A few days after the US announced that it had withdrawn its last combat brigade from Iraq, the local branch of al-Qa’ida staged a show of strength, killing or wounding 300 people in attacks across the country.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