Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Iraq: The Past as Prologue?

Iraqis have suffered a 33-year night­mare, with 23 of those years dominated by Saddam Hussein. The experience has been sufficient to persuade them to guard any chance they have to establish a true democracy.

JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images
JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images
JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

At the beginning of March 1991, the people of Iraq surprised the world with their courage and desire for liberty. They rose up against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, casting their vote for freedom with their lives. Hussein's regime was forced to employ the remnants of a defeated Iraqi army in an attempt to suppress the most widespread popular revolt in Iraq's modern history.

All the regime's security services failed to prevent the revolt of the people. The omnipo­tent and feared Mukhabarat, the brutal Amn al-­Amm, and the police all dissolved into insig­nificance as soon as it was clear that the allied war campaign had demolished Hussein's aura of invincibility. However, the biggest political casualty of all was the Baath party, which was shown to be an empty shell. The people defied its organization and discipline. In the areas of the revolt, its members faced either flight or death. The Baath had become merely the ve­neer that covered Hussein's terror. It ceased to exist beyond this role. The bonds that suppos­edly tied the hundreds of thousands of its purported members together proved to be based on opportunism and fear.

The dictator himself made clear how irrele­vant the Baath party structure was in the crisis. At the outset of the uprising, the state media saw fit to broadcast support for Hussein from tribal chiefs, a curious move on the part of a "progressive" anti-feudalist regime such as the Baath. The regime also found it necessary to kidnap the 94-year-old supreme spiritual leader of the world Shiite community, the Imam ali-Khoei, from the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, and show him on television facing Hussein. The paragon of secular Baathist Arab nationalism had to seek legitimacy from this turbaned victim speaking Arabic with a Persian accent. This spectacle underscored the political bankruptcy of Saddam Hussein.

At the beginning of March 1991, the people of Iraq surprised the world with their courage and desire for liberty. They rose up against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, casting their vote for freedom with their lives. Hussein’s regime was forced to employ the remnants of a defeated Iraqi army in an attempt to suppress the most widespread popular revolt in Iraq’s modern history.

All the regime’s security services failed to prevent the revolt of the people. The omnipo­tent and feared Mukhabarat, the brutal Amn al-­Amm, and the police all dissolved into insig­nificance as soon as it was clear that the allied war campaign had demolished Hussein’s aura of invincibility. However, the biggest political casualty of all was the Baath party, which was shown to be an empty shell. The people defied its organization and discipline. In the areas of the revolt, its members faced either flight or death. The Baath had become merely the ve­neer that covered Hussein’s terror. It ceased to exist beyond this role. The bonds that suppos­edly tied the hundreds of thousands of its purported members together proved to be based on opportunism and fear.

The dictator himself made clear how irrele­vant the Baath party structure was in the crisis. At the outset of the uprising, the state media saw fit to broadcast support for Hussein from tribal chiefs, a curious move on the part of a "progressive" anti-feudalist regime such as the Baath. The regime also found it necessary to kidnap the 94-year-old supreme spiritual leader of the world Shiite community, the Imam ali-Khoei, from the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, and show him on television facing Hussein. The paragon of secular Baathist Arab nationalism had to seek legitimacy from this turbaned victim speaking Arabic with a Persian accent. This spectacle underscored the political bankruptcy of Saddam Hussein.

In the West, Iraq is usually depicted as a country fraught with political violence, unruly and hard to govern. From this picture stems the persistent fear that Iraq, shorn of a dictator, will sink into long-term chaos. Supposedly the various nationalities and sects will soon be at each others’ throats, so a strong, even brutal central authority backed by the army is needed to keep those primitive and destructive passions in check. Without such a check, the fear is that Iraq will break apart or end up in the hands of pro-Iran fanatics. Since both outcomes threaten the interests of the West, and the peace and security of the Persian Gulf region generally, the reluctant conclusion is that the United States must support a strongman in Iraq to keep the country together. Clearly the United States would prefer this man on horseback to be benevolent. But if he does not follow this course, then, it is suggested, the United States has no option. Stability in Iraq is seen as far more important than democracy or basic hu­man rights for Iraqis. Stability in Iraq will help ensure security in the Gulf and hence the free flow of oil to the West and Japan.

This policy has its roots in the post-World War II involvement of the United States in the Arab world. During the Cold War, the overrid­ing concern of American policy was to contain the spread of communism. After securing the so-called Northern Tier of Iran and Turkey against Stalin’s designs, the United States turned its attention to the Arab world. The situation there was complicated by the estab­lishment of Israel and by Arab hostility to the new Jewish state.

The United States decided to support Arab military strongmen who acquired power through military coups, which they portrayed as revolutions. American policymakers thought at the time that these new rulers would be mod­em, introduce reforms in society, and act as a bulwark against communism. That these new rulers dismissed parliaments and abolished constitutions was overlooked. Most Western commentators argued that these parliaments were corrupt anyway and reflected the interests of plutocratic oligarchies that impeded progress. The historical development of European parlia­ments was ignored. The lesson that effective, true parliamentary representation is an evolu­tionary process that requires time to mature was disregarded. Thus the United States, pre­occupied with anticommunism, remained indif­ferent to democracy in the Arab world. The easy road was chosen, the preference for deal­ing with strongmen established. Stability was sought even if it meant the silence of the grave.

A Promising Past

But before outside observers continue to adhere to such views, they should learn a little more about Iraq’s history. The British army occupied Iraq after the Allied victory in World War I. The original intention was to administer Iraq through Britain’s India Office. This policy ran into trouble almost immediately. A revolt spread across Iraq in 1920, with the Shiite South and the Kurdish North the areas of most violent upheaval.

The British authorities suffered heavy expen­ditures and high casualties in suppressing the Iraqi revolt. T. E. Lawrence remarked that it cost Great Britain more than twice as much to suppress the revolt of the tribes of Mesopota­mia after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire than it did to sustain the Arab revolt against the Ottomans. Once the revolt was suppressed, involving ruthless bombing of civilians, the British began to search for a more cost-effective method to maintain their rule in Iraq.

The path they chose was to establish an Iraqi army under the auspices of British power. The creation of this army preceded even the estab­lishment of the Iraqi state. The only Iraqi group with military experience, the former officers of the Ottoman army from the Bagh­dad and Mosul provinces, led the new army. Those officers were all Sunnis, as the Shia were not inducted into the officer corps of the Otto­man army. Altogether about 510 former officers of the Ottoman army returned to Iraq. Over the years many of those officers occupied posi­tions of prominence at the pinnacle of Iraqi politics, including eight who became prime ministers.

The new Iraqi state still posed a serious problem for the British. The Shia accounted for more than 55 per cent of Iraq and the Kurds for about 25 per cent. Both groups were suspicious and resentful of central authority. King Feisal I was obliged to rely on the Arab officers of the Ottoman arm in ruling the country while at the same time seeking to bring the Shia and Kurds into political life. This balancing act was dangerous. The former Otto­man elite were intent upon preserving their power and had some difficulty doing so through their freshly acquired positions in the new state. In seeking to integrate the Shia, King Feisal I risked the discontent of the Sunni mandarins.

The mission of the Iraqi army was the pres­ervation of internal order. It accomplished this task armed with modem weapons and the sup­port of the British. The integrity of the state thus became fused with the political interests of the ex-Ottoman elite of Iraq. On numerous occasions the repression became overt against the Kurds, the Shia, and the Assyrians. King Feisal I was an enlightened and benign ruler, with a sincere desire to build a modem, secular state. But his efforts at nation building were hampered by a predatory minority that sought to guard its advantages jealously.

Arab nationalism became the central canon of the educational policy of the Iraqi state. The school curriculum was written with this in mind — it excluded classical Islamic learning. Al­though the minister of education was usually Shiite, the great Shiite religious centers were excluded from the educational process of the state. Najaf, a center of higher learning for a thousand years, had virtually no influence on any stage of education. The Arab nationalist content of the official literature became increas­ingly aggressive and racist.

The idea of a vanguard to lead the Arab nation began to develop. In the 1930s, Iraq began to be portrayed as the Prussia of the Arabs. The Iraqi army was imbued with a sense of mission to unite the Arab nation. This pro­cess culminated with the infamous speech given by Sami Shawkat, the director general of educa­tion, in 1933 entitled "The Profession of Death." He expounded the most extreme na­tionalist rhetoric and linked it to the role of the Iraqi army. Thus the fascist and racist dictator­ships of Europe in the 1930s spread their dark clouds over Arab nationalism as well. This cauldron contains the origins of Baathism. This is a far cry from the more humane nationalism of Feisal I, which was more an expression of identity and a unifying creed.

Iraq’s constitution under the monarchy, in fact, was liberal and democratic. It provided for two legislative chambers. Direct universal male suffrage developed by the late 1940s, and the parliament was an important feature of political life in Iraq. Cabinets had to seek votes of confi­dence from the parliament, which also provided a lively forum in which almost all sectors of Iraqi society were represented. After the over­throw of the monarchy and the abolition of the parliament in 1958, the political forces and personalities of Iraq were unable to meet in free session until March 1991 in Beirut.

The parliamentary process in Iraq could have developed further. Although successive govern­ments engaged in vote manipulations, substan­tial and vocal anti-government forces were victo­rious in several different elections. A middle class rose up with considerable educational attainments. Iraq had a law school before World War I and its first medical school was inaugurated in the 1920s.

Under the monarchy Iraq’s social and politi­cal problems were considerable indeed. The disparity in wealth that accompanies rapid eco­nomic development was a source of unrest and discontent. The issue of agricultural land tenure was explosive. The lingering British influence and military presence, along with anti-coloni­alism, inflamed emotions. Rising popular ex­pectations during the massive increase in oil wealth in the 1950s put heavy pressures on the government to improve standards of living quickly. Yet for the first time the government had a real chance to provide a better life for the Iraqi people. The nationalist euphoria following the ascen­dancy of Egypt’s Gamel Abdul Nasser after the 1956 Suez crisis, together with the strains of natural social and economic development, be­gan to undermine the monarchy. Nasser’s tri­umph was largely due to U.S. pressure on Britain and France to curtail their campaign to recapture the Suez Canal. The United States even got Israel out of the Sinai at relatively little cost to Nasser, a clear signal that the United States viewed Arab nationalist military regimes favorably, regardless of their democrat­ic record.

Yet within Iraq some progress was being made. Between 1921 and 1947 not a single Iraqi prime minister was a Shiite. But between 1947 and 1958 four Shia occupied the post. Cabinets were formed after 1950 in which Shia and Kurds outnumbered Sunni Arabs. The last prime minister of Iraq under the monarchy was a Kurd.

However, these developments triggered mounting concern within the army, which remained a bastion of Sunni dominance. Shia were actively discouraged from entering the officer-training college. Those who graduated were frequently weeded out at the staff major level. Among the 61 most senior officers in the Iraqi army in October 1936, there were no Shia. Further, no chiefs of staff of the Iraqi army under the monarchy nor any division commanders were Shia. The lower-middle class Sunni army officers of middle rank began to resent the burgeoning economic and political power of the Shia community. Encouraged by the example of Nasser, they struck with a mur­derous coup in 1958, killing the king, his fami­ly, and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Said. The overthrow of the monarchy ended the parliamentary phase in modem Iraqi history. The army had committed regicide.

The seizure of power by the Baath in 1968 sealed the fate of open politics in Iraq. Saddam Hussein worked systematically to make politics the exclusive province of the Baath party. The parry was reduced to a mere legitimating tool for the ever more powerful security services. By the late 1970s, the security apparatus was con­trolled by Hussein and members of his clan. Any dissent was severely punished. In many cases, simple membership in another political party became a capital offense.

The Iraqi political forces opposed to the Baath party and Saddam Hussein had to resort to arms to deal with oppression. The Kurds under their historic leader General Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani fought the Baath through­out 1969. In March 1970, Hussein flew to Kurdistan and offered the Kurds an autonomy agreement that has become the basis of the current Kurdish demands for autonomy. Iraq had solicited the help of the Soviet Union in persuading the Kurds to accept. The Kurds then participated in the government at the cabinet level for four years. The second Kur­dish war opened in 1974 with Iran and the United States providing support to the Kurdish rebels. However, once he had obtained his goals with regard to Iraq, the shah of Iran asked the United States, which complied, to end the joint efforts to help the Kurds.

The Baath regime also actively worked to bring the communist party of Iraq into coali­tion with them, succeeding after the Soviet­-Iraqi treaty of 1972; this alliance endured until 1978. Meanwhile, the Islamic opposition, prin­cipally Shia, was offered nothing but imprison­ment and death.

With the major exception of the Kurds, most Iraqi opposition forces professed exclusive ide­ologies that aspired to political control of the country in unquestioned leadership roles. Thus, they encountered skepticism both internally and externally. Hostility and suspicion characterized their relationship with each other during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The rapid slide of Iraq into totalitarianism during the 1980s forced Iraqi political forces to take stock of their situation. Dialogue began in earnest in late 1988. A high-level meeting took place in Damascus in March 1989 when agree­ment was almost reached about the formation of an anti-regime front. At the last minute, however, problems among Islamic groups over the definition of democracy postponed agree­ment. In February 1990, an independent effort was made to produce a common statement about the opposition’s stand. Signed by twenty­-seven leaders, the document called for the end of dictatorship and the establishment of demo­cratic parliamentary government in Iraq. The declaration also called for freedom of the press and respect for human rights. This historic document is the first instance of a common statement of a pluralistic and democratic vision of Iraq articulated by the diverse elements of the Iraqi opposition.

Another Chance for Democracy?

Democracy therefore is possible in Iraq. The diversity of the society and the multiplicity of ethnic and confessional groups can be an im­portant factor in maintaining and protecting a democratic government. Checks and balances can be established through constitutional ar­rangements. These can take the form of estab­lishing autonomous regions within the country that would deal with local issues and give secu­rity and reassurance to the different areas of the country. These provisions could be strength­ened to prevent illegal military interventions in politics.

After decades of misrule and ideological politics, the politics of community, with stan­dards of accountability, is likely to enjoy tre­mendous appeal. A large, well-educated middle class has been growing in Iraq since the end of World War II. The attainments of this class in arts and architecture, poetry and letters, science and industrial technology exceed those in many Arab countries. The mere fact that Saddam Hussein has been able to develop such military strength attests to the existence of a sizable, competent middle class. But this class resents the way Hussein has exploited their achieve­ments and channeled them to serve his own megalomania. This middle class will be the mainstay of democracy.

The demands for political representation in Iraq have become very strong. The regime itself has recognized these demands by speaking about democracy and representation. The peo­ple of Iraq have rejected not only Hussein but dictatorship as well. Their uprising in the face of overwhelming force is testimony to that. Fears that promoting democracy will bring about the dissolution of Iraq are exaggerated. The Kurds have stated repeatedly that they do not seek independence. They have said they want autonomy within a united Iraq. This Kurdish position is rooted in a clear recogni­tion of the political realities in the Middle East. Both Iran and Turkey would treat an indepen­dent Kurdistan as a threat and would oppose the project. The Kurdish leadership is con­vinced that autonomy would best meet the aspirations of the Iraqi Kurds.

The Shia of Iraq have never expressed any desire for separation, much less autonomy. There is a good reason for this. Because they are a majority in the country, the Shia want to preserve Iraq as a united country and seek political representation within it. The Shia in Iraq are overwhelmingly Arab. Their back­ground and history are entirely different from the Shia of Iran, who are predominantly non-­Arab. They do not want to be ruled by ethni­cally Persian Iranians, and they do not want to be under Iranian tutelage. It is very doubtful that Iran itself would take in 10 million Arabs.

Nor are the majority of Iraqi Shia in Iraq fundamentalists; they do not favor an Islamic government. Shiite theological doctrine has a varied response to the question of political power and participation in politics. The majori­ty of Shiite spiritual leaders have advocated quietism as the correct role for the clergy in politics. In fact, the theory of constitutional government in Islam was developed by the Shiite clergy in what is now Iraq around the turn of the century. This theory contributed to the intellectual framework for the constitutional revolution in Iran that produced the Iranian constitution of 1906.

Indeed, Iraqi Shia would benefit most by de­mocracy in Iraq. It would give them the chance to develop and protect their economic and cultural life. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq also have an important stake in democracy. Entrenched constitutional provisions could provide them with the guarantees they seek for their political future and would liberate them from the fear of an unbridled Shiite ascendancy that has haunted them.

Once the Iraqi dictatorship is removed, the significance of categories-Shiite and Sunni, Arab and Kurd-will be diminished. Iraqi histo­ry shows that the country can organize politi­cally on the basis of ideas rather than on the basis of ethnicity or religion. That these categories have become dominant in Iraqi political life is a measure of the Baathist failure to pro­mote mature political development. Its oppres­sion has only worked to amplify these ancient divisions rather than ease them.

The democratic experience under the monar­chy, so brutally interrupted, can be resumed. The Iraqi people could seize this chance and develop it. They have suffered a 33-year night­mare, with 23 of those years dominated by Saddam Hussein. The experience has been sufficient to persuade them to guard any chance they have to establish a true democracy. 

<p> Ahmad Chalabi, founder of Petra Bank, is an Iraqi politician. </p>

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