The belief that Saddam's regime was the glue that held together the fragmented mosaic of Iraq has proved to be true. It is now too late to resurrect a strong centre. New political forces have emerged with strong localised support and the ability to project power far more effectively than the nascent institutions of the new Iraqi state. These forces also have very different ideas as to how Iraq should be constructed and what it will mean to be an Iraqi in the future. For the Kurds, the problem is the legitimacy of the state itself. For the Shia, it is the nature of the state. In an ideal world, the Kurds would secede, with or without Kirkuk, and even without oil if it meant establishing their own state. Kurdish politicians are caught between satisfying a realist position in Baghdad and representing an increasingly noisy secessionist voice in the north. This Kurdish disenchantment with Iraq has not gone unnoticed among the two main Arab groups and it is increasingly common to hear the refrain, "let them leave if they wish to, but not with Kirkuk." Until an Arab-dominated Iraqi army is in a position to attempt to bring the Kurds back into Iraq, there will be little fighting in the north. For that reason, a Quebec-like asymmetrical decentralisation—in which the Kurdish region opts out of the Arab Iraqi state for most purposes—is likely to be officially recognised at some point soon.
The nature of the dispute between Sunnis and Shias is much more complex, as it is about who controls the narrative of the Iraqi state—what it means to be an Iraqi. For most of the 20th century, the narrative was one of Arab Sunni nationalism. Now, the Shia are struggling to win it back. The real struggle is in Baghdad and it is imbued with the symbolism of ancient religious disputes from the formative years of Islam itself. The struggle is further complicated by the fact that whereas Shiastan has resources, a relatively homogeneous population and a political leadership with some legitimacy, none of this can be said of Sunnistan—the most unstable part of Iraq.
The re-emergence of ethno-sectarian identities in Iraq should not have taken policymakers or academics by surprise. The Soviet collapse, for example, led to the intensification of ethnic conflict in several successor states, including Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, and changes in the ethnic balance of power in Yugoslavia quickly heralded that state's demise. Iraq is mirroring this pattern closely.
America and Britain still have some influence over events. We need to consider the most realistic and appropriate options still available. The return to a looser form of the Iraq state is a difficult process that requires careful management. If it can be achieved with little bloodshed and disruption, it will be a great prize. The alternative seems to be break-up by a long, low-level civil war—which would be a stain on the western conscience for decades to come.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
That's the advice in Gareth Stansfield's cover story of Britain's Prospect magazine: