A Tale of Three Cities: A User’s Guide To Politics in Post-Surge Iraq

By Tommy Brown

Virtually nowhere else in the world is the proverb “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard” more apropos than the Middle East.  With a recorded history that goes back millennia, a bevy of ethnic and sectarian groups feuding over grievances both ancient and modern, as well as being the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions, it makes the inner workings of the Byzantine Empire or the Balkans seem as simple and straightforward as a sitcom plotline.

Since 9/11, and especially since the invasion of Iraq that ended with our occupation of Baghdad on 9 April 2003, Americans have been bombarded with an endless stream of news, analysis and opinion about Islam, terrorism, the Middle East, Iraq, Iran and virtually every other related subject. The unfortunate thing is that most of this commentary has absolutely no grounding in reality. Almost every piece of information that comes from the American media (television news and blogs are the worst culprits) is either filtered through a political lens to score partisan points or based on generalizations that have no meaning when discussing conditions on the ground.

The worst of these generalizations invariably concern Iraq.  I personally cringe every time I see a member of the Bush Administration, the Congress or the media refer to the “Iraqi people” when, for all intents and purposes, no such thing exists outside of diplomatic recognition and passports.

Before the Allied victory in World War One, after which the British and French took crayons and erasers to the map of the Middle East with very little concern for the wishes of the actual inhabitants, the area that is now Iraq was divided into three Ottoman valiyets, or provinces, centered around the major cities in the region: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.

These three areas had very little in common. Mosul valiyet was overwhelmingly comprised of Kurds, whose kinsmen existed north and east of them inside Turkey and Iran and had very little to do with the people south of them. Baghdad was the most powerful province, run by Sunni Arabs, who, since they were coreligionists with the ruling Turks, were used as the bureacrats, leaders and sometime oppressors of the surrounding areas. Basra valiyet was inhabited by the Marsh Arabs, an insular group who lived in the somewhat improbable wetlands, practiced a strict version of Shi’a Islam, and mostly wanted to be left alone.

But the British were not willing to leave the lands divided where they could fall into the orbit of France’s Greater Syria, so the three former provinces were jammed together into the country of Iraq. In true British fashion, they flew in an Arab of royal blood from a different country and declared him king, and left the Sunnis on to play the role of Arab facade for British intentions, probably because training a new ruling minority would be cost-prohibitive and lead to unnecessary conflict.

And so it continued for eighty-odd years, uneasily and with the occasional coup de’tat and genocide, until the American military overthrew Saddam Hussein’s repressive Ba’athist government in a lightning-fast three-week campaign. That was when the American political class discovered, to their unforgivable surprise, that the more things change, the more they stay the same: “Iraq” existed only as lines on a map, a military that had just been decimated and a genocidal Sunni strongman. The valiyets were still alive and well, and had no intention of cooperating once the threat of mass execution was lifted.

Five years into the Iraq conflict, the dream of a democratic, unified, nonsectarian country was finally becoming exposed as the fraud that it always was, as the Sunnis and Shi’as massacred each in a brutal civil war and the Kurds made plans to break away. Then President Bush’s much-criticized “surge” of soldiers and Marines came to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle and, again to the surprise of everyone involved, actually worked to bring security to the most troubled areas of the country.

While this is of course good news for all concerned, especially our soldiers, it has led to the blatantly fraudulent political talking point that we are now “winning” in Iraq, as if America was somehow closer to achieving the President’s dream of having a Japan on the Tigris. In fact, the way the security situation was improved was by accelerating the devolution of Iraq’s government, not centralizing it.

So, as a service to those who may actually care about the reality of the situation (all five of you), a political tour of these modern-day valiyets is in order. Of course, time has changed the power centers in the respective regions, so the three theoretical capital cities would now be Erbil in the Kurdish north, Fallujah in the Sunni center and Basra in the Shi’ite south. Baghdad is a special case because it is the frontline of the intra-Arab civil war and falls outside any of these centers of influence.

First up, Kurdistan.

Erbil: Iraqi In Name Only

The city of Erbil is capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the semi-autonomous region that governs everything north of what was once called the Green Line,  which demarcated the beginning of the US-enforced no-fly zone and thus the end of Saddam Hussein’s authority over the area. Since the establishment of the no-fly zone in 1991, Erbil has been the de facto capital of Kurdistan, despite the fact that the pre-2003 Kurdish constitution bizarrely named Kirkuk, a city south of the Line and thus under the control of the Ba’athists, the official capital.

Erbil was the frontline of the on-again, off-again Kurdish civil war in the mid-Nineties between Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The conflict was precipitated by, of all things, a free and fair election that left both parties with almost exactly equally representation. One of the more bizarre events of the civil war was when, during a particularly desparate period when the PUK had seized Erbil entirely, Barzani invited Saddam Hussein north of the Green Line to evict his rival from the city. The Iraqi Army promptly did so, ousting Talabani and replacing him with Barzani, and then just as promptly returned to Arab Iraq under American threats and the occasional bomb or cruise missile.

The factions put aside their differences to enthusiastically support the war to oust Hussein; the Kurdish militia known as the peshmerga (literally “those who face death”) took more casualties during the actual war than any other American ally, assisting US airborne troops and Special Forces. After the 2005 elections, the KDP and PUK formed a truly united regional government led by Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan, and Jalal Talabani became the first freely elected president of Iraq.

The Kurdish north has been the one unqualified success of the Iraq War. After almost being driven to extinction by the genocidal Anfal in the Eighties, where hundreds of thousands were killed and their towns and cities were razed to the ground, the Iraqi Kurds have staged a resounding comeback in the last two decades. They are pro-Western, nominally Sunni but are for the most part secular nationalists, committed to pluralistic democracy and actually welcome the presence of the American military. The rampant sectarian violence and uncontrolled criminality that plagues the rest of Iraq is nearly nonexistent here; there have been but a handful of successful insurgent attacks in the six years of American occupation.

The news is not all good. The one thing that unites the Kurds is that they absolutely despise Arab Iraq and do not want anything to do with it. While officially part of the country, the Kurdistan Regional Government is independent in all but name. The Iraqi flag is banned in Kurdistan; Arabs are distinctly unwelcome north of Mosul; they, not the central government, control the borders (read: tariffs and customs duties); and while there are officially Iraqi Security Forces in Kurdistan the form of soldiers, police and special forces, they are entirely composed of peshmerga, whose loyalty lies with Erbil, not the government in Baghdad. The Kurds deign to be part of the national government only to ensure their continuing independence.

Kurdistan remains a part of the country (even if just in name) only because, during the disastrous Coalition Provisional Authority occupation government, American viceroy L. Paul Bremer caved in on every single one of their demands for independence. According to former diplomat Peter Galbraith, the only person who had anything positive to say about the brusque control freak Bremer was a Kurdish politician who thought a statue of him should be erected “because he did more than anyone else to break up Iraq.”

Fallujah: The Enemy of My Enemy is Still My Enemy

Outside of Baghdad, Fallujah is probably the most well-known Iraqi city to the American public, as the two most pivotal battles against the Sunni-led insurgency were fought here. First Fallujah was a response to the murder and mutilation of four private military contractors in the city, an event broadcast all over the world. Hastily rushed into battle, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force found itself unable to take control of the city, and after a month of inconclusive fighting a ceasefire was unilaterally imposed by the Americans. To the insurgents, this was a great victory, as they considered the Marines the fiercest warriors in the US military, and the “Heroes of Fallujah” became a rallying cry for the Sunni resistance.

Second Fallujah occurred almost immediately after the reelection of the George Bush in November 2004. Compared to the hasty organization of the first battle, this one was accomplished with overwhelming force, presaged by weeks of artillery strikes and aerial bombardment. The Marines once again attempted to take Fallujah, and after two months of the bloodiest fighting in the occupation to date, successfully secured the city. The cost was high; most of the city was destroyed and a population of nearly half a million was reduced to less than thirty thousand, most citizens having fled the city.

Despite American military commanders belief that Fallujah and its surrounding governorate, al Anbar, was lost to Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents as late as 2006, a new emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics led to a very clever strategy to split the secular Sunni fighters from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. This became known as the Sunni Awakening and was helped immeasurably by AQM’s attempt to impose Islamist law on the mostly irreligious Sunnis who had been part of Iraq’s former ruling class.

The plan worked like this: Former insurgents who had been attacking American forces just months before were formed into militias funded and supported by our military. This militia, known as the Awakening or the Sons of Iraq, in the space of a year had managed to drive most of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise out of Anbar and take control of it, even spreading into the western Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad.  AQM has popped up recently in the divided Arab/Kurd city of Mosul, but their stranglehold over the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad was broken, with a concurrent drop in violence.

This strategy may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for America, though time will tell. Siding with the secular insurgents against the AQ Islamists has meant, basically, allying our military with “former regime elements,” the same Sunnis whose government we overthrew six years before. It is not unreasonable to believe that the Sunnis comprising the Awakening still despise us, but they fear the Iranian-allied Shi’ite central government more.

The original plan was to integrate the Awakening into the New Iraqi Army when order was restored, but both the Sunni and Shi’a have resisted this vociferously, the Sunnis because they won’t give up their arms to a government they consider their enemy, and the Shi’ites fearing creating a fifth column within their military. Their is no resolution in sight for this issue, and most likely the Awakening will become the Sunni version of the Kurdish pershmerga.

The unintended consequence is that the Sunni Awakening has put the final nail in the coffin of the idea of a nonsectarian, unified Iraq. Despite premature and politically-motivated calls of “victory” from Americans because the security situation has stabilized, it was accomplished by putting paid to one of the central motivations of the Iraq War, not moving towards that goal.

Basra: The Historic Triumph of the Persians

Iraq’s only port in a mostly landlocked country, Iraq’s “second city,” Basra, lies along the Shatt al-Arab waterway leading to the Persian Gulf. It occupies a key strategic position, being home to a large portion of Iraq’s oil wealth as well as the ships and pipelines that export it. Once more than a third Sunni, along with a sizeable Christian presence, since the 2003 they now make up less than ten percent of the population. The Marsh Arabs, adherents of the Jafari sect of Shi’a Islam, have reclaimed the city.

In the run-up to the war, American neoconservatives, notably Bill Kristol and Douglas Feith, were absolutely firm in the belief that the Shi’ite Arabs would not ally themselves with the Iranian theocrats, the theory being that Arabs hate Persians and lingering resentment from the Iraq-Iran War. Their dream scenario was that a post-Ba’athist Iraq, which contains all of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam, would act as a counterweight to the mullahs in Tehran, as the Marsh Arabs embraced democracy and freedom.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, for two reasons. The first is that, in one of those historical moments that Americans like to pretend didn’t happen, the elder President Bush incited the southern Shi’ites to rebel against Hussein, then stood on the sidelines as they were massacred, leading to a deep and abiding mistrust of America. From that point on, as sanctions crushed Iraq’s economy and Saddam destroyed the wetlands that had been their home for centuries, the only people willing to help them were the Iranians. This has led to a situation where being a Shi’ite has become an ethnic identity as well as a religious one, similar to how Muslims in Bosnia were viewed as an ethnic group (they are now known as “Bosniaks”).

The amount of Iranian influence in Iraq cannot be understated. Seven of the nine southern governorates are governed as Iranian-style theocracies, while the remaining two, controlled by Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, operate under religious rule even the Taliban might find extreme. The two most powerful political parties in the central government, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa (whose governing coalition elected the “secular” prime minister Nuri al Maliki) began as exile movements in Iran and are still heavily funded by the mullahs. The militia wing of SIIC, the Badr Organization, was actually founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1982 and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Badrs, when the government ministries were divided up after the 2005 elections, took control of the Interior Ministry, and thus the police, as well as most of the units of the New Iraqi Army.

This has led to some truly bizarre and ironic situations for America, as in the recent Battle of Basra, where the American military found itself providing logistics and support for the pro-Iranian government forces fighting the equally fundamentalist but far more nationalist Mahdi Army. This was a blatant attempt to crush al Sadr’s forces before the upcoming provincial elections (indeed, our military commanders were not notified until the battle was already underway), and the fact that the ceasefire was brokered by an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general gives you an idea of how close an ally Iran really is to them.

This attempt to crush Sadr is a preliminary move to consolidating the entire southern region under one government. In one of those unforeseen negotiated loopholes, to allow Kurdistan to remain the united autonomous government that it would never give up, the Iraqi constitution allows any group that can get together enough people and governorates to form their own regional government, free from even the pathetically limited restraints of the federal government. A united “Shiastan,” purged of Iraqi nationalists, would doubtless be little more than an Iranian puppet.

Dreams Undone

The unfortunate thing is, this is probably the best solution that can be expected for Iraq: A country that remains unified only as lines on a map, divided along ethno-sectarians lines into three mutually hostile regions, each with their own militaries and interests, cooperating (as in the case of the Kurds and Shi’ites during constitutional negotiations) only when absolutely necessary.. Even in the twenty-first century, the provinces set up by the Ottoman Empire centuries ago, free from forced incorporation, remain as important as ever. Thus we have a secular pro-American Kurdish north, a blatantly theocratic and pro-Iranian south, and a middle-west that is mostly secular and is both anti-American and anti-Iranian. Situated in the eastern center of the country, Baghdad will remain the primary area where these three cultures collide, more a mosaic than a melting pot, leading it inevitably to be the frontline of any new conflict that emerges.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Tags: , , , , , , , ,