Iraq in the balance

Fred Halliday
28 March 2009

After the fire, a cautious optimism about the future of Iraq has begun to show itself as the country passes the sixth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of March 2003. Indeed, the mood-music of "progress" and "stability" - heard from Iraqi and other middle-eastern politicians, in European and American diplomatic and media analyses - is supported by at least some developments on the ground. These include the smooth provincial elections in January 2009, the decline in violence in several regions and at least some parts of Baghdad, and the apparent agreement over the numbers and status of the US forces remaining in Iraq after 2011.   Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005). His critical analysis of the Shah's regime, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Penguin, November 1978) was subsequently translated into nine languages, among them Spanish, Persian and Arabic

Among Fred Halliday's many columns in openDemocracy:

"Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

"America and Arabia after Saddam" (12 May 2004)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the American empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (16 December 2008)

"Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

A number of external conditions - including a more cautious Iran and a more defensive al-Qaida (at least in the Arab world) - reinforce the narrative. If Iraq can hold together in the coming months and survive the test of the parliamentary elections in December 2009, then (so the positive scenario has it) the path away from conflict may be in sight. 

An uncertain future

There are, however, three strong reasons to hesitate before endorsing this view. The first is the continuation of horrendous violence. The second is that the story of a "turn in the tide", "spring shoots" and the like is so familiar: both from the last six years in Iraq and from comparable situations in (for example) America's Vietnam war in the 1960s-70s and the Soviet Union's Afghanistan one in the 1980s. The truth is that nobody can know if Iraq has reached a turning-point, since there are so many conflicting factors in play. Much depends on the as yet indiscernible decisions of politicians biding their time for a definitive distribution of power - and possibly a settling of accounts - when the Americans leave (see "The futures of Iraq", 16 December 2008).

The third reason is that (as is an open secret) several groups in Iraq have stockpiles of weapons and are prepared to contemplate a resumption of fighting in the event of crisis (or perhaps opportunity). They include Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army; the various and factional Kurdish forces; the several loose coalition of Sunni tribesmen; as well as surviving Ba'athists and enduring al-Qaida elements. There is a particular danger (confirmed by well-informed American diplomats who have been working in the region) of the eruption of serious and protracted warfare over Kirkuk between Arabs and Kurds.

A dynamic stability

Yet a larger historical and regional view suggests that amid such uncertainty, one factor more evident in Iraq than in most other regional conflicts might - if properly addressed - increase the changes of a longer-term settlement. It is also something that receives little attention from middle-eastern observers and even less from their Washington counterparts. This is the relatively low level of serious rivalry between the major regional states, in effect the six countries that border Iraq. For all their sponsoring of competing factions within Iraq, and their own differences with each other, they share the overriding goal of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq as a state. 

Indeed, despite all the stereotypes about the "unpredictability" and "fragility" of the middle-east state-system, in essence a relic of the post-first-world-war settlement, the map and internal composition of the twenty-six or so regional states has been remarkably stable - more so than in Europe, central Asia or south Asia in the same period (see The Middle East in International Relations [Cambridge University Press, 2005]). In the eighty years since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, only one major redrawing of the map has occurred: the fusion of North and South Yemen in 1990. In the twenty years since the end of the cold war only six states - Afghanistan, Iraq, South Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey - have seen major political upheavals. In the twenty others, predictability, not to mention stasis, has prevailed: in many even the rulers and chief ministers are the same as a decade or two, or more, ago.  

The six countries bordering Iran comprise four large and powerful ones, each with a history of intervention in and conflict with Iraq: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria. Indeed, the other two - Kuwait and Jordan - have also had aspirations to influence Iraqi politics, and so can be added to the list. Today, however, that is in the past. None of these states claims any Iraqi territory; none in any serious way demands compensation for any Iraqi crimes or invasions in the past; none either seeks to or is able to impose a regime solely composed of its own clients in Baghdad (see "America and Arabia after Saddam", 12 May 2004).

Moreover, all would be glad to see the stabilisation of a new government in Baghdad, the return to prosperity of the Iraqi economy, and the end of the violence within that country. No wonder, for all have been seriously affected by the Iraq war - in terms of the movement or transit of terrorists, the disruption of trade and energy supplies, the flow of over 4 million Iraqi refugees and displaced across their borders, and (not least) the turbulence and outrage among their own populations which the present of a United States expeditionary force rampaging through Iraq provokes.

The distinctive character of this understated (if never complete) convergence of interests among the regional states can be illustrated by comparison with other regional conflicts. Palestine, Cyprus, Afghanistan and Kashmir, for example, are characterised by situations where the violence and instability in the "core" state are exacerbated by regional actors at odds with each other; determined not to yield ground; and supporting the intransigence of their allies and clients.

A common interest

Some rhetorical flourishes on each side apart, the states bordering Iraq have behaved very differently. Indeed, to a remarkable degree, these states have avoided direct clashes with each other and have sought ways to move the political process forward. Iran has given quiet support for the status-of-forces deal between Baghdad and Washington finally agreed in December 2008; Saudi Arabia and Iran have both sectarian (Sunni / Shi'a) and geopolitical rivalries, but on Iraq they have sought to limit and manage their antagonism. As major energy producers, they share in common the primary interest of preventing a collapse of world oil prices.

In addition, Turkey has in a major reversal of policy opened dialogue with the authorities in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Turkey's calculation here is that it can better subdue the Kurdish guerrillas inside its own territory if it is seen to endorse and support Kurdish leadership in Iraq; this is a replay of the scenario of the 1970s and 1980s, when Iraq and Iran each sought to back the Kurdish opposition within the other's territory, the better to control their own side of the border.  

In effect, the regional actors have conducted themselves since 2003 in a reasonably cooperative and restrained spirit. They would be reluctant to admit it, but this discretion might - if combined with good luck inside Iraq, and clever diplomacy by Washington (and possibly the United Nations) - help to bring the Iraqi war to a final end.

It is, however, far too early to be definitive here. The very fragmentation of Iraqi society and state brought about in the last generation - first by Saddam Hussein under sanctions, then by the various Baghdad authorities and factions since 2003 - has made any general prediction about Iraqi politics well nigh impossible. Saddam himself once said, a little while before he fell: "You can get rid of me as president, but, if you do, you will need at least seven presidents to hold this country down". It was, from a brutal man, a brutal truth.


Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives"  (3 June 2003)

Zaid Al-Ali, "The end of secularism in Iraq"  (18 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"  (16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east"  (18 November 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq's war of elimination"  (21 August 2006)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation"  (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall"   (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local"  (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space"  (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (20 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong"  (3 October 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009)

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