FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Is the US Legacy in Iraq?

by PATRICK COCKBURN

A few days after the US announced that it had withdrawn its last combat brigade from Iraq, the local branch of al-Qa’ida staged a show of strength, killing or wounding 300 people in attacks across the country.

Its suicide bombers drove vehicles packed with explosives into police stations or military convoys from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south.

The continuing ferocious violence in Iraq, where most days more people die by bomb and bullet than in Afghanistan, is leading to questions about its stability once US forces finally withdraw by the end of next year.

American politicians, soldiers and think tankers blithely recommend American troops staying longer, though at their most numerous US troops signally failed to stop the bombers.

The unfortunate truth may be that Iraq has already achieved a grisly form of stability, though it comes with a persistently high level of violence and a semi-dysfunctional state. Bad though the present situation is in the country, there may not be sufficient reasons for it to change.

Politically, Iraq may look increasingly like Lebanon with each ethnic or sectarian community vying for a share of power and resources. But if Iraq is becoming like Lebanon, it is a Lebanon with money. Dysfunctional the state machine may be, but it still has $60bn in annual oil revenues to spend, mostly on the salaries of the security forces and the civilian bureaucracy. One former Iraqi minister says that the one time he had seen the new Iraqi political elite “in a state of real panic was when the price of oil fell below $50 a barrel a couple of years ago”.

It is oil revenues which prevent Iraq from flying apart and make it such a different country from Afghanistan where the government is dependent on foreign handouts. Shia, Sunni and Kurds may not like each other, but they cannot do without a share of the oil money or the jobs it finances. A third of the 27 million Iraqi population depends on rations provided by the state to prevent malnutrition. Even the highly autonomous Kurds depend on $4-5bn from Baghdad to fund their government. Aside from oil, and the state machine it pays for, there is not much holding Iraq together. The political landscape is defined by sectarian and ethnic divisions. Communal loyalty almost entirely determined the outcome of the parliamentary election on 7 March this year as it had done in the previous poll in 2005. There is little sign of this changing.

This should not be too surprising. Kurds, Shia and Sunni all nurse memories of being massacred. Some 180,000 Kurds were slaughtered during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign in the late 1980s; tens of thousands of Shia were killed when their uprising was crushed by the Iraqi army in 1991; the Sunni were the main victims of the sectarian civil war of 2006-7 when, at its worst, 3,000 bodies were being found every month in Baghdad.

The legacy of these massacres is that each of the three main Iraqi communities behaves as if it were a separate country. The political system was devised to encourage power sharing with none of the three main communities able to disregard the others. In practice, unwillingness to make concessions has turned into a recipe for a permanent political stalemate.

The natural reaction of Iraqi politicians when faced with a crisis in relations with another Iraqi community is not to compromise but to seek foreign allies. It is this which is making it so difficult to re-create Iraq as a genuinely independent state. Iraqis often deceive themselves about this.

Sunni who believe themselves to be non-sectarian simply re-label Shia leaders as quasi-Iranians. Shia leaders welcome the Sunni as their brothers, but then try to exclude those whom they denounce as Baathists. The Kurds remain deeply fearful of Sunni and Shia Arabs uniting to end Kurdistan’s quasi-independence.

For all these strains Iraq has achieved a sort of stability. Shia and Sunni may not like each other, but there are three Shia to every Sunni. The civil war had winners and losers and it was the Shia who emerged as the victors. It is they and the Kurds who control the state and they are not going to give this up. For all the differences between the Kurds and Arabs over territorial control in northern Iraq, the Kurds have a lot to lose to let this spill over into war.

The next Iraqi government, its formation so long delayed because of divisions within the Shia camp over the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is likely to look very like the present one. It will be dominated by the Shia and the Kurds with some token concessions to the Sunni. The Sunni may not be happy but it is doubtful if they have the strength to start another insurrection.

For good or ill, the present Iraqi political system is gelling. The external forces which destabilised it are becoming less powerful. The US army is withdrawing. This is presented as a source of instability, but in practice the presence of an American land army in Iraq since 2003 has been profoundly destabilising for the whole ?Iran and Syria both took seriously President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech denouncing their governments, and made sure the US never pacified Iraq.

The Iranians have largely got what they wanted, which is the dominance of their Shia co-religionists in Iraq and the departure of American forces. Such an outcome is not unexpected. Once President Bush and Tony Blair decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein it was likely that his predominantly Sunni regime was going to be replaced by one dominated by the Shia, and Iranian influence in Iraq would become paramount compared to other foreign states. For seven years Washington struggled vainly to avoid this near inevitable outcome. The new Iraq may not be a very nice place, but it has probably come to stay.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail