Global Policy Forum

The State(s) of Iraq


By Tom R Burns and Masoud Kamali *

Asia Times
March 10, 2005


The United States and the European Union announced in February that they were committed to a "federal, democratic, pluralistic and unified Iraq". This commitment fails to take into account the historical and social conditions prevailing in the "state of Iraq" and is likely to lead to disastrous violence. But other scenarios are possible. We propose an organized transition process with multilateral negotiations among major Iraqi groups, the involvement in mediating and peacekeeping roles of the EU (and possibly the United Nations) and regional powers Turkey and Iran.

This would reduce the risk of the further deterioration of Iraq into a post-Yugoslavia type of situation. This article stresses the importance of considering alternative institutional designs for a future "state of Iraq" and dealing effectively with the substantial issues of minority rights and equitable distribution of oil revenues and other key resources.

A crooked history

Iraq was from the moment of its artificial construction, in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a fragmented society with deep cleavages (consisting of three very different provinces of the empire). Such a construction could only be ruled by coercion. Systematic force was employed by the British in establishing its rule over "the state of Iraq" in the pursuit of geopolitical position and, of course, oil.

Military force was used again and again to solve political conflicts, threats or problems of government. Similarly, and more systematically and brutally, the Ba'ath Party established in the early 1970s a totalitarian type of rule. The Ba'ath regime, particularly under Saddam Hussein, managed through a balancing of the use of the carrot and the stick to maintain some equilibration of the religious and sectarian conflicts: Kurds versus Arabs (and versus the central government of Baghdad), Sunni versus Shi'ite, among others.

The Ba'ath government - obviously, a ruthless one - managed to link to the party many Iraqis who previously or potentially would have opposed the central government. Thus it achieved some success in integrating many of the country's disparate social forces.

The US invaders in 2003 decided (despite numerous warnings from the Army War College and The Future of Iraq Project, located in the US State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs) to eliminate the two institutions that might have helped to maintain public order in Iraq, namely the Ba'ath Party and the army. The way was opened, not unexpectedly, for a substantial breakdown of public order in much of Arab-speaking Iraq (observable on television each day).

The present weak (barely the skeleton of a) state is a serious problem in the face of the challenge to maintain public order - a major threat in any country when the government collapses, but especially problematic in a deeply divided society such as Iraq (which risks evolving into a post-Yugoslav type of chaos). New power bases are of course emerging; for instance, the Kurdish quasi-state in the north, armed insurgent groups, especially in Sunni areas, and Shi'ite clerical power introducing new forms of religious politics - largely foreign to Iraqi post-World War II politics.

The present occupation government has little or no legitimacy in Iraq - and therefore little capacity to mobilize or make use of civil society - because it is closely associated with non-Islamic forces and is largely understood as an alien power (except among many Kurds). It is apparent that the US (with its proxies) is unable to govern Iraq or maintain stable order.

Possibilities and risks: The EU as midwife

The US and Britain, and their allies, will not be able to remake Iraq - or to engage in effective "nation-building" (Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's skepticism about nation-building in Iraq is insightful and correct). They are not even in a position to mediate multilateral negotiations. They lack sufficient legitimacy and support (also, in the Iraqi collective memory, Britain is an old colonial power, which in 1920 poison-gassed and bombed Iraqi towns, killing many civilians).

A new Shi'ite authority (led by the United Iraqi Alliance with all of its own complexity and divisions) - probably with Kurdish involvement - is likely to emerge as the core of a new government after January's elections. This government should be prepared to recognize and negotiate with agents representing diverse Iraqi interests (and powers). Above all, it needs to make perfectly clear that the future institutional design of Iraq is open to negotiation with a view to achieving consensus, and, in any case, need not be a unitary, majority-rule state.

Substantial consensus about the eventual form of the state is essential to lasting peace and stability. Sustained consensus is less a requisite in the case of a confederation or separate states than in the case of a unitary or even a federal state. Elections are only a small part of the democratic process. And, as Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey, emphasized recently in an interview in Davos, the Iraqi election has not been fully democratic, in part because of the Sunni boycott and the threatening forces of insurgency in many parts of the country. The new Shi'ite-led government likely to emerge will have at least four major tasks:

(1) To begin immediate negotiations with representatives of the Kurdish region as well as of the Sunni region (including insurgent groups). The Sunni insurgents, including Ba'ath contingents, should be encouraged to prepare for negotiations and to establish public order (in "their" areas). The new, largely Shi'ite government should stress open negotiations to neutralize or isolate those Sunni and other groups who are determined to sustain guerrilla warfare. This would certainly entail acceptance of agents such as insurgent groups, whether they meet the approval of the occupying forces or not. A preliminary agenda for trilateral or multilateral negotiations would consist of at least five major issues:

  • The form of the state (or states) emerging out of "Iraq" (see below).
  • The issue of the rights of minorities in whatever political arrangement is established.
  • The problems of precise boundaries.
  • The equitable distribution of oil, water, and other resources.
  • The composition and leadership of the international body (or bodies) that would monitor and be available to resolve conflicts not manageable by the three. That is, trilateral negotiations (Shi'ite, Kurd and Sunni representation) should take place under international mediation - in particular, the EU (possibly with UN involvement) - not only to preempt escalating conflicts but to facilitate attention to legitimate regional and international interests in the contents of any agreements (for instance, the concerns of Iran and Turkey but also other states bordering Iraq and/or those in the Middle East with substantial Shi'ite populations). Also, such international involvement would tend to neutralize or minimize US meddling in the negotiations.
(2) To build up a military and police under the Shi'ite authority that can maintain minimal public order, at least in the Shi'ite areas (the Kurds can manage themselves with their autonomous government and at least 50,000 effective armed forces). There is no general confidence in the US-constructed armed units. These units lack legitimacy and face indifference or opposition almost everywhere; even their members have little or no confidence or trust in their own units. Not surprisingly, they dissolve in the face of more determined insurgency.

(3) To negotiate with the US for withdrawal of its forces as soon as is feasible, at least from Kurdish and Shi'ite areas; the new authority could also support negotiations between Sunni insurgents and occupying forces that would lead to the withdrawal of the occupying forces from Sunni areas. Withdrawal is essential to the process of building up legitimate Iraqi authority and forces of order and to conducting difficult societal negotiations.

(4) To establish the EU (possibly with UN involvement) as the major international agent mediating the negotiations - the EU has already begun to play such a role internationally, and there are ambitions within the EU for an expanded role. The EU should, whenever appropriate, involve Turkey and Iran as well as Jordan and Egypt in the process. Turkey and Iran are obvious regional powers led by Islamic governments that are arguably motivated to play a constructive role for the sake of regional stability (as Iran has done in the case of Afghanistan). The EU is particularly appropriate for the mediator role because it has reasonably good relations with most of the key agents involved or likely to be involved, including the US (this cannot be said about the UN).

The EU is also an economic and political force that can provide incentives and sanctions. EU trade and other relations with Iran and Turkey also are important. Future Turkish membership in the EU is important in this context as well; Turkey is profoundly concerned about a Kurdish separatist movement as well as the possible emergence of another powerful Shi'ite state on its border.

A few comments are called for on the question of the ultimate form of the new "state of Iraq".

  • Taking into account the history, the complex configuration of forces - Kurds, Shi'ite and Sunni communities as well as secular Ba'ath groups - we would argue that the establishment of a strong unitary state will result either in a dictatorship or civil war(s) (Kurd versus Arab, Shi'ite versus Sunni, Ba'ath against others). Of course, a new dictatorship might be established even under apparent "democratic rule". For instance, the Shi'ite majority government sets up military and police forces under its control, and ultimately uses a combination of coercion and patronage to keep opposing groups in place (as the Ba'ath Party did relatively successfully for more than 30 years).
  • Another option would be the division of Iraq into three states, reflecting in part the historical provinces of the Ottoman. Turkey would be very skeptical about such a solution, but proper EU and other regulation of the border along Iraqi "Kurdistan" might make for a stable arrangement under the right conditions. A generous provision of discounted oil to Turkey could also play a constructive role. Would the separate states stabilize? This undoubtedly would require a substantial external engagement (for instance, the EU - and UN - as well as Turkey and Iran) in the stabilization. It might easily degenerate into warfare with further foreign intervention, or the establishment of a single, unitary state as a dictatorship (for instance, the return of Ba'ath hegemony).
  • Confederation, with a weak but unified presidency, common currency and international and regional protection, is an institutional option somewhat between a unitary state and separate states. In contrast to a federal state, it requires only a minimum capability and authority for central decision-making. Therefore, a confederation, stabilized by an external organization, would appear to be the best possible arrangement under the circumstances (the external agent might consist, as in the negotiations, of the EU - and possibly the UN - Turkey and Iran as well as possibly others). But all of this is a matter of design, not determinacy.

In any case, the institutional design of a future Iraqi region should take into account the cleavages, group configurations, and internal as well as external conflict potentials in order to minimize risky tensions and potentially disastrous confrontations. In the context of negotiating whether to establish a unitary state, a federal state or confederation, or separate states, a number of related issues must be negotiated and settled in any case. These concern the rights and protection of minorities (not only Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, but Turkmens, Assyrians, other Christians, Jews and Persians), boundaries of regions, and rights to and distribution of resources, oil and water. Ideally, oil revenues and territory should be decoupled and a system of sharing fairly petroleum income devised - this would reduce the "territorial stakes" in the multilateral negotiations.

The emergence of Shi'ite power in Iraq will be closely watched (and felt) by the entire Middle East: on the one hand, those states bordering Iraq and/or with their own substantial Shi'ite populations (these include Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey); on the other hand, those Arab monarchies potentially threatened by the Iranian anti-monarchy, republican model of Islamic society. The risk of one form or another of war(s), civil and international - and how best to handle them - must be a major consideration of the mediating agents (the EU and others such as Turkey and Iran) who become engaged in the post-occupation developments.

In sum, our arguments suggest a way out of the Iraqi quagmire with its highly risky scenarios. The window of opportunity is narrow, however. Three major groups of agents are participating in a dance of life and death: the Iraqi groups that must be encouraged to engage in multilateral negotiations, the EU (particularly, but not only, Britain, France and Germany, and the EU candidate Turkey) that should assist mediation and, ultimately, peacekeeping, and finally the US and its allies.

The key is for the US leadership to recognize: first, there is no "Iraqi nation"; second, legitimate authority and public order must emerge from within Iraqi society, starting with the Kurdish and Shi'ite regions setting the stage for multilateral negotiations and the formation of new order(s); third, the outcome of these difficult processes - whether one state or two or more, whether Islamic-dominated or secular with Ba'ath Party resurrection - will probably not be to the liking of some or many outside Iraq. However, further death and destruction may be minimized, and the likelihood of establishing stable and peaceful democratic order(s) maximized.

About the Authors: Tom R Burns is professor emeritus at Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden and visiting scholar, Stanford University, California, spring 2005. He is author of more than 10 books dealing with politics and policymaking, environment and technology, and social theory and methodology relating to conflict analysis and conflict resolution, and institutional analysis and design.

Masoud Kamali is professor at Mid-Sweden University and director of the European Union project "Institutional Patterns and Politics of 'Racial' Discrimination" at the Multiethnic Center, Uppsala University. He is the author of several books and numerous articles. Among his books are Revolutionary Iran: Civil Society and State in the Modernization Process and Multiple Modernities: The Cases of Iran and Turkey.

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