A year ago I predicted that Civil War would break out in Iraq as soon as the occupation force left, no matter how long that took, and that such a war would probably end in the division of the country into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia nations. As the Bush Regime beats a hasty retreat from its latest military, humanitarian and PR disaster in the Mideast, that prediction looks more and more likely. In fact, the civil war has already begun, as various factions are already massing militias, assassinating each other’s leaders in the provisional government, and aligning with local tribes, warlords and foreign military and intelligence supporters.
This week’s New Yorker contains the latest insights from award-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. None of the factions, he says, is happy with ex-Baathist hitman Iyad Allawi, the man selected to be interim Prime Minister when the US occupation force formally transfers power next week. The group least happy with recent developments is the Northern Iraqi Kurds, who, in the latest accord, have lost the guarantee of autonomy that had been promised them by the occupying force. They are agitating for an independent Kurdistan region (see yellow on map above), and the Israeli military and intelligence services have a large force in this region training Kurdish commando units. The Kurds have the largest military force in the country, the 75,000-strong peshmerga army, and their leaders recently wrote to Bush that if their autonomy rights are not restored they will not participate in the new Shia-controlled government.
Watch out for an attack by the peshmergas on Kirkuk as the first sign of all-out civil war. This flashpoint city, Iraq’s 5th largest, is part of the historical Kurdish homeland, and the centre of one of the richest oil areas in the country, but was ‘Arabized’ by extensive resettlement under Saddam Hussein. Hersh quotes an American military expert who predicts “If Kirkuk is threatened by the Kurds, the Sunni insurgents will move in there, along with the Turkomen [the Turkish ethnic minority in Northern Iraq], and there will be a bloodbath.” Kurdish military action will also likely provoke joint response from Iran, Syria, and (until recently unaligned) Turkey, as all three countries have sizeable populations and areas dominated by ethnic Kurds, who believe these lands should be part of a greater Kurdistan. Although Wolfowitz apparently favours an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, and the Israelis would be delighted to have the Kurds as an ally in the region, the official US position remains that Iraq should remain united. That’s easy for them to say, now that they are leaving — they can blame the civil war and break-up on the new Iraq government and on the UN, who will oversee it.
There is a very real threat that the civil war will quickly spread beyond the borders of Iraq. Turkey, which has become decidedly less pro-Western in recent months, has said bluntly “We tell our Israeli and Kurdish friends that Turkey’s good will lies in keeping Iraq together. We will not support alternative solutions”. And Saudi Arabia, always the most reluctant, unlikely, and taciturn ally of the West, has been the target of insurgents who are making it harder and harder for the rich Saudi elite to hold back the fiercely anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the country and stay on the sidelines. If forced to take sides between an Islamic alliance of Iran, Iraqi insurgents and Syria on one side, and America, Israel and Kurdistan on the other, there is no question where its sympathies would lie. Its role, or willingness to sit out a civil war on its Northern border, will be pivotal in determining the length and outcome of the war. Look to them to try to look neutral, while financing and arming the Sunnis, while Iran will be much more overt in its political and military support for Iraq’s Southern Shia.
What is particularly frightening is that there is little doubt that Iran either now has, or will soon have, nuclear weapons capability, so that, as in the India-Pakistan conflict to the East, it is likely that nuclear bombs will be threatened by the area’s bitterest enemies, Israel and Iran. In both countries a threatened (but not actual) nuclear attack on the other country or its Iraq allies would probably be politically acceptable to the citizens at home. And both countries’ governments would welcome a foreign conflict to divert world and domestic attention from their controversial, unpopular and morally questionable activities at home.
It in unclear to what extent the Sunni Moslems of Central Iraq will be willing to coexist with the Shia Moslems of the South. While Shia Moslems make up 60% of Iraq’s population, except for Iran they are hugely outnumbered by Sunnis in the rest of the Mideast, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. And the Sunni central section of the country contains most of the oil wealth and pipelines. When the common enemy, the occupying force, leaves next week, the gloves between the two factions may come off. That would pit Iran against the other Islamic countries in the Mideast, a situation it will likely go to great pains to avoid. Expect some back-room dealing between Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, which may prolong the conflict but will probably ultimately produce a partitioning of the country.
All of this is likely to mean a long period of unrest and continued death and destruction, as a country with three peoples who dislike and distrust each other, after a hiatus under Saddam and another under the hapless and underresourced Americans, finally get down to determining the future of their country. In such cases, Balkanization has been a global trend for more than a century, so I will predict that there will be, more or less, three countries, uneasily coexisting, after a prolonged and brutal war. The South may combine with Iran, the Kurds will agitate for additional territory in Turkey, but probably settle for what they can get, and the Centre will be squeezed to share oil revenues and infrastructure with both, and become, Yugoslavia-style, all that remains of what was once a much larger Iraq.
The sad thing is that every country except Iraq itself stands to gain from such a war. America can say it got rid of Saddam and then left (people will forget the intervening year of incompetent occupation soon enough, especially if the neocons lose power in November so military involvement isn’t further prolonged). Israel will have a new ally in Kurdistan. Iran will have entrenched itself as the preeminent power in the area. The Saudi government will once again be able to be vocally anti-American and keep its people happy. Even the Turks will be able to tell its Eastern Kurdish residents that if they don’t like their status in Turkey they can now go to their own new country next door. The military contractors will all make a fortune, the mercenaries will have jobs for their short lifetimes, and everyone will have Iraq as an excuse for ignoring their own domestic problems.
The sticking point, of course, is the oil. The Western addiction to oil is now being matched by a similar thirst from China. The corporatists will, as a result, get free rein, no matter who is elected, to rev up arctic, offshore and other eco-sensitive and wilderness area drilling, the coal industry will finish off Appalachia and start strip-mining and burning lots more coal in other countries, and the nukes will be dusted off and fired up. At the same time the cost and unsustainability of this addiction will start to dawn on North America, which will follow Europe, at last, in accelerating use of renewable energy, and upping the price of hydrocarbons to discourage their use (and grab needed tax dollars in the process). Whether that’s enough to forestall an energy crisis unlike anything we could imagine is unclear, but I don’t see the intermittent sputtering of supplies from Iraq being enough to tip it one way or the other.
My final prediction is that, just as in Afghanistan, the West will lose interest in what’s happening in Iraq long before the people of the country settle their differences and truly begin rebuilding their shattered lives. But at least now, that inevitable, bloody process can start.
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I’ve been talking about the potential for a civil war or worse, a regional war, before the war even began. When the ousting of Saddam occurred last April and Bush was gleefully pronouncing major combat operations over I was saying you haven’t seen nothing yet. Even now I have debates with pro-war people. They argue that even despite no WMD being found and no links to al-Qaeda and the problems that exist over there now that the was was still justified because Iraqi’s are better off now without Saddam. My response to that is, if a civil war breaks out and tens or even hundreds of thousands get killed all while living in a state of war and fear for their lives every day, they won’t be better off. (as a side note, about a month ago I saw an interview with one Iraqi who said Saddam knew who his enemies were and he killed them but under the American occupation everyone lives in fear, enemy or not. Not sure that is an improvement.)The problem with a Kurdish state is that the Kurds in Turkey will want to become apart of that state and we will end up with a civil war in Turkey too. This is why Turkey wants Iraq to remain whole. If you recall prior to the war there were some fears of Turkey moving troops into Iraq ‘to protect their borders’ but in reality it was likely to stop and Kurdish power gram in Iraq that could set off Turkish Kurds.You wrote:”The sad thing is that every country except Iraq itself stands to gain from such a war. America can say it got rid of Saddam and then left (people will forget the intervening year of incompetent occupation soon enough, especially if the neocons lose power in November so military involvement isn’t further prolonged). Israel will have a new ally in Kurdistan. Iran will have entrenched itself as the preeminent power in the area. The Saudi government will once again be able to be vocally anti-American and keep its people happy. Even the Turks will be able to tell its Eastern Kurdish residents that if they don’t like theirstatus in Turkey they can now go to their own new country next door. The military contractors will all make a fortune, the mercenaries will have jobs for their short lifetimes, and everyone will have Iraq as an excuse for ignoring their own domestic problems.”Personally, if the other stuff you mention occurs the above is an optimistic view of things. If Israel gets into an all out war with Iran, do you think the citizens of, say, Egypt and Jordan will sit still? Not likely. While Egypt and Jordan are ‘at peace’ (largely bought peace with American money) with Israel, should Israel enter an all out war with another Arab country the people of Jordan and Egypt might cause a civil uprising in their own countries and force their leaders to take sides against Israel.As for the Turkish Kurds, they aren’t going to accept the Turkish leaders offer to leave their homes and move to Kurdistan. That is being pretty optimistic. They more likely will rise up against Turkey and attempt split off a chunk of Kurdish dominated land and join it on to the new found Kurdistan.One other thing. You forgot all about the biggest beneficiary of a civil/regional war. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Terrorist camps will start popping up in Iraq faster than terrorists can set off car bombs.
Good analysis, David, thanks.
I guess I’m not so convinced the enmity between Iran and Israel is that complete.
we have been here before”Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt.” Emperor Hadrian AD 117-138
If Iraq splits up, Turkey won’t sit by and let them set up an independent Kurdistan. They’ll use protecting the Turkomen in the region as an excuse to invade, and try to take the place from Mosul to Kirkuk. They want that oil, they’ll accept letting an Arab government have it, but they won’t tolerate an oil-rich, independent nation of Kurds.
Mr. Pollard,Very thoughtful,in depth analysis that does not get enough play. We can be sure that the administration frets over this seeming inevitability. Park in Seattle