows) are now triumphant. Men not wearing beards and women not wearing veils both risk being attacked. The education of women is now taboo. The Sunni and Shia “militias” – armed gangs – routinely slaughter victims from the opposite community. Arabs and Kurds raid each other. The Christian minority is under threat. (Paradoxically they apparently think they were much better off under Saddam than they are now.) The handful of Jews left in Baghdad (137,000 Iraqi Jews left or were driven out after the establishment of Israel) were able to worship in their one remaining mosque under Saddam; since the invasion, they do not dare to do so.

The allegation of Bush and Blair that they were driving Islamic fundamentalism out of Iraq is now shown to be exactly mistaken; they have succeeded only in bringing it into Iraq. Capitalism cannot even succeed in bringing about all the results that the capitalists want – even the strongest capitalist state in the world cannot achieve all its aims; so what chance has capitalism of bringing about the results that the rest of us want?


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