Home | About | Documents | Previous Editions |Search |

Edition 34 Volume 6 - August 28, 2024

Thoughts on a future Iraq

Iraq after the "Knights' Raid"  - Safa A. Hussein
When Iraqi forces recently launched an operation against al-Qaeda in Mosul they were welcomed by the entire population.

Iraq's potential could easily be undermined  - Yusuf Mansur
A weak and fractured Iraq, however, creates incalculable costs for its neighbors.

What Iraq do the Kurds want?  - Hiwa Osman
The only guarantee for minorities is a federal structure.

Dichotomy of Iran's strategy in Iraq  - Sadegh Zibakalam
Iran's Islamic leaders have adopted a dual strategy.

Iraq after the "Knights' Raid"
 Safa A. Hussein

As soon as Arab states recovered from the shock of the occupation of Baghdad in April 2024 and the complete defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime in only three weeks, they adopted a passive attitude toward the new leaders of Iraq. This attitude, which developed into "negative engagement" in the following months, came about for several reasons; one, perhaps the most important, is Shi'ite domination within the new Iraqi government.

As time passed, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal expressed their concern over the creation of a "Shi'ite crescent" in the region and regarding Iran's growing influence in Iraq. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which first targeted American troops, soon spread to Shi'ite targets as well: holy sites, neighborhoods and ordinary civilians.

The widening of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide in Iraq and the Middle East appears to be one of the important outcomes of the war in Iraq. However, a deeper view reveals that what lies behind the Shi'ite-Sunni divide is politics, not faith. Thus two factors seem to be shaping the Arab states' response to Iraq: fear of the inspiration generated by the rise of Shi'ites in Iraq and fear of Iranian hegemony. Arab states are very worried about Iranian expansion in the region and Shi'ite expansion in the Middle East.

Although Shi'ites comprise less than 15 percent of the world's Muslim population, their distribution in the Middle East is broad, with substantial concentrations: Iraq, 65 percent; Yemen, 58 percent; Bahrain, 70 percent; Kuwait, 35 percent; Saudi Arabia, 15 percent; United Arab Emirates, 15 percent; Qatar, 10 percent; and Lebanon, 60 percent. For decades, Shi'ite Muslims have been systematically pushed to the periphery of their economies, restricted from holding senior government positions and severely limited in educational opportunities.

Thus the change in Iraq was a shock. Iraq has become the first Arab-majoroity country to be ruled by a democratically-elected Shi'ite majority, tipping the scales against the longstanding Sunni domination of the Middle East. Arab governments anticipate that Shi'ite success in Iraq will lead to increased Shi'ite demands for a greater political role everywhere.

Some observers are concerned in particular about the extension of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East and particularly in Iraq. During the past three decades, Iran has dramatically extended its reach into the region through Hamas and Hizballah. Iran's nuclear program gives Tehran leverage. And one of the unintended consequences of the United States' invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was the elevation of Iran to dominant power status in the region. Iraq, which balanced the power of Iran for the last decades of the twentieth century, has lost the bulk of its military power. Some Iraqi Sunnis, seeking Arab states' assistance, have deliberately exaggerated the role of Iran in Iraq and accused the Baghdad government of pursuing an Iranian sectarian agenda in an attempt to undermine the elected government and promote themselves as national leaders.

Recent developments and progress in Iraq invite the Arab states to revisit their positions on these issues. First, trying to undo the transformation in Iraq is not feasible. Time is passing and more people are claiming their rights. If Iraq is destabilized, the spillover of violence may be more costly for the neighboring Arab states than addressing the needs and rights of their Shi'ite constituents.

Second, Iraq is not and will not be a satellite of Iran. It's true that there is an important role for religion in Iraqi politics, but Shi'ite clerics and Islamic parties in Iraq do not advocate Iranian-style clerical rule. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the cleric most followed by Iraqis and other Shi'ites, including many Iranians, does not believe that clerics should rule or monopolize power; rather, he wants Islam to play a role in new forms of governance. He believes the religious leadership should be closely consulted on critical political issues but should seek a form of democratic government that gives full expression to the people. Najaf, considered the principal traditional Shi'ite religious institution in the world, teaches this role for clergy in political life as contrasted with the Iranian model promoted in Qom.

The Iraqi security operation, "the Knights' Raid", led personally by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against militias in Basra, was a turning point. It was unique in the way it was conducted and in the results obtained. The defeat of the militias opened the door for other operations in Misan and Baghdad that effectively neutralized Jaish al-Mahdi, the Shi'ite militia that controlled large areas of these cities. More importantly, perhaps, these operations have demonstrated to Arab countries that the government is not following a sectarian agenda; rather, it is taking serious steps to enforce the law among both Shi'ites and Sunnis.

Maliki has emerged as a strong national leader forging popular support within both the Shi'ite coalition and Iraq as a whole. The Iraqi government and people have regained confidence in their forces. When Iraqi security forces recently launched a military operation against al-Qaida in the Sunni city of Mosul they were welcomed by the entire local population.- Published 28/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he serves in the Iraqi National Security Council.

Iraq's potential could easily be undermined
 Yusuf Mansur

When postulating about the future of a country, political and economic pundits base their predictions on signs and trends. Iraq, a country that has been almost completely ravaged over the past five years, is an analyst's nightmare: a jigsaw puzzle where not only are some pieces missing, many have been imported from other games. An optimist will see Iraq re-emerging as a regional superpower. A pessimist will see an Iraq that is irredeemably torn by sectarian strife and chaos. However, even the optimist hedges: certain strategic actions must be taken, otherwise, as in any game of strategy, the future is anybody's guess.

Recent data shows that violence in Iraq, according to some estimates, is down by 30-60 percent and there is a 50 percent reduction in fatalities. Iraqi political reconciliation, due to the efforts of the United States, is being fostered at the local level. Top political leaders from neighboring countries have begun to visit Iraq, possibly motivated by the need for economic cooperation with this oil-rich country. However, Iraq remains a war zone, more violent than any other country in the region. Worse still, the security situation is dependent upon large numbers of US troops that cannot control Iraq's sectarian tensions indefinitely. Moreover, the plight of those displaced by violence (more than 2 million Iraqi refugees abroad and approximately 2.8 million internally) should not be discounted. Their return to a jobless economy with squatters occupying their homes in ethnically mixed areas could ignite turmoil and a resurgence of violence. By any measure the situation, albeit improved, is fragile.

The economic situation is also mixed. Electricity production is finally up, about 20 percent over pre-invasion levels. Inflation has been stabilized as prices were liberalized and gasoline prices partially rationalized. Yet data on water and sewage is disheartening. Furthermore, job creation remains weak: unemployment is 35 percent, more than twice the regional average, and this with 31 percent of the labor force employed within the public sector.

On the other hand, Iraq's proven oil reserves are the world's third largest after Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition, Iraq's oil is cheap to extract and expanding output should cost $1-3 a barrel. This year, Iraq's oil production averaged over 2.4 million barrels a day, the highest level since the invasion of Iraq in 2024 and a 20 percent improvement on last year's average of around 2 million barrels per day. This should increase Iraq's oil revenues to almost $80 billion in 2024. Based on this, this year's government budget has increased from $48 billion to $70 billion.

By all means, Iraq can rise to prominence in the region if it is able to improve the security situation, rebuild the economy, move away from the centralized economy model it once espoused, create jobs through mega projects and reduce corruption. This is a tall order. However, if successful, the process, funded by Iraq's oil revenues, could place Iraq among the top economies of the region and indeed make it a regional superpower in the coming few years.

A democratic and economically strong Iraq should become a regional powerhouse. With oil revenues flowing, Iraq's work force, once renowned for diligence and intellectual capacity, could bring about great development to Iraq and its neighbors. Foreign direct investment from the resource rich Gulf would flow into Iraq in search of contracts and mega projects. Arab labor from the resource poor may once again find ample opportunity for employment in Iraq. A benevolent Iraq, buttressed by its newly established prosperity, should place well among the leaders of the region.

A weak and fractured Iraq, however, creates incalculable costs for its neighbors. They will continue to divert resources from development activities to maintain or increase security measures as oil revenues enable Iraq to finance war machinery, which becomes a threat to the region. Governments of the region will be given a green light to further restrict civil liberties in the name of the need for heightened security, thus eroding nascent steps toward democratic practices. The region will lose.

Both scenarios are viable. For now, prosperity is many difficult steps away while the opposite is already here.- Published 28/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yusuf Mansur is the managing partner of the Envision Consulting Group (EnConsult) and former CEO of the Jordan Agency for Enterprise and Investment Development.

What Iraq do the Kurds want?
 Hiwa Osman

In the absence of a permanent United States presence in Kurdistan--something that would be welcomed by almost every Kurd--the Iraq that the Kurds and most Iraqis want when US troops withdraw is one that is at peace with itself and the world. They want a federal democracy with a good democratic government that upholds the values of the free world: an Iraq where all citizens are equal and their rights are respected.

The elements of this dream are there. The constitution, referred to by many politicians as the cornerstone of the new Iraq, provides for all of the above. The foundations for the new Iraq are being laid now, but the project is not likely to be completed in the near future. The political process still needs to mature. It is still hostage to the principles of quota and consensus among participating parties that are mostly identified along religious and sectarian lines.

This weakens a common national identity and strengthens the sectarian and ethnic divide in society by empowering the political parties that represent these identities, rendering it a lot more difficult to separate religion from the state. In fact, we still depend heavily on the role of religious figures. On many important issues, the final word is still that of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

While Iraqis realize that a true democratic Iraq will obviously entail the rule of the Shi'ite majority, they are also convinced that the days of exclusive rule by one group are over. The first 80 years of Iraq's history clearly demonstrate that no single group or leader alone can rule the country. The only guarantee for minorities is a federal structure that empowers local and regional governments and allows the various Iraqi communities to conduct their own affairs.

Baghdad does not seem ready to digest the concept of federalism. This is still a new concept for Iraqis. They have become used to a strong central state with a strong leader. The Kurds are the only people who are actively seeking to hammer out a federal structure for the country. Yet federalism should be not only a Kurdish cause, but an Iraqi cause. "They seem to have forgotten what strong centers and strong leaders did to them," remarked a Kurdish political analyst recently about Iraqis in general. Thus the current debate between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad is over a true federal status for the region and the shaping of a federal architecture for the new Iraq.

Some in Baghdad feel that over the past few years "concessions" were given to Kurdistan due to Baghdad's weakness and that with the security gains Baghdad is making, "this must stop." This is simply the wrong attitude to take. Powers should be devolved to the regions out of Baghdad's understanding of the strengths involved in having a true federal system. The country will be owned by all, as opposed to being owned by the center only.

The Kurds still need some time to develop confidence in Baghdad. Talks over oil contracts, the share of the budget and the status of Peshmerga forces are all issues whose settlement will provide the Kurds with assurances that the old days are not going to be repeated. For example, the dispute over oil contracts is not about the size of the revenue the Kurds want to get. Rather, to the Kurds, a national oil policy rather than a central one will enable the Kurdish areas to benefit from developing the oil industry of Iraq.

The Kurds realize that they are in a marriage with Baghdad and divorce is not an option. At the same time, they feel disappointed by their allies and counter-signatories to the constitution. They feel they have performed their obligation toward Baghdad. "When they need us to fight terrorists, we are their partners, but when it comes to our rights in deciding for ourselves, we become adversaries," said a Kurdish politician involved in the talks with Baghdad recently.

Ironing out the differences and reaching a workable relationship with Baghdad will need some time. The help and presence of the US is vital to settle these issues. A federal structure will allow more room for development and good governance and less room for corruption and putting the blame on the other side. Iraqis are still picking up the rubble of the destruction caused by the former regime, the terror campaign and the internal fighting that followed. In this process, people usually look for someone to put the blame on. But when people are busy building their own regions, they don't usually ask whether the builder is Shi'ite or Sunni, Kurd or Arab. Rather the test is, can they do the job or not. Of course corruption and mismanagement may take place, but it is a lot easier to fight them at the regional rather than the national level, provided there exist the right anti-corruption bodies and they are not politicized.

While the Kurds are looking at internal arrangements for their future, they are also mindful of the regional dynamics that could dictate the future of Iraq as a whole and the Kurdistan region in particular. They are quietly eyeing the showdown between Iran and the international community. If Iran survives this, it will have a huge say in the future shape and nature of Iraq and the Middle East.

The Kurds also realize the importance of their neighbor Turkey. It is key to a peaceful future that Turkey be at peace with a Kurdish federal region on its border. Similarly, the Kurds will have to assure the Turks that they are not a threat to them. They will have to demonstrate that they serve as a factor of stability rather than irritation.

After all and if all else fails, Turkey is the only access the Kurds have to the free world.- Published 28/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hiwa Osman is Iraq country director at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Baghdad.

Dichotomy of Iran's strategy in Iraq
 Sadegh Zibakalam

Since the occupation of Iraq in March 2024 and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian Islamic regime has become an increasingly important player in the new Iraq. There can be no denying that the fall of Saddam was not only welcomed by the Islamic leaders in Tehran but that it is the greatest victory for the Islamic republic since its establishment three decades ago--a victory that Iran itself played no part in and that, ironically, was achieved by its mortal enemy, the United States.

While the Americans were busy dismantling Saddam's military and security apparatus and putting down uprisings by Iraqi nationalists, Sunni militants and al-Qaeda fighters, the Iranians wasted no time in establishing themselves in the new Iraq. They did not hide their deep satisfaction at the removal of Saddam, yet at the same time they were concerned about the American presence on their border.

This concern was two-fold. For one, Iran was worried about the threat of a cross-border military strike by Washington against its nuclear program. A second reason for Iranian concern was more ideological. Given the ideological rivalry Iranian leaders maintained with the US as the symbol of "global anti-Islamic forces", they understandingly did not want the "Great Satan" to achieve victory in Iraq, an Islamic country.

These two considerations led Iran's Islamic leaders to adopt a dual strategy in Iraq; they supported the new Iraqi government while at the same time opposing the US victory in that country. The two strategies appeared both reasonable and practical to Iranian leaders, but in practice they proved very difficult and at times even impossible to maintain.

Iranian support for the newly established Iraqi regime was quite reasonable and to be expected. The Iranians fought eight long years to witness a Shi'ite-dominated government in Iraq. Iran lost a million of its people in that war, its economy was shattered and the Islamic republic lost nearly all the international support it had achieved during the early days of its revolution. Yet by the end of that bitter and tragic war, Iran had failed to achieve any of its objectives.

"Allah helps Islam in mysterious ways," explained a highly respected senior clergyman to a group of Iranian mothers and wives who had lost their loved ones in the war with Iraq due to Saddam's use of chemical weapons. "Who would have thought that the man who poisoned your sons, fathers and husbands while the so-called civilized world stood by and did nothing would fall from power so disgracefully." The view that the fall of Saddam was a "provident action" was indeed shared by many pious Iranians, particularly those who had lost their loved ones in the war.

Iranian support for the Iraqi regime, beyond helping to maintain peace, security and stability in that country, is more than logical. During the past five years an estimated seven million Iranians have traveled to Iraq to visit the holiest Shi'ite centers in Karbala, Najaf and Kazemain. In fact, more Iranians go to Iraq as pilgrims than to Mecca and Medina. Last but by no means least, there are the economic benefits of a stable Iraq for the Iranians. An estimated five hundred Iranian companies are operating in Iraq, some state-owned firms but the majority private. The more pragmatic Iranians have stated that we must not insist on our ideological perspective in Iraq but rather look upon that country as a huge market with 22 million inhabitants.

None of these considerations, however, prevent the Islamic regime from forgetting its "holy" struggle with the US in Iraq. The Iranian strategy of denying the US a grand victory in Iraq has led on some occasions to serious problems for the Iraqi government insofar as the Islamic regime is actually harming the most important source of assistance to the Iraqi regime. In other words, the enmity between Iran and the US in Iraq can actually hurt the regime that both protagonists are trying to assist.

It was this very dichotomy that led the Iraqi regime to seek an understanding between the two and bring them to the negotiating table for the first time since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Although two rounds of negotiations between Iran and the US chaired by the Iraqis have failed to produce any meaningful result, the very fact that they took place was an achievement. So far, Tehran has been able to maintain a balance between helping the Iraqi government on the one hand and pursuing its struggle with the US on the other. The more the Iraqis are able to maintain law and order without direct assistance from the US, the closer will be the ultimate relationship between Tehran and Baghdad.- Published 28/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

Notice Board