A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Friday, October 14, 2005 :::
Where We Stand As the Results are Being Counted in Iraq

For our return, this blog will recount a story told some time ago. Readers, please bear with us, and you will find something new in the fifth paragraph.

A couple of years ago now, a certain pudgy, balding English teacher sent a pessimistic e-mail to a valued friend, a lawyer with wide experience in foreign affairs. Fond as this writer is of history, he was speculating. Suppose things spun out of control in Iraq, what might happen? The Shi’a would try to realize dreams of a pan-Shi’ite state, the Sunnis would ally with Syria to protect themselves, and Syria would jump at the chance. Turkey would then preemptively invade Kurdistan, just because. That would spell the end of any hopes they have of joining the EU, but they must realize that their chances, realistically, are very slim. Kurdistan would be the bird in the hand.

Well, the lawyer fellow acted as if he had been electrocuted. Indeed, when next sighted, he bore a frown that conveyed some fear that his correspondent must be one of that kind of conservative, the kind that has made his professional career quite difficult at times. He also has an aversion to any stereotyping of Muslims, which is admirable as long as room is left for dispassionate discussion. In any case, he grew a little frosty for a while. If one’s friends at some point don’t think you are crazy, they probably don’t know you very well. Comity has since been restored.

But there was an important point: the differences in perception indeed fell on either side of the split between moderate Republicans, who tend to prefer talk of economics and politics, and conservatives, who see culture as trumping everything, a view which this writer unswervingly holds. The particular manifestation of the split was over the question of whether Iraqis have any sense of being Iraqi, or whether their religious and racial identities are stronger. This writer would instinctively say the latter, but he is indeed not one of that kind of conservative. He was just looking at the map, and speculating.

Then he read a little more on Iraqi history, and speculation gave way to serious dread.

The relevant discoveries about Shi’ite political dreams were discussed at length in a post some months ago (see February 24, 2005.) We will here add two brief comments on the question of Iraqi identity.

Shortly after the war began, the invaluable David Pryce- Jones republished The Chatham House Version, by the late Elie Kedourie, the great Baghdad-born historian. In it, there is a “Brief History of the Kingdom of Iraq,” which demonstrates clearly that Iraq was an entirely fictional construct that sprang fully formed from the foreheads of some of the looser cannons in British history such as T.E. Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell.

The upshot is that what we are attempting to do in Iraq has been attempted before, with dismal results. (No doubt, that was Dr. Pryce-Jones’s point.) Not too long after independence, the Assyrians, whose Nestorian Christian culture once influenced all of South Asia, were slaughtered wholesale and driven from the country. It is happening again to the few Christians who remain. (The Jews, including Prof. Kedourie, were driven out in the 1950’s.) That question aside—although it is an important one—Prof. Kedourie marshals any number of quotes from residents who found the whole concept of Iraq alien at best.

At about the same time, the equally invaluable Strategic Studies Institutes at the US Army War College published a study covering the years after the Ba’ath Party took over from the “kings.” It came to this dismal conclusion: the only experience uniting different groups in Iraq was that of being oppressed. That would be the Kurds, the Christians, and the Shi’ites. The Sunnis have not had to worry about that until now.

Here is the situation on the eve of a plebiscite on the new constitution for Iraq: one group of Sunni clerics has decided to encourage its people to vote for the constitution, as they were able to wring concessions from the Kurds and Shi’ites that make it more palatable. The concessions would also, in the hands of almost any lawyer, make the thing moot on being approved, as they provide for, in essence, renegotiation.

This is supposed to give us hope, and perhaps there is some in there. But this happened only in the last few days. Boosters fail to note that other, larger groups of clerics have been relentless in telling their people, Friday after Friday, that it is a religious obligation to vote, and to vote “no.”

What happens if the constitution is defeated, as seems likely? The country will still be governed by an assembly with virtually no Sunnis. What then? We will find out, very likely, soon enough.

In a summer that brought a host of serious books, perhaps the most important was The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair by Martin Meredith a comprehensive History of 50 Years of Independence. Here, we see the same thing as in Arabia: Europeans carved out “countries” with not even the slightest concession to local realities, or even geography. As the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, commented, “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.”

The rule for the first, and even the second generation of African leaders, was that these European borders were inviolate, even where they divided one tribe and put part of its people in the same “country” as an age-old enemy. For these very borders created a new thing, a legal entity, which contained much to be coveted, mainly the control of natural resources. Today, inevitably, nothing is inviolate, and “World War III of Africa” rages off and on with virtually no one outside expressing even the vaguest concern.

Except for the current Pope, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush, which is a reality that would bear teasing out, but not here.

In Arabia, and particularly in Iraq, the artificial designs were drawn by no less a megalomaniac than T.E. Lawrence, whose mastery of Arab culture led his superiors to deferr to him even at his craziest, and he was at his craziest at virtually every moment.

And so there is this legal entity, this Iraq, over which a fierce battle for control is raging.

Which brings us to what may be the most important point. When, a few months after Saddam was booted, the Shrine of Ali, the center of Shi’a life, was bombed, Shi’a leaders ordered their previously secret militias to openly carry their weapons, in violation of an American decree. Faced with open war and inadequate forces, our commander in the area announced that, on the whole, having them carry their weapons openly was probably better, so he lifted the ban.

It has been downhill ever since.

The fascinating story in all this is the skill at insinuating themselves into every aspect of government displayed by the “otherworldly” Shi’a clerics. This not anything new: their political aspirations were so strong that, long ago, the British drove them into Iran, where they founded the famed school at Qom that bred the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the recent war, if the US or the official Iraqi authorities failed to provide one service or another, the clerics did, such that the administrator of one utility in Basra lamented that under Saddam, technical skill was all that mattered, but now he could only hire people approved by the clerics.

And those clerics have been busily building close ties to Iraq.

A normally level-headed person like Fouad Ajami may feel compelled to write that “no one of consequence” is talking about building a theocratic state, but even that needs verification against the public record. The dominant political party in the Shi’a region is the one known in English as the United…well, forget that. In Arabic, it is known as the House of Shi’a. And its leaders have indeed talked about a local administration following Shari’a, the Islamic Holy Law, guided, if not governed directly, by the clerics.

But assuming that is secular enough for Prof. Ajami, it really doesn’t matter what anyone, of consequence or not, is talking about. What they have been doing is constructing a society in which every aspect of life is submitted to the clerics for their opinion.

And they have been busily building ties with Iran.

Oh, yes, this last thought. If one checks back not so very long ago, you will find that true-believer supporters of the war were scoffing at the notion that Iraq had become a “breeding ground for terrorists.” This scoffing continued even as American military leaders began to say so openly. Now, George W. Bush, that most bewildering man, has issued a call to seeing the whole thing through because Iraq has become a prime recruiting tool for terrorists, and they could destabilize the region.

Which calls to mind another comment from that lawyer friend. When this writer wondered whether we could win, the lawyer blurted out, “We’ve got to, because the cost of losing would be…” and here he broke off, stared into space, and shook his head.

Just so.

Final thought: You may remember that not so long ago, the long-suffering people of Uzbekistan staged riots, during the course of which untold numbers of people were killed by their merciless leaders. Now, the Uzbeki government has been useful in the fight in Afghanistan, because it allowed us to use an airfield, so W. has been remarkably silent about its human rights abuses.

But the US could hardly ignore this. It therefore, through the UN, helped the Kirgistani government relocate several hundred refugees whose return for “trial” the Uzbecki government had demanded. It had somehow slipped this writer’s notice, but, in retaliation, the Uzbecki government gave the US 180 days to quit the airfield. It would make sense that they want to play Russia against the US, so there are no doubt frantic negotiations going on.

With our good friend, the Uzbecki government.

And did you hear the one about the Islamist Pakistani General????

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 4:39 PM



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