The End of the Arabs? Part One
Peter W. Galbraith’s book ‘The End of Iraq’ argues the initially persuasive thesis that Iraqis have already divided themselves into three separate countries roughly corresponding to the Ottoman provinces of Basra (the Shii Arab south), Baghdad (the Sunni Arab centre) and Mosul (the Kurdish north), and that American attempts to keep the country unified are bound to fail. I agree wholeheartedly with Galbraith’s call for America to withdraw from Iraq – America is incapable of stopping the civil war, and is in fact exacerbating it. (update: I stick by this. The civil war has to some extent calmed because of internal Iraqi dynamics, not because of the US ‘surge’ – the Sunni forces turned on al-Qaida, and also realised that they had lost the battle for Baghdad and national power. Some groups then allied with the US for a variety of reasons to do with self-preservation). The rest of Galbraith’s argument is much more debatable.
For a start, he minimises the extent to which the US occupation has contributed to the disintegration of Iraq. I do not wish to deny the sectarian and ethnic fractures which exist in Iraq and other Arab countries, but it is reasonable to expect that any country, having suffered dictatorship, war, sanctions, and then the overnight collapse of all its institutions, would enter a period of chaos and division. Galbraith accurately records Western support for Saddam Hussain throughout the Iran-Iraq war, when he was gassing Kurds, and the American refusal to intervene when Republican Guards were slaughtering southern Shia in 1991 (the massacres happened under the eyes of American forces occupying the south at the end of the Kuwait war). He describes the criminal failure in 2003 of the occupying forces to stop the looting and burning of every ministry except the oil ministry, of military arsenals and even yellowcake uranium stocks the Americans claimed to be so concerned about in the run-up to the invasion, and of the national museum and national library. (He doesn’t examine claims made at the time by Robert Fisk and others that masked men with Kuwaiti accents were bussed in to certain ministries to set fires professionally.) The attack on Iraq’s – and the world’s – heritage is of course a cultural crime far greater than the despicable Taliban destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues. Bombing and looting ravaged what was left of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure. The Iraqi state was destroyed within the first week of occupation, long before the sectarian killing began.
Galbraith charitably calls incompetence what may more realistically be seen as deliberate divide and rule policies. Certainly arrogance, stupidity and corruption have played a large role – the arrogance and stupidity which allowed Americans to park their tanks on the ruins of Sumerian cities; the corruption which allowed Halliburton to profit by the billion from reconstruction which never happened, and which put Americans in their early twenties, and with no knowledge or experience of Iraq, in charge of entire sectors of the Iraqi economy simply because they were members of the right ‘think tank’ or prayer group. At a certain point, however, it seems naïve to put all the mistakes down to incompetence. From the very beginning it was obvious to me and the people I talk to that a violent assault on an Iraq already crippled by war and sanctions would not result in a prosperous, unified democracy. It was obvious that every ‘mistake’ made would further damage national unity. I and my friends are not geniuses, and unlike the neo-conservative and Zionist architects of the invasion, we aren’t paid to study the Middle East.
The immediate and sweeping dissolution of the Ba’ath Party, the army and security forces made it inevitable that people would look to the nearest militia or criminal gang to provide security and material supplies. Before long each area had its dominant gang, and the country was a free competition zone for Shia, Sunni, takfiri, and Kurdish militias, American and British troops, South African and Latin American mercenaries, imported Wahhabi nihilists, kidnappers and drug traffickers, and so on. John Negroponte, who had made a career setting up fascist death squads to destabilise leftist democracies in Latin America, was brought in to organise Kurdish and Shia militia into ‘police’ to pacify militantly Sunni towns. Meanwhile, Bremer at one stroke abolished Iraqi economic independence, opening every sector of Iraq to privatisation and foreign control.
These supposed ‘mistakes’ give us a much clearer picture of the real purposes of the invasion than all the journalistic psychoanalysis of a traumatised post-September 11th America or of its ignorant president. The war was designed as corporate rape of a resource-rich country and as a further hammer blow to the possibility of any secular Arab state taking on apartheid Israel. Having the Iraqis split into tiny units, each fighting the other and looking for an external sponsor, guarantees that there will be no unified Iraqi force to pose a serious threat to the corporations or their imperial and Zionist facilitators.
Despite the hatreds unleashed by the sectarian war, the number of Arab Iraqis I’ve met who want the disintegration of their country to be formalised is precisely zero. The neat picture ‘The End of Iraq’ presents of three clearcut post-Iraq zones is not realistic. Iraq has splintered into smaller pieces than the three zones Galbraith describes. In the south, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army battle for supremacy. In al-Anbar, the battle is between the tribes, the Ba’ath, and al-Qa’ida. Baghdad, supposedly part of the Sunni zone, has a Shii majority. Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city with a largely Kurdish hinterland. For these cities and other mixed areas such as Diyala and Babil a formalised partition would lead to greatly intensified ethnic cleansing. The horrific bomb attacks which recently killed 500 Yezidi Kurds happened within the context of a forthcoming referendum on which northern areas will join the Kurdish zone.
And if Iraq is allowed to formally splinter, where does the break-up stop? The Arabs of the Jezira in eastern Syria have more in common ethnically, culturally and tribally with the Arabs of al-Anbar than they do with the urban Levantine Arabs of western Syria. There are almost two million Iraqi refugees in Syria, most in Damascus, very many of them Sunnis who have nowhere to return to if Iraq is not put back together. An ethnic-sectarian Sunni state would also pull at the fabric of Jordan, as artificial a state as they come with its three populations of urban Iraqi Sunnis, Jordanian Beduin, and Palestinian refugees. And in Syria, if the Sunnis were to give their allegiance to a sectarian identity, what would stop the Alawis demanding a state in the north west, or the Druze in the Hauran? Which would bring us back to an early French imperial plan for Syria. I could go on, ad infinitum, to prospects for the division of Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and further afield.
Division is a disaster for all but imperialists and for Israel, the region’s key sectarian state. If the map must be changed, we should aim for fewer state units, not more. Yet Arabism as manifested so far has clearly failed. I’ll examine why in part two.