Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Iraq Ten Years Later

When we talk about the aftermath of 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, we should also talk about the 1991 Operation Desert Storm which sets the broader context.  Obviously from the standpoint of American foreign policy, Saddam Hussein does not become an enemy of the United States in need of containment and ultimately removal if he does not invade Kuwait in 1990.  As a historian of the Middle East, however, I am inclined to focus more on the impact of those events on Iraqi society, with the most consequential developments being the military catastrophe (for Iraq), the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region, the Shi'ite uprising, and the imposition of sanctions against Iraq which continued until 2003.

What we see with the creation of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, of course, is a removal of territory from Baghdad's control, and the development of a new state-within-a-state that still exists and poses complications within Iraqi politics today.  The sanctions on Iraq are something too often overshadowed by the 2003 invasion and its aftermath, but, particularly as manipulated by the Ba'athist regime for its own ends, they impoverished society, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, a preview of the post-2003 refugee crisis, and making Iraqis dependent on handouts and therefore those who controlled them.  This, together with the decline in Baghdad's ability to control the country, led to the rise of local fiefdoms throughout the country.

That decline in Baghdad's control might one day be seen as the slow result of the 1991 debacle undermining Saddam's authority.  The 1991 defeat, however, led directly to the Shi'ite uprising against Ba'athist rule, an uprising the suppression of which sealed the alienation of Shi'ites from the government and played a critical role in developing different worldviews stemming from different historical memories among Sunnis and Shi'ites in the country.

Events surrounding the 2003 invasion intensified trends inherent in Late Ba'athist Iraq.  The Kurds sought to further build their autonomous region.  The violence of Saddam's rule and the sanctions was replaced by that of the invasion and the rise of the militias.  These militias, in turn, were sometimes foreign, but also sometimes linked to groups empowered by the decline of the Baghdad government, such as the Kurdish peshmergas and the Sadr movement which David Siddhartha Patel has shown became a power in some of the local fiefdoms that developed in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  And then, of course, there is sectarianism.

The Iraqi civil war of 2006-2008 might have been inevitable, but two decisions made by the Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2003 sped it along.  The first was the de-Ba'athification decree which turned out much of the civil service because they had belonged to the Ba'ath Party.  Given the way Saddam's patronage networks worked, they were also Sunnis, and their removal was a priority of Shi'ite exile groups who sought to replace them with their own followers.  In other words, the U.S. probably naively became complicit in simply replacing a Sunni-dominated state with a Shi'ite one.  Then, of course, the U.S. simply dissolved the Iraqi military and security services, rendering hundreds of thousands of trained military personnel unemployed and angry with the U.S. while creating a security vacuum that would ultimately be filled by factional militias.

The conflict which developed carried its own logic which also intensified some trends of the 1990's.  It ended largely because militias successfully created religiously homogenous neighborhoods.  During its course, the upper middle class professionals whose neighborhoods were the most integrated often simply left the country, as for that matter did much of Iraq's Christian population.  The large cities became more and more the domain of poor migrants from conservative rural areas ready to be suspicious of Others and enforce conservative values wherever they could.

The state which has emerged over the past decade has democratic features, and there is more freedom of expression than there was under Saddam Hussein, though too often the threat of militia violence or assassination has simply replaced that of the secret police.  It is, however, a strongly sectarian state in its personnel and policies, and its negative example has become a talking point in other societies where Sunnis dominate Shi'ites, most notably Bahrain.  Marc Lynch recently wrote a column on rising sectarianism in the region, and it seems clear that the Iraqi conflict was a key early driver, particularly in the Gulf states, and that Hizbullah's war with Israel in 2006 only briefly interrupted the trend toward Sunni fears of Shi'ite political power.

The Bush administration hoped their invasion would lead to a wave of pro-American democracies throughout the region.  The real wave they got, however, is a wave of churning sectarian relations.  There are positive elements to this, such as renewed cultural and political confidence in Gulf Shi'ite populations in particular, but the way Iraq developed means that many Sunni Arabs fear and want to suppress this rather than just accept it.

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