Ranj Alaaldin: “Blame Iraq, not America, for sectarian civil war”Posted: March 14, 2013
I laud the author in The Independent for at least attempting to escape the obsessive eurocentrism of the Iraq war:
The opponents of the Iraq war often claim that the invasion caused the bloody sectarian war that erupted between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia. This is far from the truth.
While it is indisputable that the failure of US post-conflict management in Iraq contributed to the disarray and violence that followed the toppling of the regime in April 2003, the US, her allies and the invasion itself, cannot be blamed for the ethnic and sectarian divisions that exist in Iraq.
Iraq has for long been a divided nation; it has been a state since it was created in 1921 after World War I in search of a united nation but which, to this day, remains divided along ethnic and sectarian boundaries.
Well, that’s true. But I’m very uncomfortable with Alaaldin’s dismissal of “US post-conflict management” as merely contributing “to the disarray and violence”. This has a desperate tone of flippancy to it; now it’s unavoidable, and indeed important to stress that Saddam’s government ruled by sectarianism. His regime implicitly elevated the Sunni minority to a sort of ethnic aristocracy, granting them the chief posts in the judiciary and the “civil” service; meanwhile, he taught the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north the full throttle of WMDs. For the sake of all things humane worth the name this cannot, and should never be, undermined or side-lined as “just another dictator”. When Saddam’s regime collapsed in 2003 there was the brewing realisation that parliamentary democracy might allow the settling of some scores, bringing as it inevitably would a large Shiite majority. On this note Alaaldin is perfectly correct.
But there was such a thing as Iraqi nationalism, if that is even the right word. It wasn’t an especially violent kind; rather, enough to bring most Iraqis together over a shared territory, a common rule over land stretching back far into ancient Mesopotamian history. The Kurds, in this, deserve tremendous respect: their history with wider Iraq was one of a struggle, finally achieving political autonomy from Saddam in 1992. And yet when Saddam fell in 2003 they did not, as they might justifiably have done, abandon Iraq to religious sectarianism; the Peshmerga teamed up with the Coalition to help oust Saddam, and then the Kurds produced Iraq’s first ever democratically elected President in Jalal Talabani in 2005. This is no sign of imminent ethnic or religious warfare.
What the United States must take responsibility for is failing to harness this in the machinery it went on to produce. Talabani remains the Iraqi President but his Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is little more than a populist sectarian thug whose credentials include organising the execution of Saddam for a Sunni holy day, and calling for the death of the Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi. Under Paul Bremer Iraq was administered along religious and Arab-Kurd lines; insufficient ethnic and religious guarantees were placed into the constitution; too much power was, despite the shadow of Saddam, left in the hands of the central authorities rather than distributed in a loose but workable federalism. Named Iraqis brought the sectarianism on but the Coalition did virtually nothing to prevent the outbreak.
I read some blogger’s post a while ago who said that if there were an armed invasion of Syria to bring down Assad, then we’d have to make it clear that the inevitable outbreak of sectarianism would not be the fault of the West. I’m not interested in absolving our responsibility. Assad, like Saddam, remains the central problem: but he is also the state machinery and, legally at least, in possession of one of the country’s few, limited forces for unification. When he goes there has to be something to replace it – more than an ephemeral military presence.
But it looks like Syria is going the way of Iraq: for as long as we leave struggling refugees and families dependent on the food supplies of fanatics, the prospects for the conflict just get longer and bloodier.