Ever since Saddam Hussein was toppled, those who regret his demise for different reasons have tried to burnish his image with a number of devices. Chief among these is a denigration of Iraqis as a people with violence written in their DNA.
It was not Saddam Hussein, we are told, who made Iraq what it was but the other way round: the despot was the product of Iraqi society. This is a political version of the chicken-or-egg conundrum: which came first? The fact that, over centuries, when given a chance, Iraq also produced mystics, philosophers, poets, theologians and even decent politicians, is conveniently ignored. Iraqis die violent deaths almost every day because they deserve to die, we are told.
To prove that Iraqis are incapable of living together let alone building a decent society, it is important to portray the current violence in that country as a civil war. In a civil war, no one but the people of the afflicted land deserves blame. In a civil war, no outside intervention would be of any use.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the claim that Iraq is in a state of civil war has been made and unmade every three or four months on the average. Each time there is an exceptionally tragic spate of killings, Saddam nostalgics appear on TV to claim that Iraq is in a state of civil war and, thus, had better be left to its fate. Last week’s media frenzy about “civil war in Iraq” is nothing new.
Before examining the aptness of the ” civil war” claim, let us see who benefits from it.
The first beneficiary is Al Qaeda, few of whose Jihadists in Iraq are of Iraqi origin. Of the hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters captured or killed in Iraq since 2004 no more than 13 have been identified as individuals with some Iraqi ancestry. The others were from more than a dozen nationalities, including French, British, Belgian and Spanish. The chief Al Qaeda propagandist on Iraq on the Internet is an American youth who has never even visited Iraq. Support for Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq comes not from Iraqis but from non-Iraqi pan-Islamists and former leftists, as anyone who watches Arab satellite television would know.
To present the violence in Iraq as civil war, would enable Al Qaeda to claim some popular support among the Iraqis, and, thus, also a measure of legitimacy. With that logic the 9/11 attacks against the United States could also be described as “civil war” because the same people who attacked New York and Washington also attacked Samarra and are now targeting Sadr City.
To present the conflict in Iraq as a civil war also benefits the remnants of the Saddamite clique. It presents them as one side of a conflict in which both sides can claim a degree of legitimacy thanks to their presumed respective popular bases. However, the fact is that the Saddamites have no such base. Even the vast majority of Baath Party members recognise that Saddam had destroyed their party by turning it into an instrument of domination for himself and his Takriti clan. The American decision to ban the Baath Party was wrong, and has deeply angered many Baathists. However, few dream of putting the clock back by handing over the party and the country to Saddam and his cohorts.
The civil war claim also benefits the various militias, some with a veneer of political ideology and others nothing but organised criminal gangs, by casting them in a role they do not deserve. Some militias are recruited, trained and paid by Iran and act as mercenaries rather than bona fide combatants in a national cause. Others are death-squads hired to kill members of rival religious sects. Many Iraqis fear them, and all loath them. But, none loves them.
Also benefiting from the civil war claim are sectarian fanatics who have caused Iraq much grief whenever they had an opportunity. The current weakness of the central government and the absence of security in parts of the country have given them fresh opportunities for making mischief. The same elements produced the tragedies of 1802, 1873 and 1920 when attempts at destroying Shia shrines led to conflict and carnage on a massive scale.
In the West both schools of Imperialism benefit from the civil war claim.
The first could be called the “let-them-stew-in-their-juice” school. It argues that Iraqis, and all other non-Western nations, are simply incapable of building people-based governments, and that any intervention by democratic nations is doomed.
The second school of Imperialism now in fashion, arrives at the same conclusion from a different premise. One could call it the school of ” We-are-to-blame-for-their-misfortunes.” It is based on confusion, in which self-loathing alternates with self-aggrandisement. On the one hand we are told that all the miseries of non-Western nations result from Western colonialism and Imperialism. On the other, we are told that non-Western nations deserve to live under despots because despotism reflects their cultures, even their religions.
The “We-are-to-blame” school claims that the West was responsible for installing and maintaining Saddam in power. At the same time, it claims that Iraqis deserve Saddam Hussein, and that the US-led coalition was wrong in trying to give them a chance to seek something different.
The various advocates of the “Iraq-is-in-civil war” theory come together with one slogan: the US-led coalition should leave Iraq to its faith and abandon the new system in the face of its enemies.
The problem is that most of those who assert that Iraq is in civil war lack the courage to face the questions that emanate from their claim.
The first is: which are the two sides in this civil war? Define!
The second is: what is each side fighting for? Spell out!
Finally, having identified the two sides in this civil war ,which side are you on? Stick your neck out!
History is full of civil wars affecting many nations- from ancient Persia, when the Medes and the Persians fought it out more than 2500 years ago to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. In every case there were two distinct camps of roughly the same strength at the start of the conflict. In every case both camps could claim a measure of legitimacy based on popular support. In every case, outside powers, movements and even individuals chose the side to fight for.
The American TV network NBC has announced with faintly ridiculous solemnity that it has decided that Iraq is in a state of civil war. So, it must now come out and tell its viewers who the two sides are, what they stand for, and which side should the US, and other nations, support.
The fact, however, is that , right now, Iraq is not in civil war. Rather, it is a victim of foreign aggression combined with internal sectarian violence, revenge tactics, and outright criminal activities. This does not mean that Iraq could not slide into civil war. There are conflicting visions for the new Iraq- visions as mutually exclusive as those that led to other civil wars, notably in Spain. For the time being, however, the overwhelming majority of those who support those rival visions prefer to fight for them within the constitution and its still fragile institutions.
The choice in Iraq is clear, if not simple.
Helping the constitutional system deepen its roots would reduce the threat of civil war because all rival visions would have at least a theoretical chance of winning popular support.
Abandoning new Iraq before it can defend itself, however, is sure to trigger the very civil war that has so far exists only in NBC’s imagination.