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June 16, 2005

Shi'ites: Game; Kurds: Set; Sunnis: Match; US: Loss

by Leon Hadar

There is something pathetic in the recent efforts by the Bush administration (reported by the New York Times this week) to try to enlist Europe, the Arab world, and the United Nations to pressure the ruling Shi'ite-Kurdish coalition in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to include members of the Sunni minority in the political process.

After all, these European and Arab states, as well as the majority of the UN members, opposed the unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq. Moreover, the Bush administration threatened after the invasion that Washington would "punish" France and Germany for their refusal to back the American occupation of Iraq. It also threatened that it would take steps to form an alternative organization of democratic nations to replace the United Nations. A few neoconservative ideologues even hinted that they would like to get rid of the current authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

And now the same regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with "Old Europe" – France and Germany – and the much-maligned UN are being asked by the same American officials to please press the, yes, democratically elected government that has been backed by 140,000 U.S. troops to try to be a bit more open and democratic.

It doesn't bode well for the long-term viability of the emerging Democratic Empire if the imperial power is not able to impose its will – not to mention its set of liberal democratic values – on a weak government that is dependent on the United States for its survival. And all of this is happening just as some Americans are considering another regime change, this time in Iran.

So here we have another of those bizarre foreign policies produced by the Bush team in which the Saudi theocracy and the Egyptian military regime – which rule over the two most important Arab Sunni countries in the Middle East – are being recruited by the Americans in the campaign to democratize Iraq and the Middle East, and to help in strengthening an Arab-Shi'ite government with ties to a traditional enemy of the Arab Sunni states in the region, Iran.

Waste of Money

Washington may try to market this interesting and complex spin during the coming international conference on Iraq in Brussels. During this meeting, some nations would probably provide some assistance to help in the economic reconstruction of Iraq, which could turn out to be a waste of money if the country is not secure and stable any time soon.

But security and stability will only come not if and when the new rulers of Iraq are forced to play by this or that democratic rule, but if and when the three major ethnic and religious groups of Iraq – the majority Shi'ites and the Kurdish and Sunni minorities – reach an accord to divide power among them.

The problem is that such a workable deal between the three groups that will bring the Sunnis into the coalition and lead to the drawing up of a constitution looks very unlikely even under the best of circumstances, that is, when all sides agree to forgive and forget past sins by the rival groups (expulsions of Kurds, massacres of Shi'ites, assassinations of Sunnis) and refrain from settling old scores.

Withdrawal of U.S. Troops

Furthermore, any legitimate Sunni leadership would demand the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the re-creation of a unitary Iraqi state, since the only sense of identity that can allow the Sunnis to feel part of Iraq is rooted in Arab-Iraqi nationalism. But both the Shi'ites and the Kurds know that only American military support would prevent the Sunnis, who are backed by outside Arab-Sunni forces, from regaining control of Iraq. They want to Americans to remain in Iraq to prevent the reemergence of Sunni power.

The Kurds can be expected to oppose even an agreement on a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal and insist on the establishment of a decentralized Iraq and the control of oil-rich Kirkuk. But both the Shi'ites and the Sunnis – as well the Turkish government – reject those demands by the Kurds.

At the same time, any sensible Kurdish or Sunni leader would recognize that a deal with the Shi'ite majority would lead to the increasing influence of Shi'ite clerics and Iran in Iraq, which makes it even more difficult to reach an agreement between the three groups. The Saudis and the Egyptians are certainly worried that, indeed, a Shi'ite-ruled Iraq would become a political-military satellite of Iran.

That complex reality of the never-ending shifting of national, ethnic, and religious alliances in Iraq and the Middle East makes it inevitable that American troops will remain in the country for years, and like their British imperial predecessors in the region, pursue a divide-and-rule strategy that will only become more and more costly.

Ironically, the two governments that could actually help the Americans stabilize the situation in Iraq are Iran, whose ruling clerics have strong political and military ties to the Shi'ites across the border, and Syria, whose government is worried that the religious radicalization of the Sunnis in Iraq could spill over into the Sunni majority in Syria.

But Washington is not about to seek the help of those two governments, since it expects them to collapse soon under the force of the "democratic revolution" sweeping the broader Middle East, the one that has supposedly just reached Lebanon.

There, a coalition of Saudi-backed Sunni, Maronite, and Druze warlords is pitted against a pro-Syrian Shi'ite political-military alliance, and an anti-Syrian ex-general – who enjoys the support of (surprise! surprise!) pro-Syrian parties – could become the kingmaker.

That is hailed in Washington as good news for America. Which is probably true if we compare it to the situation in Iraq.

Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author's permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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