Against the Three-State “Solution” in Iraq
My review of 2 books on Iraq, Toby Dodge’s Inventing Iraq and Anderson and Stansfield’s The Future of Iraq, which appeared in The Nation last week, is now online.
” . . . The League of Nations announced a British Mandate in Iraq at San Remo in the spring of 1920.
Some 100,000 disappointed Iraqis, led by Shiite and Sunni clerics, tribal chieftains and small-town notables, united in a massive anti-British revolt. The British brutally put it down from the air, slaughtering 9,000 Iraqis, both insurgents and civilians, and employing poison gas for the first time in Iraq . . .
In Inventing Iraq, Dodge analyzes what he describes as the failure of British nation-building in the 1920s. He identifies two camps in the British civil administration of the country. One camp–what I call the J.R.R. Tolkien strain of British colonialism–consisted of romantics like Dobbs, who saw the countryside, its “gentry” and the tribes as the repository of all that was noble, and who distrusted the cities and their Westernizing effendis. The other group celebrated the virtues of the rational individual and sought to establish connections between such people and the state. On the whole, the devotees of romantic ruralism won out, seeking to rule Iraq through the tribal sheiks. Dodge, ever attentive to ironies, points out that the British thereby profoundly changed the position of the supposedly “untainted” sheiks and made them conduits of colonial administration . . .
The British used their power to recognize sheiks as a way of rewarding the cooperative, and of punishing those unwilling or unable to keep their clans in line. Where administrators perceived a clan as unruly, they decertified them as tribes and seized their lands, giving them to others. The British were faced then, as the Americans are now, with ruling a huge territory on the cheap because of the disillusionment of the postwar public. To compensate for lack of troops, they relied on air power, conducting bombing raids from the sky against tribes that rebelled or refused to pay taxes. The airplane also allowed a close surveillance of the population in a manner that the supposedly despotic predecessors of the British, the Ottomans, could never have dreamed of achieving. This aspect of British rule in Iraq has long been understood by, among others, the eminent historian of Iraq Peter Sluglett. In his 1976 study, Britain in Iraq, Sluglett quotes Member of Parliament Leopold Amery as saying, “If the writ of King Faisal runs effectively through his kingdom, it is entirely due to the British airplanes.”
Yet, as Dodge points out, the airplane quickly demonstrated its limits, in large part because it depended on raw power and fear rather than on legitimate authority. The British used night bombing and incendiary explosives to destroy villages around Samawah in 1923 as a means of forcing the population to surrender its rifles and submit. While the destruction of six villages and the killing of 100 men, women and children terrified the peasants, they simply dispersed from the area and took their rifles with them. The Royal Air Force high command considered following the fleeing Iraqis, but concluded that further bombing would only be a slaughter. According to Dodge, the high command feared that the British public would discover exactly how they were ruling Iraq. His points about the political limits of air power are well taken, but it should be remembered that after 1923 the number of bombing raids actually increased. At that point, Squadron Leader Arthur Harris (who is not mentioned in Dodge’s index) invented the heavy bombing techniques he later practiced in Hamburg and Dresden . . .
Unfortunately, Anderson and Stansfield do not survey the full range of implications of their proposal [for a partition of Iraq]. No major indigenous Iraqi political party or actor favors partition. Even the Kurds want a loose federalism. Turkey has threatened to go to war to prevent the emergence of an oil-rich independent Kurdistan, which its leaders fear might entice the Turkish Kurds of eastern Anatolia into a separatism that would fragment Turkey. The Iranians less truculently maintain a similar view, because of sensitivities about their own Kurdish minority.
It is not even clear that an independent Kurdistan in the rugged north is economically viable, assuming that the rest of Iraq does not quietly yield to them Kirkuk’s petroleum wellheads or, indeed, the city of Kirkuk itself, which does not have a Kurdish majority. Those wellheads are, in any case, old and being depleted, and the future of Iraqi petroleum lies in the south. An independent Kurdistan could well be doomed as a poor, landlocked country with declining oil revenues.
Likewise, the Saudis are terrified of an Arab Shiite state in southern Iraq, given that they have a significant Shiite majority in their nearby Eastern Province. This province, al-Hasa, is where the Saudi petroleum is, and the Shiites provide many of the workers on the oil rigs. The Wahhabi Saudis, hyper-Sunnis, largely despise Shiites and do not want theirs becoming uppity. A partition opposed to the death by Iraq’s three wealthiest and most powerful neighbors seems destined to fail. Moreover, it probably would not be good for Iraqis to be reduced to a set of small, weak and in some cases poor countries. Nor is it clear that Iraqi democracy would be served by partition, as Anderson and Stansfield argue. The corporate solidarity along religious and ethnic lines visible in Sunni Arab Falluja or in Shiite Basra, which sometimes turns coercive or violent, is a less promising basis for democracy than a federal Iraq where parties will over time prosper best if they can find ways of appealing across ethnic boundaries.
The real danger facing working-class Iraqis, the vast majority of the country, is not that they will be forced to coexist with those who pray differently or speak different first languages. The most pressing threat is that the Bush Administration’s economic shock therapy and other policies will create a new, small clique of robber barons who monopolize most of the country’s resources. That is where we came in.
[Read the whole review at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040329&c=1&s=cole. ]