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A few days after the US announced that it had withdrawn its last combat brigade from Iraq, the local branch of al-Qa’ida staged a show of strength, killing or wounding 300 people in attacks across the country.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
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nasty As They Wanna Be
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Chris Welzenbach
The Forgotten Sneak Attack
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Yoav Litvin
Resist or Conform: Lessons in Fortitude and Weakness From the Israeli Left
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Pierre Labossiere – Margaret Prescod
Human Rights and Alternative Media Delegation Report on Haiti’s Elections
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
David Yearsley
Brahms and the Tears of Britain’s Oppressed
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail