When Iraq’s neighbours meet next week to discuss the situation there they will be confronted with a simple question: Is the fire that has been burning Iraq since 2003 growing or diminishing?
This would be the second time this year that Iraq’s neighbours, accompanied by the United States, Russia and the European Union meet with the avowed aim of coordinating policy on the war-stricken country.
When the first meeting was held, Iraq seemed doomed to an uncertain future with no prospect of even a gradual return to anything resembling normal life. In other words, Iraq was a house on fire. Basing themselves on that analysis Iraq’s neighbours adopted two different approaches.
The first, that of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan could best be described as a wait-and-see posture. The idea was that no one could do anything useful for as long as the fire was still raging.
The second approach, that of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Turkey and Syria was designed to enable the neighbours to snatch away whatever they could from the burning house that was Iraq.
The Islamic Republic was busy redrawing part of the land and water borders along lines believed to give it an advantage. It was also imposing its exclusive control over the Shatt al-Arab border estuary in violation of the 1975 Algiers Accord. Also, some so-called scholars in Tehran have made ominous noises about the Erzerum treaties of the 19th century which give Iran a right of “oversight” in the Shiite shrines of Samarra, Kazemayn, Karbala and Najaf.
More importantly, the Islamic Republic was positioning its Iraqi clients on a course that could lead to the emergence of a truncated Shiite mini-republic in southern Iraq, all in the name of federalism. Further north, the Islamic Republic was exerting pressure on the Iraqi Kurdistan as a reminder to the autonomous government there that it must kowtow to Tehran on all matters of moment.
Turkey was doing its own bit of mischief. It was pouring money and arms into the few villages in northern Iraq inhabited by Turkic-speaking Turkmen who account for some one per cent of the total Iraqi population. Some pan-Turkist elements were beating the drums about the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 that gave Turkey certain rights in Mosul and Kirkuk, especially as far as oil resources re concerned. Turkey was also flexing its military muscle on the border with Iraq. The current fuss about possible Turkish military intervention against the PKK Kurdish separatists hides the fact that Turkey already has some 3000 troops stationed inside Iraq. In fact, the Turkish army has been coming and going in northern Iraq since 1992.
Syria, for its part, was trying to do what it has always done in the Middle East: becoming the patron of radical armed groups, that is to say bringing the insurgents under its control in the hope of using them as bargaining chips in any future deal over Iraq.
The “grab-a-piece-of-Iraq” game was given further impetus by a strong coterie of American politicians and businessmen campaigning for a carve-up of Iraq into three or more mini-states.
Today, however, things in Iraq look quite different.
To start with, Tehran’s complicated game of dominating Iraq has been exposed. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops’ attempt at seizing control of Basra after the British withdrawal have met with strong Iraqi resistance while Tehran’s bare-face threats have failed to terrorise the Najaf clergy into acquiescence. Even such close allies of the Islamic Republic as Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr have realised that the, for a majority of the Iraqis, the concept of “uruqua” (Iraqi-ness) is stronger than that of Shi’ism. The unity shown by politicians and intellectuals from all shades of the religious, ideological and political spectrum in rejecting the American lobby’s plot to divide Iraq, has reminded everyone that, when all is said and done, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, do not wish to dismantle their state.
Turkey has also learned a few lessons. It now understands that by fanning the fires in Iraq it may end up by suffering from some of the blaze. At a time that Turkey is passing through tough test of its Kemalist system, any adventure in Iraq could play into the hands of the hard-line elements within the military who cannot admit the fact that democracy may, at times, produce a government they do not like. Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan has no interest in enabling his political enemies inside and outside the military to make a comeback by provoking an adventure in Iraq.
As for Syria, the flood of refugees from Iraq and a string of terrorist attacks, including the assassination of a high-profile cleric a few weeks ago, have shown that fire does not always spare the arsonist.
More importantly, perhaps, the American lobby’s plot to impose the Iraq carve-up plan as a legitimate international option has failed- at least for the time being. The sharp reduction in terrorist violence in Iraq over the past six months, partly thanks to the “surge” policy, has began to rekindle hopes for a gradual return to normality. The pressure on the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq has all but disappeared in Washington. That, in turn, has come as a blow to the terrorists and insurgents who have always hoped that Bush’s political opponents in Washington would offer them the victory they can never win on the ground.
All that has been accompanied with a set of domestic political moves designed to give Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s a stronger base and a more realistic programme.
Meanwhile, the “wait-and-see” group among Iraq’s neighbours have reassessed their analysis of the situation there. They now appear convinced that Iraq can emerge from its current ordeal and that it is time to heighten their profile in Baghdad. In the past months or so all but four of the Arab states have decided to reopen their embassies in Baghdad while the Arab League itself plans a comeback.
For all that, Iraq is certainly not out of the woods. The jihadists who claim they have a mission to save mankind from itself will not easily abandon their battlefield of choice. Bush’s opponents in the US will not abandon the temptation of securing a defeat in Iraq in order to win the next American election in 2008. Mini-imperialists in Tehran, Ankara and Damascus will also find it hard to drop their dreams of snatching a morsel of Iraq.
Nevertheless, as the ministerial conference, to be hosted by Turkey, gets under way one thing is clear: Iraq is far more resilient than its friends hoped and its enemies feared.