problem in Iraq is back in the United States. There, many politicians either
don't bother, or don't want to believe, what is actually happening, and has
happened, in Iraq. In a way, that makes sense. Because what is going on in Iraq
is so totally alien to the experience of American politicians. Moreover, many
Americans take a purely partisan, party line, attitude towards Iraq. So logic
and fact has nothing to do with their assessments of the situation.
The facts are these. Iraq is
an ancient civilization that has been subjected to foreign occupation (Mongol,
Iranian, Turkish, British) for the last thousand years. What we know as Iraq was put together
by the British, in the 1920s, from fragments of the recently dissolved Turkish
Ottoman empire. The northern part of Iraq, containing mainly Kurds, was
then considered part of Turkey itself, and not an imperial province like the rest of
Iraq. But there was oil up there, and the British did not want the Turks to
have that, in case there was an effort to revive the Ottoman empire. The
British set up a constitutional monarchy, complete with parliament, and royal
family imported from Saudi Arabia (a noble family that had been ousted by the
Sauds). While democracy was alien to this part of the world, many Iraqis took
to it. But there were serious problems with corruption, tribal, ethnic and
religious loyalties. The Kurds weren't Arab (they were Indo-European, and about
20 percent of the population), 60 percent of the Moslems were Shia (a sect
considered heretical by the conservative mainline Sunnis). The Sunni Arabs may
have been a minority, but they dominated commerce, government, education and
running things in general. Since the 16th century, the Sunni Turks had relied
on the Baghdadi Sunni Arabs to help administer the area.
Britain had to re-occupy Iraq
during World War II, because the Sunni Arab dominated government (not the king) tried to
ally itself with the Nazis. At the time, many Arabs admired Nazism. Many still do. The Brits
again conquered country, using three divisions and taking three weeks to do it. The Brits found another bunch of Sunni Arab notables and told them they could
run things if they stayed away from the Nazis. That lasted for about a decade,
until the Sunni Arab politicians and generals decided that this democracy stuff
wasn't working for them. The royal family was massacred and parliament purged
of "disloyal" elements. The Sunni Arabs were back in absolute charge, via a series of
dictators, until Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003.
Saddam was a particularly
brutal tyrant, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (mostly Shia and
Kurds), and terrorizing nearly everyone. After being run out of Kuwait in 1991,
and barely surviving another Shia rebellion, he made peace with the Sunni Arab
tribal leaders, and unleashed yet another terror campaign on the Shia Arabs.
The Kurds were now independent, protected by British and American warplanes.
Now, this is the critical
thing that many Americans don't understand, or even know. When Saddam was
deposed in 2003, most (well, many) Sunni Arabs believed they would only be out
of power temporarily. This sort of thing you can pick up on the Internet (OK,
mostly on Arab language message boards, but it's out there). Saddam's followers
(the Baath Party) and al Qaeda believed a few years of terror would subdue the
Shia, scare away the Americans, and the Sunni Arabs would return to their natural state as the rulers of
Iraq. U.S. troops quickly picked up on this Sunni mindset. Because Sunni Arabs
were the best educated group, most of the local translators the troops used
were Sunni Arabs, and even these guys took it for granted that, eventually, the
Sunni Arabs would have to be in charge if the country were to function. The
Sunni Arabs believed the Shia were a bunch of ignorant, excitable, inept (and so
on) scum who could never run a government. Four years later, the Shia have
sort-of proved the Sunni Arabs wrong. Now many Sunni Arabs want to make peace,
not suicide bombs.
Which brings up another major
issue in Iraq. Many Iraqis believe only a dictator can run the country, and
force all the factions to behave. However, a majority of Iraqis recognize that
dictatorships tend to be poor and repressive, while democracies are prosperous
and pleasant. The problem is that the traditions of tribalism and corruption
(everything, and everyone, has their price) do not mesh well with democracy.
This doesn't mean democracy can't work under these conditions, many do. It does
mean that it takes more effort, and the results are not neat and clean, as
Americans expect their democracies to be.
The basic problem is that the
United States is divided into two groups; those who have worked (or fought) in
Iraq, or otherwise paid close attention to what's happening on the ground, and those
who create their own picture of what's happening, one that fits other needs
(personal, political, religious). No amount of wishing will change what is
going on over there. The majority of the population hates the Sunni Arabs, who
now have four years of terrorist attacks added to their list of sins. The
Kurds, although beset by corruption and factionalism, have shown that you can
still have peace, security and prosperity if everyone works together. The Arabs
to the south see that, but have not been able to work together well enough to
make it happen. Will the Arabs be able to overcome their factionalism and
hatreds? THAT is the big question. What is lost in all the rhetoric about Iraq
is that Iraq is the only real Arab democracy in the Middle East. Egypt is a one
party state, a dictatorship masquerading as a dictatorship. Every other Arab
state is either a dictatorship or a monarchy.
Iraqis know they are in a
position to show the way, to an era of better government, and the freedoms and
prosperity that flows from that. Iraqis know they have problems with religion,
tribalism and corruption. Iraqis know what they are up against. Do you?