Iraq's Dangerous Identity Crisis

Sandra Mackey is the author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein."

"Iraqification" is the Bush administration's latest plan for extricating a major portion of American soldiers from Iraq. After hastily arranged meetings with L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. official in Iraq, the White House announced a political version last week. The transfer of power to Iraqis will be accelerated, with the goal of creating an "interim government that can bear the weight of sovereignty and authority" by next summer. But no matter how much political power and military responsibility are transferred to the Iraqis, the situation in Iraq will not dramatically improve until Iraqis agree on a national identity, a goal that has eluded them since the state was created by British diplomats some 80 years ago.

The relentless violence in Iraq thus presents more of a challenge to the U.S.-led occupation than just the guerrilla tactics of former supporters of Saddam Hussein and shadowy foreign terrorists. It also involves a bloody struggle among segments of the Iraqi population for the right to define the Iraqi state, a contest that goes to the core of the constitutional process that will create the new government. Sunnis have killed Shiites and other Sunnis. Shiite clerics have sent their followers against other Shiite clerics. A member of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated by her countrymen. Iraqi policemen have been murdered. Ordinary Iraqis going about their daily lives have been caught up in the carnage.

Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions make consensus on the definition of the state especially difficult. In the mystical sense of nationhood, Arab Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and Armenians each have a definition of Iraq's identity. Sunnis see Iraq as a part of the Arab world. Shiites see it as a country that stands apart from its Arab neighbors. Kurds see Iraq as host of an autonomous Kurdish zone in which the Kurdish language and culture can be preserved and celebrated. Turkomans want protection of their rights from Arabs and Kurds. Christian Assyrians and Armenians seek not only protection from the Muslim majority but also recognition of their religion and culture. These are not trivial concerns. Iraqis cannot even begin to write a constitution without first agreeing on their national identity.

Every government that has ruled Iraq since its inception has faced the challenge of defining the Iraqi state. The monarchy that ruled from 1921 to 1958 fulfilled the vision of Arab Sunnis -- an Arab country in the larger Arab world. Mindful of the country's demographic reality, the first military government after the 1958 revolution redefined Iraq, with its majority Shiite population, as separate and distinct from the predominantly Sunni Arab countries to the west. Iraq was Arab and non-Arab, Sunni, Shiite and Christian. When the regime failed, subsequent military governments pushed Iraq back toward the monarchy's definition. It was Hussein who attempted to give Iraqis a common identity by redefining Iraq as the heir of ancient Mesopotamia. That lasted until Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980 forced him to resurrect Iraq's Arab identity so he could spin the war as an Arab-Persian conflict.

With Hussein removed from power, the Iraqis have been free to define themselves, which has caused much of the violence ensnaring U.S. soldiers.

Hussein loyalists are not only attacking Americans and their coalition partners. They are also attempting to reclaim their historical role as the privileged minority of the Iraqi state. These Iraqis have nothing to lose in the new Iraq. They were the elite of the elite of the old regime, Sunnis tied to Hussein by blood and alliance. Shut out of post-Hussein Iraq, they fantasize about driving out the American occupiers.

Majority Shiites have assumed their right to the dominant role in the state. But they too are battling to determine the nature of the future government. Will it be secular? Will it be one in which Islam is the moral basis of the political system? Will it be a theocracy?

Traditional Shiism maintains a fire wall between religion and politics. Its most-respected clerics, to whom most Iraqi Shiites owe obedience, tacitly condone the U.S.-led occupation. The other major figure in Shiite leadership is Muqtader Sadr, who has declared war on the coalition in the name of the Islamic revolution.

The conflict is social as well as theological. Sadr has pitted the poor, urban Shiites of Baghdad against the elites in his own confessional. Even if Sadr flounders in his call for an Islamic state, Shiites still face the question of who among them has the right to define the Shiite version of the Iraqi state -- urban intellectuals, the clerical elite, rural tribal sheiks or the urban underclass.

Although the Kurds seem united, they might not remain so. This unity stems from their belief that they are on the threshold of achieving the autonomy they have long sought in the Iraqi state. But beyond that, rural and urban Kurds are divided on how the new state should be structured.

Before the war, the Bush administration pledged that the U.S. mission in Iraq would end when the Iraqis wrote a constitution, held elections and installed a government. At one time, the exile-dominated Iraqi National Congress was the preferred governing authority in waiting, but it fell out of favor when the administration realized its idea of the Iraqi state was unacceptable to most Iraqis. The Iraqi Governing Council, whose 24 members were picked by the Coalition Provisional Authority and reflect the country's demographic mix, has not come up with a transition plan, in part because of its inability to resolve the old conflicts of identity.

It's easy to blame Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists for the increasingly deadly violence in Iraq. The sobering reality is that as long as Iraqis cannot agree on how the state will be defined and how political and economic power will be distributed, the violence will continue. Choosing a new council to write a constitution, or creating a provisional government along the lines of President Hamid Karzai's in Afghanistan, will not automatically hasten the day that Iraqis agree on a national identity. One thing is certain: The longer it takes to define the Iraqi state, the longer the United States will be trapped in Iraq.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---

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