The fatal mistake the current US administration made in its 2003 invasion of Iraq was emptying the country of all its political institutions without an alternative ready to fill the ensuing vacuum, and that it sought to rebuild the country on a basis of immature democracy that failed to take into account the historical dimension of some Iraqi sects, thus sidelining them, as well as failing to take into consideration the fragile Iraqi social fabric, which has been thoroughly described by Ali al Wardi.
From this initial fatal error emanated the other mistakes that eventually became one major error, bringing about the current disaster in Iraq. Exultation over swift victory and toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime prompted the US administration to liquidate all that was related to the ousted regime, declaring a war against the Baath—its ideology, the party, the institutions and its members, repeating the actions of the Allies against Nazism after World War II. It was a grave mistake because not all those who were affiliated with the Baath Party under the former regime were Baathists. Rather, it was the pursuit of a livelihood that prompted them to join the party, just as in the case of most members of the communist parties from the collapsed Soviet bloc or fake Islamists in Taliban’s Afghanistan. It dissolved the old army, regardless of its experience and history and without distinction between leaders, on the hope that it creates a new one from scratch. This was the second grave mistake. Instead of utilizing the Iraqi military experience to bring about security and order, militias replaced the legitimate army imposing their orders and security in the absence of a real considerable army. Then, to add insult to injury, it sidelined the political role of Arab Sunnis in Iraq based on the fact that democracy is the rule of the majority. This is true in theory rather than practice, just as in the case of Iraq. It is true that the Shiaa constitute the majority of the population, with the exception of the Kurds as an independent nationality, but the issue has other facets that the US administration should have taken into consideration before seeking to apply democracy to a country that had only just emerged from totalitarianism, one with a long historical experience that only came across democracy, or incomplete democracy that does not go beyond ballot boxes, for a matter of moments that soon vanished like a shot.
The US administration should have taken into consideration the historical dimensions of Iraqi sects and their inter-relations before seeking to set up a speedy democracy that is based only on the majority/minority basis, as if the country has completed the building of its constitutional and civil institutions or as if civil culture is the one that steers Iraqi individual behavior, and therefore only procedural matters, such as holding elections, were left for Iraqi democracy to be complete.
The Iraqi Shiaa sect, for instance, feels that a kind of historical injustice has been practiced against it for centuries; although the Shiaa constitute the majority, they do not enjoy the rights of the majority. Hence the US administration should have heeded an important point in this respect, that is, in light of the burning sentiments, this sect may exploit the results of the incoming democracy to settle historical accounts that began with the Karbala tragedy of al Husayn and that will not end with Saddam Hussein’s execution, which is exactly what is happening in Iraq today. The settlement of historical accounts is the most accurate description of the ongoing bloodshed in today’s Iraq. The issue is not one of pure economic benefits that are sought by some warlord/ militia leader or another, though these are also present; neither is it a mere conflict over political authority that dominates everything. Above all, it is an issue of an accumulated history of feelings of injustice, degradation and humiliation, and then came the moment of settling accounts. On the other hand, the association of most Iraqi Shia leading figures with the Iranian leadership might finally transform Iraq into an Iranian sphere of influence if these figures came to power in Baghdad. This is exactly what happened; Saddam Hussein’s execution is only an indicator – as the government handed him over to the presumably outlawed militias to carry out his execution. Transforming Iraq into an Iranian sphere of influence is an unacceptable issue to the Arab neighboring countries. Throughout its history, Iraq has been the borderline between the Arab and Iranian regions from the Safavid-Ottoman conflict until the Iranian-Iraqi conflict. If Iraq became an Iranian sphere of influence, all cards, whether political or historical, will be confused, ultimately bringing about grave consequences.
From the perspective of the Iraqi Sunni sect, matters will be further complicated if the mere majority/minority rule was adopted, which the US administration has not taken into account as it started to build a “new Iraq,” contrary to what the British did in the past when they created “modern Iraq.” Due to necessities imposed by the surrounding political circumstances rather than by purely Iraqi internal factors, the Sunnis have always been the historical rulers of Iraq. After all, the Sunni s are the natural extension of neighboring Arabs and their domination of political power would guarantee the Arab character of Iraq, or at least this is the perspective of neighboring Arabs. The presence of a Sunni Iraq means confronting Iran and the Iranian extension into the region on the one hand and assuring neighboring countries that Iraq will not be a mere executer of the Iranian policy aimed at dominance and full influence in the region on the other. Accordingly, taking this historical, geopolitical dimension into account, under no circumstances would Iraq’s Sunnis accept to be sidelined; neither would the neighboring Arab states in particular, which will not be convinced by the majority/minority rule. Violence will be their final resort if insistence on sidelining was the final answer. If they are told that the democratic game requires just that, they would reject democracy altogether and violence would ultimately dominate the situation in Iraq indefinitely.
So there are two key denominations that constitute the social and political fabric of Iraq—the Shia and Sunnis, and Iraq’s security and stability depends upon the relationship between the two. Each one has its own calculations. The Shia seek justice from their own perspective and to settle historical and political accounts without which justice cannot be attained. The Sunnis, in turn, are seeking justice from their own perspective. Such justice cannot be attained without them undertaking their historical role in Iraq over centuries. Actually, one cannot deny that the Shia have the right to play a key role in an Iraq where they constitute the majority. Also, the Sunnis have the right to play a key role in an Iraq where the historical spirit and core of national identity is made up by them. If each party insisted on its sheer right, regardless of the rights of the others, the result would be a disaster, and this is what is actually taking place in Iraq today. Therefore, another solution is an obligation to ensure the rights of all parties and satisfy all sides. The new US strategy will not mean much and will not offer the desired solution, not because it is wholly void of content – it has a lot of positive aspects – but because it came too late. The broad lines of this strategy – allowing the return of Baathists and old army personnel and giving a bigger role to the Sunnis – should have been the beginning, immediately after the invasion. However, as cards have been muddled over the past years, there is a faint hope of it having any effect. Today, the Shiaa have strong militias, control government bodies, have strong relations with a powerful neighbor, which is about to possess the atomic magic wand, and support the American presence despite their alliance with the strong neighbor; what will make them concede a right from which they believe they were deprived? The Sunnis feel they have nothing to lose. They have lost confidence in “American justice,” and therefore the slogan raised by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto to the proletariat, “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains,” applies to them. Therefore, “Sunnis of Iraq, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!” Thus, it’s all or nothing.
When the British created modern Iraq out of the provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, they were more far-sighted and more experienced than the Americans; after all, they had more colonial and political experience. They knew that Iraqi society was a composite one that could only be united under one political symbol that transcended and overlooked politics, an institution that protected the constitutional institutions and maintained the balance of society. Under those two poles—the king and the army, institutions were established and political society interacted. When the army was ideologized and entered the political game, the king was overthrown and totalitarianism rose to power, maintaining the stability of society and the state using violence and sheer force rather than active and protected constitutional institutions. However, totalitarianism finally brought about the occupation and the fall of everything.
Totalitarianism, no matter how successful it appears at one point in time, will ultimately and unquestionably fall, and lessons of history show that. What is important about the matter is that Iraq as it is now needs two things to bring back its security and stability—a supreme central authority that organizes rather than participates in political life and a powerful military institution that ensures the civil character of political life – as in the case with Turkey – along with guarantees that this institution will not be ideologized, as in the case with the Iraqi monarchy. Then comes the organization of Iraqi political life. Before that, the conflict of sects will continue to dominate. The Iraqi case seems insolvable today, however nothing is impossible if there is a program that can reach the roots of the problem. However, I do not believe that the current US administration is capable of doing so as long as it remains shortsighted and impatient and continues to cling onto the illusion that democracy alone is capable of performing the miracles of Moses’s staff and Solomon’s seal, simply by its application, and this will cause violence to dominate Iraq for a long time to come.