By year three of Iraq’s occupation, for most western citizens the fact that they live in a world subjugated by lies, half-truths and suppressed facts has become part of everyday life. In Iraq, a preoccupation for many of the country’s citizens, including some who initially supported the war, is whether their country will survive or whether the result of western recolonisation will soon be disintegration. A Hobbesian landscape today could lead to a tripartite division tomorrow.
In the last half of the preceding century, the great Iraqi poet, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, himself the son of a Shia cleric and born in the holy city of Najaf, could express his detachment from religious sectarianism and affirm his faith in an Iraqi nationalism: ana al-Iraqu, lisani qalbuhu, wa dami furatuhu, wa kiyani minhu ashtaru (I am Iraq, her heart is my tongue, my blood her Euphrates, my very being from her branches formed). It seems a very long time ago.
What lies ahead? The US occupation is heavily dependent on the de facto support of the Shia political parties, especially Sciri (the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq), Tehran’s instrument in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani, who, soon after the fall of Baghdad, told Iraqis of every hue that he favoured an independent and united Iraq, may have meant it at the time, but events have moved on. When Sistani prevented Shia groups from waging their own struggle and persuaded Moqtada al-Sadr to cease resistance, he also dented the unity of the country. A unified resistance fighting on two fronts could have led to a unified government later. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, has demanded that Sistani be awarded the Nobel peace prize.
Had the Shia parties decided to resist the occupation, it would have been over a long time ago, if indeed it had taken place at all. The clerics in power in Iran made clear to Washington that they would not oppose the overthrow of the Taliban or of Saddam Hussein. They did so for their own motives and in their own interests, but theirs was a dangerous game. Had the Ba’athists and military nationalists not resisted, instead denying Bush and Blair the glory of which they dreamed and creating a crisis of confidence in Washington and London, regime change in Tehran might have remained on the agenda, despite Iranian support for the US.
Ironically enough, it is the resistance in Iraq that has made any such adventure impossible in the medium term. The US army high command, overstretched in Iraq, is seriously divided on the war and there is little doubt that some senior figures in the Pentagon favour a rapid withdrawal for purely military reasons. Could the empire, stalemated militarily, pull off a political triumph? A break-up of Iraq, which besides its cousin Syria was the only state resisting US domination, would mean a victory of sorts. There should be no doubt on this score.
The Iraqi group that has benefited the most from the occupation is the Kurdish tribal leadership. The Kurds received a great deal of funding for 12 years prior to the war, and US intelligence agencies utilised the region as a base to penetrate the rest of the country. The Kurds dominate the puppet army and police; they have determined the ultra-federal character of the constitution and make no secret of the fact that they favour an ethnic cleansing of Arabs and other non-Kurds in Kirkuk, including those born in the city. Oppressed minorities in one epoch can rapidly become oppressors in another as Israel continues to demonstrate to the world. The Kurdish leaders, with Kirkuk in their bag, are happy to become a western protectorate.
If the clerically enforced unity of the Shia groups collapses, and it could if denied the luxury of American troops and air support, a new deal might be possible to prevent the Balkanisation of Iraq. The same could happen if Tehran decides that a genuinely independent Iraq is in the best interests of the region, but rational calculation has not always been the mullahs’ strongest suite. A happy ending is not in sight.
And the oil? The model being prepared at the moment will cost Iraq billions in lost revenues while global corporations reap the harvest. The contracts being prepared would provide them with returns of 42% to 162% in an industry where the minimum returns are in the region of 12%. While the oil will remain the legal property of the state, the production-sharing agreements (PSAs) will give the concessions to private companies. This too would be seen as a victory by Halliburton and its political patrons. As long as an Iraqi government backs the PSAs, the US and Britain could withdraw their troops and claim a victory. The triumph of freedom would be reflected in the oil agreement. After all, little else counts. But could such a deal be maintained indefinitely without the presence of imperial troops? Unlikely. Oil has, in the past, revitalised nationalist movements and transformed politics in Iran and Iraq. Times are different today, but the basic problems remain, and the struggle for the oil could be a protracted one.
TARIQ ALI is author of the recently released Street Fighting Years (new edition) and, with David Barsamian, Speaking of Empires & Resistance. He can be reached at: email@example.com