Iraq: The Lessons of Lebanon

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June 5, 2006: Iraqis, appalled at the continuing violence by Sunni Arabs, often invoke the memory of Lebanon, which fell into civil war in 1975, and did not emerge from that conflict until 1990. The parallels are striking, and depressing. Like Iraq, Lebanon was cobbled together by a colonial power, in this case France, after the Ottoman Turk empire fell in 1918. France wanted to establish an Arab nation where Arab Christians would be a majority. That was not possible, but Lebanon was about half Christian (the rest being Sunni, Shia, Druze and a few smaller Islamic sects). Alas, the Christians also came in many sects (some Orthodox, some recognized the power of the pope in Rome), some of whom did get along with other Christians. There was also antagonism between the Sunnis, Shia and Druze. However, the Lebanese were a very entrepreneurial and commercial community, and there were many new opportunities with the Turks gone. It all sort of worked, until the appearance of a Palestinian refugee community in the 1950s and 60s. This became a major source of trouble after 1971, when Jordan expelled its radical Palestinians, and drove most of them into Lebanon. Now some Moslem Lebanese insisted that they were the majority (which they probably were) and that the traditional power sharing agreement with Christians should be revised. The Palestinians, who, according to all Lebanese, were a bunch of foreign refugees, wanted to use Lebanon as a base for launching attacks on Israel, took sides, several actually, during the ensuring civil war.

Iraq has it's three major factions (Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds), plus some smaller Christian and Islamic groups. They all sort of got along, in a ramshackle constitutional monarchy, until the Sunni Arabs staged a coup in 1958. No more democracy after that. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq were better organized and more powerful, despite being only 20 percent of the population, than any faction in Lebanon. There, the Christians had about 40 percent of the population, the Shia Arabs about 35 percent, the Sunni Arabs 15 percent and the Druze, and some other smaller groups, the rest. Each faction had more factions, especially the Christians and Shia. The Christians were most like the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, having the best educated and wealthiest population. But the Christians also had the most factions, and frequently were more interested in fighting each other. In Iraq, unity has always been a major strength of the Sunni Arabs. This is a centuries old tradition, which has enabled the Sunni Arabs of Iraq to thrive, even though surrounded by Kurds (who, although Sunni, are not Arab, but related to the hated Persians, who are related to the even more hated Europeans) and Shia Arabs (who share their heretical views with the Persians of Iran). The Sunni Arabs came to believe they were born to rule, forgetting that, until 1918, they were backed up by the Turkish army. Many Sunni Arabs believed that flying solo would eventually lead to the current situation. Even before the Americans invaded in 2003, splits were appearing among the Sunni Arabs. Let's face it, Saddam's rule had been one long disaster. Until 1979, Saddam had been the very powerful number two guy in Iraq. Once he became top dog, he invaded Iran, triggering an eight year war that impoverished oil rich Iraq, and put the country into debt (about $30 billion worth) to other Arab Gulf oil countries. Saddam then attempts to erase the debt by erasing the lenders. The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 brings with it another defeat, and twelve years of UN embargos. More poverty, despite all that oil. While Saddam ensured that Sunni Arabs got most of the oil money that was available, he was facing more frequent assassination attempts by fellow Sunni Arabs.

The 2003 invasion united Sunni Arabs. Saddam's incompetence was one thing, but democracy was much worse. With only 20 percent of the population, and an 80 percent who hated them, democracy meant not only losing control of the money, but seeing their former victims becoming powerful avengers. This was not good. But it got worse, as the Americans, and their allies, helped the Kurds and Shia Arabs organize security forces faster than the Sunni Arabs thought possible. Despite terror attacks on the recruiting centers, and even individual recruits and their families, the security force grew. Sunni Arab agents within the security forces helped the terrorists plan and carry out their attacks, but eventually the Americans taught the new government how to find the Sunni Arab spies.

In the last year, most Sunni Arabs have come to believe that their situation was worse than Lebanon. Iraqi Sunni Arabs could not keep the war going for fifteen years. Already, nearly a quarter of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs have fled the country to escape the violence and retribution. There is growing violence between Sunni Arab groups, between those who want to join the government, and those who insist on resisting to the end. The resisters still believe they can trigger a "civil war" that will somehow allow the Sunni Arabs to slip back into power. This conceit is losing popularity among Sunni Arabs, who see one Sunni Arab town after another falling under the control of the police and security forces. This is not a civil war, but a methodical pacification campaign. More and more of the violent Sunni Arabs are leaving terrorism for more profitable criminal enterprises. Oil theft, smuggling and kidnapping are very lucrative, and much safer than planting IEDs and attacking police stations.

The war in Iraq won't end with a bang, but with a hustle.

Meanwhile, there are other hustles to keep an eye on. Although a new Iraqi cabinet under the secular Shia Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki took office last month after months of negotiation and deal making, three critical ministries have not yet been filled, Interior, Security, and Defense. On June 1st, al-Maliki announced that he would name candidates for the three posts this coming Sunday, June 4th. Naturally, that didn't happen, and rumors have been flying for some time as to who will get what, as well as the religious and ethnic profiles of the possible candidates.
For minister of defense, currently held ad interim by Salam al-Zouba'i, the rumor mills have focused on several possible candidates

@ Maj. Gen. Nabil Khalil al-Said, a native of Mosul, who currently runs a bureau in the Ministry of Defense.

@ Nuri al-Dulemi, a former general currently living in the UAE

@ Baraa Najeeb al-Rubaie, a former brigadier general who had been a critic of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and suffered the consequences of being right. In 1991 he fled Iraq and joined Iyad Allawi's anti-Saddam organization.

@ General Abdul Qader, currently commander of Iraq's ground forces..

@ Thamer Sultan al-Tikriti, a retired general who was imprisoned under the old regime and whose brother was executed by Saddam Hussein.

All of the candidates have apparently had interviews with President Jalal Talabani, the Prime Minister, and other senior officials, including, apparently, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Most of their military careers were spent serving in Saddam Hussein's army, but all appear to have been sufficiently professional and apolitical enough to satisfy the demands of deBaathification. In keeping with the need to provide religious and ethnic balance, all of them are secular Sunni Moslems, and al-Tikriti has the added advantage of coming from Saddam Hussein's home province.

For Minister of the Interior, the rumors have been focused on Nasser Daham Fahad Al Amri, a retired Shi'ite Army officer, apparently regarded in American circles as the best bet, as well as Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who had been national security adviser, and Tawfeeq al-Yassir, a former brigadier general during the Saddam Hussein era who served in the transitional government's security.

 

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