Iraq is missing from the euphoria and hope surrounding the popular bottom-up revolts and pressures for democratic change in the Arab world. This once prime contender for pan-Arab leadership seems to have fallen off the Arab geo-political map. It is strange, the silence, from a country that, because of its size, oil wealth and strategic location on the frontiers of two ethno-cultural/geographic regions, Arab and Persian, has aspired to a leading position in the Arab world. The heir to the great ancient river valley civilizations, center of that marvelous multicultural, multiethnic Arab Abbasid Empire, a state whose twentieth century regimes have imagined Iraq as the Arab nationalist Prussia, now seems to have become a backwater of violence, instability, and fragility, ever on the brink of collapse.
The American promise of a stable, prosperous democratic Iraq has instead given rise to persisting civil conflict based on sectarian and ethno-linguistic divisions of Sunni and Shi’a, Kurd and Arab. The American-constructed post-Saddam Hussein system has managed to institutionalize these vertical and factional divisions in Iraqi society; the US essentially ensconced the Shi’a and Kurdish groups and their political parties. Its system of government quotas based on such socio-cultural divisions has put Iraq back decades, its power-hungry ethnic and sectarian factional blocs in Parliament concerned with their narrow interests rather than the Iraqi nation. Iraq’s system is reminiscent of Lebanon’s “confessional” socio-political system established by the French in 1943. The factions have little incentive to cooperate and more incentive to feel they cannot compromise lest the other side wins. Washington’s touted pullout is a mirage: 50,000 US troops remaining indefinitely is no small number; the largest embassy in the world was not just built to be abandoned. Iraqi politicians and elites today are there because of American power. To leave them, to leave Iraq, may reignite the civil war.
The US invaded Iraq to consolidate strategic control over the Persian Gulf, secure the southern flank to Central Asia’s hydrocarbons, and for Israel. Iraq’s travails did not begin with the Americans, but with the British, who in the early 1920s cobbled together its three Ottoman provinces to create the modern state of Iraq complete with a Hashemite king. The British too, were concerned with geo-politics and modern Iraq’s territorial consolidation for its oil.
As with the region, however, Iraq’s problems are both external and internal in nature and causes. The Arab states, monarchical or “republican,” had 50-75 years to transform their divided societies into more cohesive nations. However, while the republican regimes talked up a strong, mobilized unified, developed state, the monarchies tried to locate their legitimacy in the politics of divine right through vague connections to a caliphate. While the republican regimes, in the name of national unity, play the politics of coercion and cooptation with either their ethnic and sectarian, or dissident opposition, groups - the monarchies talk national unity while actually according recognition and patronage to the various ethnic, tribal, sectarian groups in exchange for not challenging the king’s rule.
Arab states have failed to integrate their societies and in fact used social cleavages to divide and rule. Instead of utilizing civil society, open public space, and education to overcome group identities, these were manipulated and reinforced. Former republican Iraq and current Syria were always in particularly difficult straits ruling over diverse societies. Their Ba’ath regimes, with small popular basis, relied on secretive party cadres rather than on a mass-based party, while fusing the military with the state. Leader, party, state, bureaucracy, and police became one. Both regimes also relied on their “home” basis for recruitment and support, Syria on the Shi’a Alawite minority, Iraq under Saddam on his Sunni Tikriti clan base. Both sought broader alliances including with other, “protected” minorities such as the Christians. Both, like Qadhafi in Libya, were personal regimes, though unlike Libya, they had developed institutions. Compared to the more pragmatic Syrian regime, the Saddam regime became an especially fearsome totalitarian state where a cult of personality pervaded every aspect of the terrorized citizens’ lives.
Unlike monarchy, the purported glue of the state, these profoundly illiberal republican regimes relied on pan-Arab nationalism and its attendant anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism to maintain their legitimacy, which slipped away as the years passed. Ironically, these modernist, secular regimes did much to improve their societies. Saddam’s Iraq prior to the wars became a comparatively socially and economically developed country with equal rights for women. But his idiotic adventures in Kuwait, on the heels of his enormously destructive war with Iran, gave an excuse to the ruling neoconservatives in Washington to finish off what was left of Iraq.
If Saddam’s brutality and wars weakened the liberal, cosmopolitan middle class, including the professionals and intellectuals, US-British sanctions in the 1990s accelerated their demise, causing Saddam to court religious and traditional, tribal elements. Twenty-three years of war and savage sanctions by 2003 had decimated civil society causing the reassertion of sectarian and ethnic identities. The American war to oust Saddam not only targeted Iraq’s infrastructure but also the ensuing occupation and civil war created some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, the vast majority Sunni, and an equal number of internally displaced persons. Most of the external refugees constituted the great urban, cosmopolitan Iraqi middle and upper classes who gave Iraq its coherence and who were the greatest hope for a liberal, democratic Iraqi state. Among other consequences, the American invasion aggravated Sunni-Shi’a identities and opened the door for potential Kurdish secession.
Today, the Shi’a-Kurdish alliance’s main goal is to keep the Sunnis - champions of a unified secular state who are, however, to the Shi’a, the mainstay of the Sunni regime that violently repressed them - from regaining power, while the Kurds will work with any party or faction that doesn’t question or challenge their autonomy-cum-independence. And neither appears interested in the return of the Sunni Arab refugees. The Shi’a-dominated regime is less than a pseudo-democracy, having elections without liberal guarantees, constitutionalism and rule of law, not to mention increasing differences of wealth and ever present resentment against the US presence. It is permeated with nepotism, targeted assassinations, torture, and murder.
Thanks to the fast-track neo-liberal economic model imposed on Iraq, unemployment is very high, electricity is intermittent, food shortages widespread and food prices are rising, not to mention oil production is in the hands of foreign companies. The recent Iraqi “Day of Rage” brought tens of thousands of Iraqis to the streets—including journalists, intellectuals, professionals, artists. They were met with trigger-happy Iraqi security forces that killed at least 30 people and detained hundreds, many of whom were beaten and tortured. Protesting against the dire economic conditions and corruption, the protestors did not specifically call for the overthrow of the al-Maliki government, but for freedom from repression and misery, liberty, transparency and accountability.
As a plurality elite previously in control of the state, the Sunni position naturally flowed from an Arab national identity as the unifying element of Iraqi society. In the post-American invasion era, the idea, the definition of Iraq is dangerously contested. The dominant Shi’a parties aren’t fond of a secular state, while they emphasize that Iraq is really not a nation and not an Arab one, divided by sect, ethnicity, geography, and tribe. This position leaves, or would leave, the Shi’a, if not in control of the state, certainly autonomous in some future, more decentralized arrangement. Some Shi’a argue that Iraqi society’s tribes, ethnicities, religions, and sects represent parts of other nations and lack a pluralist, multicultural tradition and institutions to accommodate this diversity. The Iraqi Shi’a predilection for religious sociopolitical institutions, its “culture of dissent” and opposition, its emphasis on political authority’s lineage to the Prophet’s grandsons, contrasts with the Iraqi Sunni secular one.
Iraq may well be evolving towards an authoritarian state hidden by the façade of democracy, dominated by corrupt cliques and families, maintaining the Shi’a ascendancy, drifting towards Kurdish independence, supporting itself by oil revenues with the US backing its legal existence and security. Sectarian and ethnic identity politics with an emphasis on autonomous diversity barely held together by a weak center, cannot sustain the unity of Iraq. It’s not clear what percentage of Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’a, are already sick and tired of the sectarian divide and violence, but I suspect a substantial number.
Totalitarian rule, war, sanctions, invasion, destruction, sectarian suspicions, Western manipulation all have brought Iraq to its knees. The Iraqi people have suffered horrendously and for far too long. My contention is that any sociopolitical formula that legitimizes and institutionalizes Iraq’s diversity on other than secular grounds will not succeed—unless Iraq divides into sectarian and ethnic region-states, but even here, its diverse groups are too geographically mixed. Just as the Ba’ath regime caused parochial tension, resentment and conflict, the current regime has gone one better: it has institutionalized the resurfaced sectarian identities and discourse. One is a Kurd, Shi’a, Sunni, or Christian, but not Iraqi.
Any formula that relies on a basic regrouping and reshuffling of a corrupt regime in control of state resources will collapse in violence. If not a unifying Arab identity, then an Iraqi one in which Iraq must reconstitute itself on a liberal, legally equal, constitutional, human rights protected, citizenship-based state in which the only rights are those of the individual. This sort of social contract is the only guarantee of stable pluralism. This is after all what the Arab revolts in the region are demanding. This is what most Iraqis want, as well as the integrity of their nation.