Iraq

Death of the prominent Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim and the formation of a new Shiite alliance has thrown open Iraqi politics ahead of election early next year. Abdul Hakim was the leader of the largest Shiite party ISCI.  ISCI and it's former military wing Badr brigade is closely aligned to Iran. In the mean time Sunni insurgent attacks have intensified after U.S troop withdrawals from the Cities. Sunni insurgents have targetted all the major cities including Baghdad. Sunni insurgents belonging to former ruling Baath Party and Al-Qaida have been lying low during the U.S troop surge in 2008. Now that he U.S troops are withdrawn from the cities and U.S administration has re focused it's anti terrorism efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan , Iraqi insurgents have resumed their attacks on the weak Iraqi security forces.New alliance led by former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari will be even more close to Iranian government.  New Alliance is called Iraqi National Alliance and it includes both ISCI and anti american cleric  Muqdada Al-Sadr. In order to understand Iraqi politics  we have to look into the recent history of Iraq.

Contemporary Iraq became a British protectorate at the end of Ottoman empire after the first world war. British based their administration in Baghdad in central Iraq and developed a highly centralised administration. As the practice followed in the British colonies (divide and rule) , British developed strong relationship with Sunni tribes in Central Iraq and practically neglected the south and North.

However British faced strong resistance from Iraqi people to the occupation and specifically from southern tribes (Shiite). Due to this resistance British finally gave up the protectorate in favour of Hashemite kingdom. However the monarchy was Sunni and so was the administration. From 1940 s the state power remained in the hand of Sunnis from Central Iraq. This included the state echelons including the army.

In 1958 the pro-western monarchy was overthrown and a military government came to power. The government nationalised the oil industry (based in South and North) . This government and subsequent Baathist governments followed Nationalist policies. This in turn meant highly centralised administration and tighter control over the oil wealth. Although government followed nationalist and populist policies the state machinery remained in the hands of Sunni Arabs. Distribution of the oil wealth was skewed around the central Iraq. Although cities like Basra (in the south) and Kirkuk(in the North) developed under Baathist rule in a nutshell most of the development was in Central Iraq .

These policies developed into rebellions by Kurds and Shiites. Rebellion by Kurds lead to open warfare and destruction in the North. For strategic reasons this rebellion was supported by Western countries and Israel as a counterweight to nationalist policies of Baathist regime.

Coming to power of the Shiite regime in Iran led to growing religious awareness among Iraqi Shiities. This led to various rebellions in Shiite areas in the South. These were violently suppressed by Saddam's regime. Contrary to the support given to Kurds in the North by Western countries , Shiites were left in the cold as they were perceived as supporters of Iran.

For geopolitical reasons Iraq was supported by western countries in the war against Iran. This involved supply of modern weaponry. At the end of the war Iraq emerged as a major military power in the middle east and thus posed a major challenge to Israel. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait provided an opportunity to U.S to cut down Iraq's military strength and possibly replace Saddam's regime with a pro-western regime which will continue to be hostile to Iran and keep the price of oil down. Strategy of sanctions and no-fly zones was to achieve this objective. However Saddam remained in power and U.S intervened to overthrow the regime.

Objectives of the U.S intervention are as follows

1. Establish a pro-western regime consisting of existing elite which is primarily Sunni.

2. New regime will open up the economy to globalisation. With highly educated and modernised middle class (primarily Sunni) , Iraq had the potential of becoming a Chile.

In spite of the unpopularity of Saddam's regime these objectives were not achieved due to the mistakes of the U.S occupying authority. Firstly the dismantlement of Iraqi army led to massive number of unemployed but highly skilled Sunnis. This coupled with the high handed approach of U.S military led to resentment and finally to the insurgency. Insurgency has cost U.S in men and material. Total cost of the insurgency has far exceeded the cost of the Vietnam War.

Elections were held this year and produced the results contrary to U.S expectations. Shiites in the South voted solidly for the Religious parties. U.S expected the pro western alliance of the interim prime minister Alawi to win the elections. Shiite religious leaders in the South encouraged people to vote in large numbers . The objective was to capture political power in Iraq for the first time in Iraqi history from the Sunni elite. Political objective was achieved with the support of Kurds. Cabinet and administration is now dominated by Shiites and Kurds. In addition Interior ministry and army are now dominated by Shiites.

As the insurgency is being funneled by the Sunni population, US has become more and more dependent on Shiites to provide the personnel for the security forces. In addition administration is also becoming more dependent on Shiites. In a nutshell slowly Shiites with the support of Kurds are taking over the state machinery. However the presence of Bagdhad in Sunni dominated heartland represents a major obstacle to this process.

Thus federalism and de-Baathification forms a critical part of the new constitution introduced in 2006 . This would enable Shiites to charge of the Oil industry based in South . Currently this is the only industry which is exporting oil with Northern sector sabotaged regularly by the insurgency. In addition de-Baathification which in practice means that Sunnis will lose the jobs and will be replaced by Shiites.

So it is natural that Sunnis will be opposed to the constitution. But the reality is that as the insurgency will continue political will pass further into the hands of Shiites as US will be more and more dependent on Shias to defeat the insurgency. There are major risks for US in terms of these developments.

Religious Shia leadership strategy is to use the occupation to win the political power in Iraq. At one point in time they will reach a political understanding with Sunnis and it will be in their terms. At this point US forces will be reduced. But the major risk for US will be stability of it's allies in the region , Kuwait , Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

A future Shiite led Iraq will naturally come into conflict with economic interests of Kuwait. At the end of Kuwait invasion, under UN arbitration new boundary lines was drawn up between Iraq and Kuwait . This has significantly benefited Kuwait. But a Shiite led Iraq based on political support in the South will demand revision of the arbitration. US will have to choose between an ostensible Iraqi Ally and Kuwait.

Strong Kurdish Northern Iraq will come into conflict with Turkey. Despite denials from Kurdish leadership , Turkish Kurds receive support from Iraqi Kurds. Resurgence of PKK in Turkey in the recent months is an indicator. During Saddam's days Turkey with tacit understanding of Saddam regularly crossed the border to attack PKK. This is no longer possible with Iraq under US occupation. One would expect Turkish Kurd insurgency to get worse.

Saudi Arabia has a sizable Shiite population especially in Eastern part of the country. Shiites in Saudi Arabia will be emboldened by the success of the fellow shiites in Iraq and will demand regional autonomy or even separation.

In a summary US objectives in Iraq may actually backfire on US strategic interests in Middle East. Instead of having a Pro-western and anti- Iranian regime in Iraq, Pro-Iranian Shia led government in Iraq will be a major threat to US allies in the region.

25th April 2006

Updated 26th August 2009
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