Divided Iraq Would Be a Triple Threat

Andrew M. Cockburn, co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein" (Perennial Press, 2000), was recently in Iraq on assignment for Smithsonian Magazine.

Iraqis tend to disagree about a lot of things, ranging from politics to literature to the best way of cooking the fish delicacy masguf. On one matter, however, they almost invariably present a united front: Iraq is one country, and they are Iraqis first and Sunnis or Shiites second. These days even Kurds find it politic to stress an Iraqi identity, and they are working hard to ensure that they will have a meaningful role in the new Iraq.

Such nationalist unanimity inside Iraq stands in sharp contrast to the views of many outsiders, who point to the country’s history as evidence that it cannot work as a state. The reasons include: the fact that it was created a mere 80 years ago, when British colonial administrators combined three provinces of the Ottoman empire to create the country; the marked discrimination suffered over the years by the Shiites inhabiting the south; and the militant separatism exhibited by the Kurds at regular intervals.

Amid the mounting woes of the U.S. occupation effort, recommendations have begun floating out from U.S. foreign policy mandarins to split Iraq into three pieces -- Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish statelets -- a proposal that would permit American forces to withdraw from the inhospitable Sunni triangle to the friendly Kurdish north and the Shiite south, where the oil is.


“This is ridiculous,” fumed Zuheir Hammadi, in a typical Iraqi response to such suggestions. Although he comes from a prominent Shiite family in the southern city of Nasiriyah, he said, “my wife is Sunni, my sister is married to a Sunni, my brother is married to a Sunni. Baghdad is half Shiite, half Sunni -- what do they propose? Cut the city in half? Ethnic cleansing, like Yugoslavia?”

Though the notion that Iraq is an “artificial” state may be convincing to detached observers, it does not stand up to serious examination. Most states are to some degree artificial, having been created by human design rather than some mysterious process of Mother Nature. The 1707 Act of Union that joined England and Scotland has provided one enduring example, as, of course, did the gentlemen who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787.

Iraq’s multiethnicity is hardly unique. Neighboring Iran, for example, is a potpourri of Persians (who make up barely half the population), Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis and other minorities. Nor should too much be made of the “three separate Ottoman provinces” argument, given that from at least the 17th century, power over the whole territory has resided in Baghdad.

The British who marched into Baghdad in 1917 believed that their new subjects were irredeemably disunited, but then were surprised in 1920 by a nationwide uprising by both Sunni and Shiite rebels that was suppressed at the cost of thousands of British dead. “The mistake we made in not adopting repressive methods earlier,” wrote Gen. Alymer Haldane, the British military commander, threw “the Sunni townsmen and the Shiah countryfolk together.”

The British responded to this crisis, which they blamed primarily on the Shiite leadership, by installing a foreign king imported from what is now Saudi Arabia to rule over all three groups. And they fixed the constitution of “independent” Iraq so as to ensure rule by the Sunni minority. In the ensuing decades, Shiites found themselves shut out of power and, under Saddam Hussein and his clique of Sunni tribesmen, viciously repressed and massacred.

Nevertheless, it is hard to find a Shiite who blames Sunnis as such for these misfortunes. “In Iraq there has never been a civil war, never [communities] fighting among themselves,” said Hussein Shahristani, a veteran of Hussein’s dungeons who now advises the Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. “Iraq is a very old nation, multiethnic, multi-religious, multi-sectarian for many millennia.”


Violence against particular communities, he insisted, has always been the work of a dictatorial government rather than popular movements.

Hostile powers have traditionally calculated that because it is divided, Iraq is easily subdued. Yet the armies of Iranian ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were fought to a standstill in the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s by Shiite infantry prepared to die for Iraq, just as their grandfathers had united with Sunnis against the British.

Recent reports from Baghdad indicate that the occupation overseers now ensconced in Hussein’s old palace are intent on rejecting Shiite demands for electoral democracy, opting instead for rule by a more malleable authority that would be selected by the occupiers and their trusted Iraqi allies rather than elected by Iraqis at large. Nevertheless, L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator, and his advisors would do well to remember that standing in the way of nationalist fervor can be a tricky business. He should consider the anthem sung by the rebel alliance in the great 1920 uprising:

“Set the fire, you noble Iraqis, and wash the flame with flowing blood ... you are not prisoners to submit your shoulders to the chains.”