In which my alter ego the History Geek explores the antecedents for fragmentation of Iraq
What will happen to Iraq in the wake of the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein? The hope, of course, is that Iraq will become a democracy. History is not so sanguine.
Let us note what has happened to a country which shares much in common with Iraq: Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was founded around the same time as Iraq was cobbled together, in 1918, from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It was overrun by Nazi Germany in the misnamed World War II, and underwent a civil war before Josip Broz (Tito was a nom de guerre) emerged as the supreme leader who unified the six republics into a non-aligned communist state from 1945 to his death in 1980. After Tito’s death there were hopes that Yugoslavia would undergo a new dawn of freedom. Surely, the only thing repressing the power of the people was the oppressive dictatorship of Tito.
Turns out, Tito was all that stood between the people and hell on Earth. This assumption of peace and freedom overlooked some very important facts. Yugoslavia’s people were divided among three religious affiliations-- Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Muslim-- as well as nearly ten ethnic subgroups. According to country-data.com, in the 1981 census (post-Tito), Serbs made up approximately 33% of the population, Croats 20%, Muslim Slavs 9%, Slovenes 8%, Albanians, 7.7%, Macedonians 6%, Montenegrins 3%, and Hungarians 2%. Only 5.4% of the population claimed an ethnicity of “Yugoslav.”
Most of Yugoslavia's six republics and two provinces showed significant ethnic diversity. Only Serbia proper, Slovenia, and Montenegro were largely homogeneous. Croatia had a substantial Serbian minority of about 12 percent. Macedonia had Turks, Vlachs, and a fast-growing Albanian population. Muslim Slavs, Serbs, and Croats made up the population of Bosnia and Hercegovina, but no single group predominated. Kosovo was predominantly Albanian with Serbian, Montenegrin, and Muslim Slav minorities; and a Serbian majority shared Vojvodina with Hungarians (at 24 percent, the largest minority in that province), Croats, and many less numerous groups.
The religious and ethnic hatreds in the Balkans had had centuries to develop, and with no real national identity, genocide was just over the horizon. We all remember what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It disintegrated into a patchwork of independent republics and violence. In Bosnia and the area in Yugoslavia known as Kosovo, complicating the ethnic divisions, the predominantly Orthodox Serbs, the Roman Catholic Croats, and the Muslim Albanians and Slavs turned on each other, and hundreds of thousands were forced into concentration camps, driven from their homes, and killed. Kosovo was the site of countless crimes against humanity and attempts at ethnic cleansing. And over what? The irony is that Serbs and Croats are also Slavs—their main difference in their religion. According to religious tolerance.org:
Peter Black, senior historian at the United States Holocaust Museum commented: "In the Balkans, religious identification became part of national identity, as expressed through language and the communication of the national myth. Thus, being Orthodox is part of being Serbian."
Like Yugoslavia, the country which we call Iraq is not now nor ever has been a unified organic whole. Iraq was created in the aftermath of World War I after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, with most of its boundaries being determined by the British (see here for more details).
In 1920, in the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations awarded control of Iraq as a British mandate (meaning a former area of the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empire placed under the guardianship of another European power until it could stand on its own).
Iraq sits astride of the crossroads between the Arab and Southwest Asian world. According to Stars and Stripes.com, Iraq’s religious/ethnic makeup is currently 60% Shi’ite Arab, 20% Sunni Arab, 17% Kurd (mostly Shi’ite), and 3% Other, meaning Assyrians and Turkomen, two non-Arab southwest Asian peoples. Northern Iraq is populated by Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkomen. Southeastern Iraq is predominantly Shi’ite, and Baghdad lies in an area which is split between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Iraq is divided into eighteen provinces.
In 1933, Iraq was granted its independence under King Faisal I, cousin to the king of Jordan, and in 1936 the military overthrew the government in the first of several coups Iraq would undergo. In 1956, in response to the creation of the radical United Arab Republic, which combined Egypt and Syria, King Faisal II and King Hussein of Jordan joined their kingdoms into the short-lived Arab Union. In 1958 King Faisal II was assassinated, and Iraq devolved to military rule under General Abdul Karim Kassem. Kassem claimed Kuwait as a province of Iraq in 1961 (setting the table for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which would lead to US involvement in Operation Desert Storm). The Kurds rebelled against Iraqi rule in 1961, as well. Kassem was assassinated in 1963, and the claim to Kuwait was temporarily abandoned. In 1966 a cease-fire was arranged between the Kurds and Iraqi military forces.
In 1968, the Ba’ath Socialist party, which had been born in Syria in 1948, seized control in yet another coup. The Ba’ath party was dominated by Sunni Arabs (although it originally championed secularism and socialism, and thus its religious ties were nonexistent) and largely shut out any other group in Iraq from sharing power. Over the next few decades more coups and mysterious helicopter crashes kept the rulers at the top in flux, not to mention a Kurdish rebellion in 1975. Saddam Hussein rose to power in 1979. By 1980, Hussein led Iraq into an eight-year war with Iran, and during this war, the US supported Iraq, given our stormy relationship with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shi’ite theocracy. Both Iran and Iraq utilized poisonous gas as an offensive weapon during the Iran-Iraq War. In late 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which Hussein claimed was Iraq’s nineteenth province. The UN imposed sanctions against Iraq as a means of pressuring its withdrawal, but this was not enough to alter Hussein’s determination to control Kuwait. The United States led a coalition of forces against the Iraqi occupation in February of 1991 with Operation Desert Storm, during which Saddam Hussein suddenly rediscovered his religious roots, by the way, in an ill-fated effort to garner as much sympathy throughout the Arab world as possible. By the end of a few days of fighting, Iraq was driven from Kuwait and Kuwait’s ruling emir was restored to power.
In the wake of the defeat of Hussein’s forces at the hands of the coalition, the Shi’ites in southern Iraq rebelled. In 1992 the Kurds also rebelled and declared an autonomous region in the north. “No-fly” zones were established by the UN in the northern and the southern regions of Iraq to protect these groups in their resistance to Saddam's regime and, no doubt, to prevent more gas attacks. After Iraq had repeatedly violated the terms of the cease-fire, Iraqi targets were bombed by coalition forces in 1993. Iraq again briefly threatened invasion of Kuwait in 1994 but swiftly backed down when coalition forces, led by the US, mobilized more troops in response. In 1996, the UN arranged an “oil for food” program for Iraq, supposedly to allow it to earn about $1 billion dollars every three months with which to buy food and medicine, as well as pay reparations to Kuwait. This program was roundly criticized as a way for Iraq to evade sanctions placed upon it. In late 1997, the UN became concerned that Hussein was attempting to develop stockpiles of biological and nuclear weapons. US weapons inspectors were evicted from Iraq in 1998 on the charge (later reported in the US and Britain as well) that the inspectors were actually spies for the CIA. The case was then made that Hussein was secretly building up a stockpile of “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” but this area of the story is a post for another day.
One of the charges that are repeatedly made against Saddam Hussein is that “he gassed his own people.” There has been some discussion that it was Iran and not Iraq which attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 (see here), but I have not heard of much proof for this claim. Iran would certainly want to gas the Kurds, since the great fear of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey is that their native Kurdish minorities will gain autonomy and then try to unify into an independent nation, thus depriving their current countries of territory, and, in some cases, oil resources. Let’s not quibble this point, and agree, for the sake of reason, that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack. The people Saddam Hussein gassed in 1988 were Kurds and therefore not considered by him to be “his own people,” although this in no way excuses the appalling massacre of the Kurdish villagers. Saddam Hussein’s power base was the Sunni Arabs who lived in the central part of Iraq. Kurds are non-Arabs who have continuously agitated for their own homeland. Shi’ite Arabs in the South were denounced as being sympathizers with majority- Shi’a Iran, with whom Iraq had squabbled for years over the boundary between the two countries, which culminated in the1980-1988 war.
Ethnic and religious rivalries within Iraq threaten to compromise attempts to fashion a democracy in Iraq. Majority rule is difficult where no majority of common culture or interests can be cobbled together. The History Geek greatly fears that the end result will be partition and fragmentation of this entity known as Iraq, much the same way that Yugoslavia devolved into chaos and bloodshed in the 1990s after its strongman was no longer available to suppress discord.
Any further deterioration in Iraqi attitudes toward the United States, especially among the Shi’ites, could drive the majority of Iraqis into the arms of Iran, which has recently elected to its presidency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who may very well have been one of the students leaders who seized 52 American hostages and held them for 444 days from 1978 to 1980. The worst case scenario in Iraq would be a Shi’ite dominated Islamic republic allied with Iran, which has lately been renewing the vehemence of its anti-American (and anti-Israeli) rhetoric, and may also be developing—drumroll here—WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. The Kurdish north (which has a preponderance of the oil fields in Iraqi territory) may then attempt to spin off into autonomy or independence, which would then cause further instability in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. Iran and Shi’ite Iraq might then go to war against the Kurds, then causing a disastrous collapse in the entire region.
What happens if the people of this area actually do democratically elect a regime which is vehemently antagonistic to America and its allies (like in, say, Ecuador or Venezuela, or lately the Palestinian Autonomous Areas)? Let’s face it, in certain parts of the world, America-bashing is an easy and pain-free way to gain wide populist support. What if the shift to democracy blows up in our faces after we have invested all of this blood, time, and treasure? Will we accept the outcome as the “vox populi”?
Or will we prop up corrupt regimes which are more well-disposed toward the US at the expense of accepting the will of the people, no matter how disastrous that may be to our own immediate interests? (Try looking up what happened to Mohammad Mossediq in Iran in 1953 or what happened when we supported Fulgencio Battista in Cuba, or Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, or so on….
Saddam Hussein is a genocidal maniac whose time in power was all too long. He joins a long list of dictators who have done and continue to do horrifying acts within their countries and destablilized their regions. Unfortunately, too, the end of the regime often creates a void in the power structure which created further chaos and suffering. Like they say, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Let us hope that Iraq does not go the way of Yugoslavia. The consequences for American interests in the Middle East and for the cause of democracy could be dire.