Iraq: Face-to-Face with Itself?

Written by Harry Hagopian

… They were planning their war on Iraq for years before it started. September eleventh wasn’t the trigger; it was the pretext. The idea of destroying Iraq goes back to the moment when Saddam laid the very first stone for the foundation of his nuclear site. The Pentagon’s target was neither the despot himself nor his country’s oil; it was Iraqi genius …

… In their eyes, I was only an Arab … They had changed radically, those pioneers of modernity, the most tolerant and emancipated people in Europe. There they were, displaying their racism like a trophy. As far as they were concerned, from that point on, all Arabs were terrorists …

The Sirens of Baghdad is a compelling 307-page novel by Yasmina Khadra – pen name of the former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul – about Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq in the wake of the American invasion. A young Iraqi student, unable to attend college because of the war, sees American soldiers leave a trail of humiliation and grief in his small village. Bent on revenge, he flees to the chaotic streets of Baghdad where insurgents soon realise they can make use of his anger. Yasmina Khadra’s book examines the effects of violence on ordinary people, showing what can turn a decent human being into a weapon, and how the good in human nature can resist and eventually overcome it.

In the next few paragraphs, I plan to mull over some of the latest developments in Iraq that either infuse new optimism or else create further dread in me. But I started wittingly with those two loaded excerpts from the book because they transport me back to the heady days of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite five years of sacrifice, bloodshed and suffering, those two foreboding statements continue to echo audibly – whether rightly or wrongly – in a majority of Arab and Muslim ears across the whole world from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and from Egypt to Yemen, about American and broader Western designs toward them. In my opinion, any tangible progress on any front is conditional upon addressing those very perceptions – for as we know in the world of politics, perceptions transform into realities and somehow boomerang against the future.

But more on that later! For now, let me dwell briefly on developments as I see them touching the lives of Iraqis today.

Despite explosions, suicide bombs and people still being blown up or else blowing up others, one piece of good news toward the end of last month was the unanimous passing by the Iraqi Parliament of the Provincial Elections Law. After endless procrastination since last February, negotiation prevailed over violence and this law was passed unanimously by the 190 members of parliament. It is the hope of many pundits that it would help heal the deep-running political, religious and gender-based fissures in the country and shore up the noteworthy security gains that have been achieved of late.

However, one fundamental setback of this law was that it passed not necessarily because of a newly-tapped surfeit of Iraqi goodwill but because it set aside for future debate the most divisive political issue over the control of the ethnically-mixed and oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk that has been a bone of contention between Iraqi Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds and exacerbated by the enforced Arabisation policies pursued through waffidins by the late president of Iraq.

However, another clear setback was the removal of Article 50 from an earlier version of the draft law that had secured 13 seats for Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and other minorities in six of the provinces. As the UN special representative to Iraq indicated at a news conference, the minority issue was a “dark cloud”. And this dark cloud has alarmingly manifested itself again over the past few weeks, with Iraqi Christians in the northern city of the Mosul being targeted by a systematic violence that ostensibly seeks to oust them from the area. With almost half the Iraqi Christian population of 800,000 having already fled the country since 2003, many witnesses reported the murder of Christians and the displacement of well nigh 2200 families (roughly 13,000 individuals) toward the Nineveh Plain, as well as nearby towns and villages such as Hamdaniya or Qaraqush and into Syria. It is difficult for me to determine at this stage who stands behind those crimes, or who aids and abets their commission, but commentators have mostly alluded to extremist al-Qa’eda like radical groups (one report refers to written threats by a ‘consultative council of Iraqi combatants’) persecuting non-Sunnis, to unnamed radical elements that have allegedly infiltrated an Iraqi army regiment in Mosul, and even to some Kurdish Peshmergas trying to alter the demography of the region ahead of the forthcoming provincial elections. But with Baghdad and Mosul bearing deep-vein Christian roots for centuries, it is imperative that this long-suffering and largely peaceful minority, as much as similar minority communities across the while country, be provided with their legal rights and safety nets. And whilst I remain resolutely against the formation of auto-defensive Christian militias in Iraq that might yield tactical results but no long-term strategic credits, I believe that it is the duty of the Iraqi government and occupying forces to ensure that those communities are not targeted for political, religious, ethnic or mercenary reasons and that Article 50 affecting their representation be re-instated into the Provincial Elections law at the soonest possible moment.

Such problems of refuge, displacement and fear targeting minority communities in Iraq have become eye-wateringly endemic. Whilst it is true that several hundreds of Iraqis have indeed been returning home from Syria, thousands more continue to register with the UN in Damascus in order to receive vital food aid – underscoring the recent hardships faced by this refugee community. The latest figures from the UNHCR revealed that some 13,000 Iraqi refugees had newly registered with the agency in the past three months (July till September 2008). The Syrian government states that there are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, down from 1.5 million two years ago, but considerably higher than other NGO-led estimates. They are based largely in the Douma and Sayyide Zeinab suburbs of Damascus as well as the northern city of Aleppo.

Potential returnees receive a number of relatively generous financial incentives from the Iraqi government as well as a small sum from the UN-run Voluntary Return Grant. However, the UNHCR is ensuring that those returnees are fully aware that their refugee file will be closed once they leave Syria and they will require a visa from the Syrian embassy in Baghdad [its ambassador was accredited on 13th October] in order to be re-admitted into Syria again.

Another major issue that is shaping the fate of the country today is the future of the American troops in Iraq once the UN mandate expires on 31st December 2008. As many readers are aware, a draft pact known as Sofa, or status-of-forces agreement, had been reached between both sides which allowed US troops to stay in Iraq for three more years. It required US forces to pull off Iraqi streets by the middle of 2009 and leave the country altogether by the end of 2011 unless they were asked to stay longer. More critically, it ascribed certain conditions under which Iraq would have the right to try US service members in its courts for serious crimes committed while off duty. But the only blocs that have endorsed the pact without reservation are the main Kurdish parties. Crucially, the Shi’i alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought amendments to the draft. Moreover, the followers of the Shi’i cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are deeply hostile to the pact and recently staged a massive street demonstration against it as they marched from their stronghold of Sadr City in the east of the capital to a nearby public square at a university.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely the Iraqi parliament would endorse the pact this side of the presidential elections in the USA on 4th November, and Iraqi officials have begun discussing a ‘Plan B’ under which they would ask the UN for an emergency extension of the existing mandate if the draft were not ready by the end of the year. The severity of this potential crisis over issues as far-reaching as sovereignty, state responsibility, legal jurisdiction and detainees was underlined by the US Secretary of State who warned Iraq from Puerto Vallerta that Iraqi forces cannot yet defend the country by themselves, and that Baghdad should accept the pact and the security that its 155,000 troops in Iraq provide not only for the country but also for its leaders. It is worth adding that there are today 17,000 detainees held at Bucca and Cropper Camps, two American detention facilities in Iraq, and their future fate also needs to be agreed upon between the American and Iraqi negotiators.

The Sofa controversy is unfurling at a time when US forces handed over responsibility for security in the Babil province – a vast and primarily Sunni province named for the ruins of ancient Babylon, but also dubbed the triangle of death – to Iraqi forces. This province, south of Baghdad, is the 12th of 18 provinces in which primary responsibility for security has been returned to Iraqi forces. With violence at four-year lows, only the capital Baghdad, four ethnically and religiously mixed northern provinces as well as Wasit province along the Iranian border still require day-to-day American patrols.

What is important in this context is not only that an agreement – Sofa in this case – is being drawn up between Iraqi and US governments. The fact that it is actually happening would show that the rules of engagement are perhaps slowly shifting in the Middle Eastern political sands. No matter what we think about the whole saga of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, or about the Iraqi leadership, it is an instance where an Arab government – beleaguered, and still very much at the mercy of the US troops – is making a stand and drawing a line in the very sand that hosted those foreign soldiers. This is a transmogrification of the colonial era mentality that put Western troops and officials above the law, and kept indigenous national and regional interests subservient to the colonial dictates of powers past and present.

I doubt any Iraqi political leader – certainly no Shi’i politician – wants the stigma of supporting the Sofa deal. As Rami Khouri wrote recently, if an agreement is concluded that tilts in the public eye too much towards the USA and allows troops, subcontractors and modern mercenaries to remain above the law of the land, we could end up suffering for years to come from a worsening of the state of this region, and by osmosis of the world, with more problems in such sectors as ethnic and sectarian strife, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, refugee flows, general security, and economic stress.

This inorganic complicity between American and Arab official interests was also made manifest by the rather abrupt haste with which Arab rulers – from Kuwait, Bahrain and Syria to Egypt, Jordan and the UAE – have almost been queuing up to refresh their ties with Iraq and re-establish diplomatic presences in the country after years of absenteeism and abstruseness. It seems the USA and most Arab regimes are primarily concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and are mobilising to extend political recognition as a way of limiting Iranian and Islamist influence over this oil-pumping country.

All pacts notwithstanding, let me also point out that no matter who wins the US presidential election, America can only be on its way out of Iraq. Senator Barack Obama offers the most specific and speediest withdrawal plan, but even Senator John McCain who fantasises about a maverick “victory” will not be able to keep a large number of combat troops there for long. After all, without a major pullback from Iraq, the Pentagon will not have enough troops to fight in Afghanistan where the US is in danger of losing the real – not contrived – war on terrorism against Al Qa’eda and perhaps also the Taliban.

However, before leaving office, the Bush administration has to ensure at least that the Iraqi Shi’i-led government renounces its sectarian impulses and fulfils its commitment to integrate about 54,000 members of the Sahwas or Awakening Councils – Sunnis paid by America to provide security in local neighbourhoods – into the security echelons and other public services.

When all is said and done, I am confident that the savvy of my readers would inform them that the situation in Iraq is still precarious and subject to different political pressure points. One sensitive meter of the danger facing Iraqis is the situation of the media. The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists says about 135 journalists and 53 other media staff have been killed in Iraq since 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for reporters in decades. Recent reports coming out indicate that the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a non-governmental local organisation that defends reporters, has unveiled a new hotline to protect journalists and reporters fearing for their lives. Already, in the two weeks since it was set up, this hotline helped thwart the killing of a number of reporters in Basra and elsewhere.

So how precarious is the current situation and where do we go from here? As a New York Times commentator opined recently, “Misguided and frightening, US policies have helped change those ordinary human beings into religious zealots and then monstrous terrorists. Iraq, I believe, was a microcosm of this transformation of a whole region. This is why I just hope that a future US Administration would help manage those cleavages and in the process not only help pacify regions of the world but also re-strengthening American presence globally. This is precisely also why I – unlike some people perhaps – would like to see the Iraqi misadventure come to a peaceful and successful conclusion. This conclusion will neither be a new Middle East nor a democratic state, but one where law and order would prevail and in the process disempower those radicals that are not only egging further violence but also hoping that its levels would increase and hence serve their dubious causes.”

When the Iraqis themselves are disunited, it is easier for outside elements to conflagrate the situation further with their own political bags of tricks. But Iraq today stands once more at another crossroads and its hazy future could sway in the direction of further fragmentation or come together toward a common good. What concerns me is that politicians – primarily Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’is, since they are the principal actors – are playing a zero-sum game that discounts the collective interests of the country. Whether by fear, interference by outside actors or self-interest and greed, they are catapulting the country away from a federal sense of cohesion that would usher in stability and are instead sowing further discord.

I started my article with two quotations from The Sirens of Baghdad that highlight the thoughts of many Arab and Muslim streets today. Whether those perceptions are well-founded is not the real issue today. Rather, what matters is for the next US Administration – be it Barack Obama or John McCain – to fathom the reality of the American interest in the region and act accordingly. Anything else would maintain if not strengthen this perception of anti-Arabism and anti-Islam and lead to constant conflicts between political ideologies, cultures, religions and instincts across wide chasms. In fact, any American politician appointed to a responsible position on Iraq / Middle East should read this book and learn from its cogent lessons.

I believe that the Arab and Muslim masses today are expressing their anger more by silence than by strident words. They witness the seemingly wanton hypocrisy of the hegemonies of the region, aided and abetted by local rulers whose interests are sometimes inimical with that of their peoples, and enhanced by meddlesome foreign countries that are either coveting the oil wealth and military harvest of Iraq, or else cross-fertilizing it with more dogmatism and bigotry. Either way, unless the situation is managed intelligently, such silence cannot be maintained forever: the sooner the mandarins of our foreign diplomacy convey the urgency of the new world to their masters, the sooner we might have some hope for peace not only in Iraq or the Middle East but also in the eerily inter-connected global world that is prey to many fault-lines.

I am often too scared to ask whether we need to wait for that next silent implosion to turn into another loud explosion before we learn from our egregious past mistakes. When will we hear the deafening masses that still keep silent as they cry aloud?

Almost in bemusement, my mind wanders to Cicero, one of the most versatile minds of ancient Rome. In one of his four orations against Lucius Catilina in the Senate, he warned cum tacent, clamant – and it might be worth checking out how little our philosophical attitudes have morphed since the pre-Christian times when Cicero uttered this admonition!

Dr Harry Hagopian
International Lawyer & Political Analyst
London – UK