Welcome to the quagmire

The Bush administration invaded Iraq a year ago expecting a shower of rose petals. Today, the country is on the verge of chaos, and there may be no way to stop it.

By Juan Cole
Published March 20, 2004 12:13AM (EST)

The Bush administration's hope for a clean, quick transition to a sovereign Iraqi government on June 30 has been dealt a series of blows by local Iraqi political forces, of which the bombing campaign by insurgents is only one. Only a year before, the Americans who planned the invasion were largely ignorant of these groups and their leaders. In their haste to hand over Iraq to someone, the Americans have ceased even trying to find solutions to the most divisive issues, creating a series of political time bombs for the future.

Last summer, the U.S. civil administrator, Paul Bremer, said: "We dominate the scene and we will continue to impose our will on this country." But by early November, it had become absolutely clear that the U.S. could not hope to rule Iraq by fiat for a matter of years, as the Bush administration had earlier envisioned. The ongoing Sunni Arab insurgency and widespread lack of security had already made the center-north of the country ungovernable. It even made the capital unsafe, as the recent horrific bombings at Kazimiyah and at the Mount Lebanon Hotel have demonstrated.

The Kurds had blocked an American attempt to bring in 12,000 Turkish troops to fight the insurgents in the Sunni Arab areas, ensuring that U.S. soldiers remained on the front line in Fallujah and Ramadi. The U.S. was weak in the north and relied heavily on the Kurdish militias, or peshmergas. Were the majority Shiites to grow weary of Coalition Provisional Authority rule and begin an uprising of their own, the Americans in Baghdad came to recognize, the entire country could fall into chaos.

By Nov. 15, Bremer had hammered out an agreement with Iraqis on the appointed Interim Governing Council that would allow a transition to a sovereign and more legitimate Iraqi government by June 30. But then everything fell apart, as Bremer's plan smashed into one brick wall after another.

Today, a year after the invasion, the dream of a democratic Iraq sits on a foundation that is fractured by rivalries, conflicts and schisms. Will Iraq be a secular state or governed by Islamic law? Will it have a strong central government or a loose federalism? Will women retain their legal rights or face fundamentalist patriarchy? Will the ethnic Kurds become semi-autonomous and gain a consolidated Kurdish super-province?

Any one of those questions, by itself, could be enough to tear the country apart. The hopes of some in Washington that Paul Bremer would be a second Gen. MacArthur, crafting a permanent Iraqi constitution and imposing a new government, were brought down by the unexpected guerrilla resistance. And the administration of President Bush, for all of its early optimism, has found that it has at best limited leverage over the underlying conflicts.

Imposing solutions by force of will has proven impossible. Bremer struck temporary compromises with the Shiites, who make up a majority of Iraq's population, and with the Kurds, who have been longtime allies, but all the difficult decisions have been put off because of weakness or fear. And now, as the administration looks for a way to resolve the quagmire before it turns into an election-year debacle, it must seem to Bremer that even with superlative diplomacy, the U.S. risks extraordinary turmoil no matter whether it pulls out or stays.

The Bush administration plan for democratizing Iraq implied from the very beginning that the country would be dominated by Shiites, who comprise 65 percent of the population. Not only would that be unacceptable to the Sunni Muslim minority who make up the nation's elite, but a Shiite-led Baghdad is highly likely to enjoy warm relations with Shiite Iran, as well as with the Arab Shiites of southern Lebanon (think Hezbollah). The administration of the first President Bush in the early 1990s declined to overthrow the Baath regime or to help the Shiite uprising in the spring of 1991 precisely because it feared this outcome.

Most of the obstacles to the Nov. 15 plan were rooted in ethnic politics. Bremer had wanted the new government to be elected by provincial councils. He recognized that for elections to be held, an interim constitution would have to be hammered out. In turn, the negotiations would have to settle a number of outstanding conflicts. Would the Kurds be allowed to create a semi-autonomous ethnic enclave? Would the religious parties accept a separation of religion and state? Would the long-dominant Sunni Arabs (about 15 percent of the population) acquiesce in their demotion to a small minority in a democratic system?

Only days after the announcement of the Nov. 15 accord, Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani came out against it, on two main grounds. First, there had been no mention of the place of Islam in the initial plan, nor any guarantee that the new government would avoid passing laws that contradicted Islam. Second, the plan called for elections by provincial and municipal councils rather than by the electorate at large.

Those provincial and municipal councils had in some instances been appointed by the Coalition or by military officers, or had been chosen by a handpicked group of local notables gathered for that purpose by the Coalition or its subcontractors. In short, they were not democratic.

Sistani had read some Western political science in translation, and adopted into his reading of Islamic law Jean-Jacques Rousseau's principle that the only legitimate government is one that "derives from the will of the people." He wrote in November that the council-based method of election "does not guarantee the formation of an assembly that truly represents the Iraqi people. It must be changed to another process that would so guarantee, that is, to [direct] elections. In this way, the parliament would spring from the will of the Iraqis and would represent them in a just manner and would prevent any diminution of Islamic law."

Sistani mattered, as Bremer had already discovered to his dismay. In the Shiite Muslim system, each believer is expected to choose a great cleric and to follow implicitly his rulings on disputed matters in Islamic law. The more learned and upright the cleric is perceived to be, the greater authority he tends to have.

As the leading scholar of Islamic law in the holy city of Najaf, Sistani is the cleric most widely respected and obeyed (the technical term is "emulated") by Iraqi Shiites. His authority extends beyond Iraq, as well, to Lebanon, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Sistani came to Najaf from Iran in 1952, and spent years studying with the great scholars of Najaf, rising to become one of a handful of grand ayatollahs by the 1980s. In 1992, the mantle of "Object of Emulation" or most-respected religious jurisprudent, fell on his shoulders.

Under Saddam, Sistani was under constant threat of execution, and he tended to stay quiet and to avoid conflict with the regime. He also was at odds with Ayatollah Khomeini and the clerical leaders of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, since he rejected Khomeini's doctrine that clerics must rule society. Sistani believes that clerics should stay out of day-to-day government, but should intervene in social matters with their rulings or fatwas. These are legally non-binding, but exercise great moral authority, rather like papal encyclicals for believing Catholics.

Bremer responded to Sistani's demands in two ways. He immediately gave in to the insistence that the interim constitution recognize Islam as the religion of state, attempting to neutralize that hot-button issue. But on the issue of direct elections, he succeeded in convincing even Shiites like Ahmad Chalabi on the Interim Governing Council to vote against the grand ayatollah. Bremer held that without voting rolls or voting laws, elections were not possible.

Sistani would not be put off. He demanded that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan become involved, by sending a commission to Iraq that would investigate the situation and certify whether direct elections were possible. The Bush administration had long attempted to keep the U.N. out of decision-making on Iraq. When the members of the Interim Governing Council warmed to the idea of meeting with Annan on the issue, the Americans were reportedly "extremely offended."

By setting a fixed date, June 30, for the end of their rule, the Americans and the Coalition had made themselves lame ducks. They had also set in motion a scramble for power among the major Iraqi leaders. In late December, two sets of politicians on the Interim Governing Council made their move.

Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and a member of the Interim Governing Council scheduled a vote at the interim council on the issue of personal status law. Al-Hakim wanted to abolish the 1959 civil code that governs marriage, divorce, inheritance and other such issues and go back to religious law. He held the vote when two women members of the IGC were absent, and it passed 11 to 10.

The new law was highly controversial, especially among women. Most Muslim clerics interpret Islamic personal status law in ways that make women unequal to men. In Iran, a woman receives only half the inheritance that her brother does. Her testimony in court is worth half that of a man (making it impossible for her to convict her own rapist if she has no witnesses). She is not owed alimony on being divorced. A man can take up to four wives, and, in Shiite Islam, can have temporary wives with whom he signs a contract. Women's groups took to the streets in protest, and the only female minister appointed by the IGC, Nasrin Barwari, joined the demonstrations.

In the meantime, the two major Kurdish leaders made their play. Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani had battled shoulder-to-shoulder against Saddam, but occasionally had also fought one another. Kurds probably make up around 15 percent of Iraqis, with a current population of nearly 4 million, and they predominate in the far northeast of the country. The Kurds have run their own mini-government in the north since the early 1990s, when the U.S. established its no-fly zone.

Barzani and Talabani announced that they would form a unified provincial government of the Kurdistan region, and that they sought the addition to their territory of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other regions with substantial Kurdish populations. Kurds marched in favor of the plan, carrying their firearms.

Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk organized counter-demonstrations, but were told by the largely Kurdish police that they had to disarm. Turkmen, a Turkic-speaking people close to a million strong, predominated in Kirkuk traditionally. Oil-driven urbanization in the north, combined with Saddam's expulsion of Kurds and his policy of relocating hundreds of thousands of Arabs to the north, left the city of 900,000 evenly divided among Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds.

When Arabs demonstrated against the annexation of the city to the planned Kurdish canton, they came into armed conflict with the largely Kurdish police. Later in January, Coalition authorities arrested a high Kurdish official whom they charged with ordering peshmergas to shoot at protesting Arabs and Turkmen.

As if the Kirkuk situation were not sufficiently complicated by ethnic divisions, religion also enters into the disputes. A significant proportion of Turkmen belong to the Shiite branch of Islam, and some follow the radical young cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Some of the transplanted Arabs in the city are also Shiite. Al-Sadr preached against annexation of Kirkuk by the Kurds, and denounced Kurdish plans for semi-autonomy. He is said to have sent fighters up to Kirkuk to help the Shiites there. The Kurds have many more trained fighters than the other communities, and their decade-old experiment in self-rule made them politically savvy, so that they seem confident they can meet these challenges from smaller ethnic groups in the north.

In mid-February, the Kurdish regional government presented a blueprint to Baghdad that laid out its aspirations. They want a provincial national guard, which will absorb the Kurdish guerrillas or peshmergas. They declaim, "Except for the Iraqi Kurdistan National Guard ... the Armed Forces of Iraq shall not enter the territory of the Kurdistan Region without the consent of the Kurdistan National Assembly." The latter is not a demand to which any sovereign government could accede, but the Kurds harbor deep bitterness about the history of Baghdad's military interventions in their territory.

The Kurds would like to merge the three provinces in which they form a substantial majority into a single canton. They would like to add to it tracts from three other neighboring provinces where there are significant Kurdish populations. Not surprisingly, they would like to annex to this Kurdish super-province the city of Kirkuk and the hundreds of petroleum wellheads around it. Their plan states, "The natural resources located on the territory of the Kurdistan Region, including water, petroleum and subsoil minerals, belong to the Kurdistan Region."

The CPA decided leave the semi-autonomous Kurdish parliament and government temporarily intact in the north as Iraq moved toward self-rule. The future Iraqi government and the constitutional convention will have to hammer out a compromise on Kurdish semi-autonomy. This process will be fraught with dangers for the new Iraqi state, since any decision reached on the disposition of Kirkuk and its petroleum will displease some faction, and all the factions are heavily armed.

Meanwhile, the Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani was growing impatient with the failure of the U.S. to acquiesce in holding early direct elections. Now he played his trump card. On Jan. 15, he had his lieutenants in the southern Shiite city of Basra bring 30,000 disciplined protesters into the streets, demanding direct elections. It was the largest demonstration postwar Iraq had yet seen.

Then on the following Monday, he had 100,000 protesters rally in Baghdad. A mass movement among the Shiites, at a time when the Sunni Arab provinces were the site of a guerrilla war, was precisely the development that the new government had been intended to forestall. Instead it seemed set to provoke it.

In the face of Sistani's demonstration that he could turn out the masses at will, and could keep them at home if he so ordered, the United States and the United Nations suddenly became more cooperative. Kofi Annan agreed to send special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to assess the possibility of elections. Brahimi's team produced a report confirming the American position, that direct elections before June 30 were impossible, much to the disappointment of Sistani and the Shiites.

The U.N., along with the Americans and the Interim Governing Council, worked out a two-stage plan for a new government. Sovereignty would be handed over to an expanded Interim Governing Council in the summer. It would then arrange for direct elections, of the sort that Sistani demanded, in December of 2004 or January of 2005. There would be no provincial council-based elections. Sistani got what he wanted, with only a six-month delay.

The entire point of the hand-over of sovereignty in the summer of 2004, however, had been to create a new Iraqi government with legitimacy. Now, the Coalition would likely be handing power over to its own appointees, most of whom lacked any real grass-roots popularity.

By early March, the Interim Governing Council passed a basic law or interim constitution. It set Islamist Shiites against Kurds and secular women. The women and secularists on the council reversed the earlier decision to abolish civil personal status, reinstating the secular code. The religious Shiite party leaders on the council were so furious that they stormed out of the meeting. They pledged to agitate for Islamic law in subsequent negotiations.

The interim constitution was roundly denounced as illegitimate and a foreign imposition by mosque preachers the following Friday. Kurds in Kirkuk, who mistakenly thought it gave the city to them, fired off their guns in celebration, accidentally killing a Turkmen, and setting off an ethnic riot. Sunni Arab insurgents paid no attention to the document, simply continuing their deadly bombing campaign in a bid to destabilize Iraq so as to expel the Americans and forestall a Shiite and Kurdish takeover of the country. Many Sunni Arab militants are convinced that democratic rule is a big mistake that will allow the rabble of the other communities to dictate Iraqi politics. They seek some sort of Sunni oligarchy, backed up by arms. Since Sunnis have long been the best-educated Iraqis, who occupied high government posts and dominated the officer corps, many are confident they can return to power as a minority regime (though they would insist they are in fact the majority).

Any transitional government that comes to power in Iraq will have to hold elections and will have to arrange for the drafting of a new constitution. All the issues and conflicts that have bedeviled the writing of the basic law will at that point be revisited. A spokesman for one of the holdouts, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, had said that it was thought unnecessary to fight too hard over the text of the basic law, since it was only temporary. The drafters of the permanent constitution will be less willing to compromise because they will have to live with the resulting document for a long time.

If acceptable compromises cannot be reached among the major players, the country could easily fall into chaos. All the leading factions, including the Kurds and the more militant Shiites, have large, well-armed militias at their beck and call. The low-grade guerrilla insurgency of the Sunni Arabs also is likely to continue for some time. It may not, however, be the most challenging issue Iraqis face as they attempt to hammer out a new destiny -- a destiny not imposed on them by the will of the Bush administration.

Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al-qaida George W. Bush Iraq War