The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
The Coming Iraqi Civil War
by James Dunnigan
April 4, 2003
Throwing Saddam Hussein and his Baath party out of power leads to a danger many of Iraq's neighbors have long warned about; a civil war. Iraq has always been an unstable country. But not much more unstable than some of its neighbors. Syria, Israel, Yemen and Lebanon suffer from similar ethnic, religious and political divisions. Lebanon suffered a fifteen year civil war from 1975-90, Yemen is still unstable, Israel has an ongoing civil war with the Palestinians and Syria faces chaos when the current dictatorship, run by the Alawite minority, falls.
Iraq's cast of potentially warring factions is a long one, and they are all waiting to present their grievances and demands to the occupation government and, following that, the next Iraqi government. No one has a solution for this coming conflict, but it's useful to know who is going to be fighting who, and why.
The two most obvious contending factions are the Kurds (20 percent of Iraqis) and the Shias (60 percent.) The Kurds want autonomy and the Shia's want control. Giving the Kurds autonomy is not as easy as it looks, because everyone will be looking for a "fair share" of Iraq's oil wealth. Once Iraq starts pumping oil at pre-1990 levels, that means up to $50 billion a year to be divided fairly. But what is fair? This money comes to about $2,000 per Iraqi per year. That's a lot of money for the currently impoverished Iraqis. The prospect of getting that kind of money, or more, does strange things to people's concepts of fairness and compromise. Especially in the Middle East, and especially in a country plagued by so many grievances and perceived entitlements.
More than 20 percent of the Iraq's oil is in traditionally Kurdish territory up north. The Kurds could also ask for "compensation" for past wrongs, or simply all the revenue from the northern oil fields. This is complicated by the division of Kurds into two major factions and several minor ones. Can the Kurds even agree on a common program for dividing the oil wealth? The Kurds say they will resolve their factional differences, but their track record in this department is not good.
There are other smaller minorities that will be making a pitch for their fair share. The Turkomen (Turks, naturally, and always looking to big brother Turkey for support) will want their rights protected up north. There are over a million Turkomen, or more if you count those assimilated to one degree or another. Then there are the nearby Assyrians, a Christian minority of over a million (with over two million overseas). Long persecuted for their religion, and their insistence that they are descended from the original inhabitants of the region, the Assyrians will be getting a lot of support from powerful Christian groups in the United States.
And then there are the Sunnis. Since the Turks took control of the region from Iran in the 16th century, the well educated and quite capable Sunni minority had run the area. For centuries they served the Turks. As long as the Sunni officials and military officers kept the Shias quiet, the Turks left them alone. Since the demise of the Turkish empire in 1918, the Sunnis have continued to run things, and generally run over the Kurds and Shias. This resulted in Saddam Hussein, the ultimate Sunni Arab tyrant and his gang of several hundred thousand henchman. You can remove Saddam and hundreds of his guiltiest assistants, but the rest of the Sunni Arabs will still be there, waiting for an opportunity to resume business as usual. You can't run Iraq without the Sunni Arabs, as they are the best educated group in the country. It's as if the Nazi party were all from a minority religious group in 1930s Germany. "Getting rid of the Nazis" after World War II would have been far more difficult, as will getting rid of the Baath party and all that it represents (mainly taking care of Sunni Arab interests.) These guys won't just go away.
And then there are the Shias, who are not a monolithic group. They have not run the country for centuries and are divided in several ways. There are the dispossessed Marsh Arabs of the south, who are already talking about restoring their ancient marshes that Saddam turned into a desert (by draining them) in the 1990s. Shias are also divided into scores of tribes, some of which are large, fairly united and ready to look after their own. There's also a large Shia urban population, which has different goals than their rural brethren. Can the Shias unite politically to take control of a democratically elected government? It's not a sure thing, and the Sunni Arabs are in a position to hammer together a coalition they can dominate. Never underestimate the Sunnis, and their taste for one man rule.
Added to this volatile mix are Shia Islamic fundamentalists, a group nurtured in exile by Iranian fundamentalists for over two decades. There are also several million Iraqi exiles, mostly educated, urban people, many of whom will be looking to return and reestablish themselves. This will turn into a simmering political battle between the Yuppies and the villagers.
Democracy can work in Iraq, but not without a lot of work. If democracy doesn't work, expect to see Saddam 2.0 show up.