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America will need another Saddam

August 10, 2009

The spate of bombings in Baghdad and Mosul are a precursor to what lies ahead. The Al-Maliki regime may put up a brave front and claim that the militia will not be allowed to come back, but the ground reality is quite different. With the news of American withdrawal from Iraq reaching the Middle East the various players have already started bracing up for the inevitable tug of war. Iraq, unlike most other countries of the Middle East is diverse and no single religious or ethnic group has a predominant presence in this country. The Shias are the largest faction making almost 55% of the population. The Sunni’s are around 35% and the rest are Kurds, Yezdis, Christians and others. The eastern Iraq around Basra is largely Shiite. The western Iraq is largely Sunnite and the northern region is Kurdish with Arbil as the largest Kurdish city in that part of the country.

The countries that border including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Turkey are all predominantly Sunnite. The only Shiite country that has a border with Iraq is Iran. The other fact is that most of the oil wells are either in the eastern parts of Iraq or the northern parts where the Kurds are in a majority. The death by hanging of Saddam Hussein was one of the most moving events of this century that has just begun. It was a sordid execution and one that was unnecessary. Was Saddam a war criminal? Did he rule with an iron hand? War criminal, no, but he did rule with an iron fist. How many people perished during his decades of reign? Ten thousand, twenty thousand? Most observers say that over the decades Saddam eliminated around five to ten thousand Iraqi’s he thought were a threat to his regime. And pray, how many have the allied forces killed in the Gulf War I and II and the subsequent western control over Iraq – more than a hundred thousand by conservative estimates. The exact numbers will never be known. The number of Iraqi’s displaced will also be a point of debate. Who is the criminal here?

Saddam ruled the land like only he could as the rules of the game are very different in the deserts of Arabia. A western style democracy in Iraq is a pipe dream. The diversity of Iraq makes it a particularly volatile country. Though in a minority, it was always the Sunnis who controlled the seat of power in Baghdad. The country is encircled by Sunnite nations and therefore it was but natural that they had a say in the affairs in Baghdad.  Saddam was executed by the western powers on the pretext that he ordered the execution of a few people in a small town named Dujail. The mindless bombing and execution of innocent Iraqi’s by the western powers has gone unnoticed. It was a carnage – both in the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003. What will follow once the western forces are gone will be more chaos and bloodshed that will leave the country battered.

Bush and Blair never believed that the western powers will leave Iraq as has now been decided by the Obama administration. If the Americans and their allies leave Iraq by 2011 as was declared by the president, there will remain a vacuum ready to be filled. There will be a tug of war between the Sunnite countries surrounding Iraq and Iran on the other side. The west sided with the Shias all along and depended heavily on their support to control the tough desert terrain of Iraq. Besides, they needed to get rid of Saddam to nip in the bud any chances of a revolt by the powerful Sunnis of Iraq. The executioners were also hooded Shia thugs whom the allied forces had handed over Saddam. Saddam refused to cover his head when he went to the gallows. He asked his executioners who were jeering at him whether they were Arabs – for the way they were behaving. It takes a Saddam to rule a rugged land like Iraq. Had the allied forces known that they would have to leave Iraq, maybe they would have dealt with Saddam differently. But then it would have become difficult for the west to justify the invasion in the first place.

Americans are still not clear as to how they will withdraw and how they will ensure that a ‘responsible’ government takes charge in Baghdad once they are physically out of Iraq. The west has used the Shias for all these years to control the country. It will be difficult for them to do an about turn and start dealing with the Sunnis who are dead against the west now. The Americans are therefore desperate to have a regime change in Tehran so that they can ease their way out from Iraq handing over the reigns to the Shias in Baghdad whom they have depended on all this while. The uprising against Ahmedinijad and Khamenei should be seen in this light. Hillary Clinton’s admission that the Americans were actively involved in the on-going protests in Tehran is again a manifestation of the difficult situation that the Americans find themselves in. A regime change in Tehran will give some respite to Washington and they can then withdraw in peace. In present circumstances, it is clear that after the western withdrawal Tehran will increasingly try and influence Baghdad and a redrawing of boundaries is very much possible. Americans want to maintain status quo in the region and a ‘stability’ that suits them.

The northern Iraq of predominantly Kurdish population has seen peace and prosperity after a long time.  They will hate to see the Americans go. Arbil was almost like a capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Now after the withdrawal, the Kurds will again become vulnerable. The northern parts also become important because of the abundance of oil wells in the region. The PUK and the PKK will again have to take to the guns. Not that they had abandoned their weapons but the Kurdish population did feel safe with the west in control of the country. Bush is hailed as a hero in these parts. The Turks will try and push the Kurds to the limits again. The Kurdish question is another sticking point in this whole equation.

The west will be loath to let go Iraq quiet so easily. Not after more than 4000 American men and women and almost 200 British soldiers have died fighting in these inhospitable deserts. If at all Obama will miss anyone it is Saddam. Let us not forget that Saddam had close links with the CIA in his early years and the Americans treated him as an ally during the Persian War giving him arms and ammunition. Even then they wanted to make sure that the boundaries were not changed. I think Obama has jumped the gun and did not think this through. He signed the Guantanamo closure with a flourish on the first day in office and now his team is trying to work out as to how to go about it. Guantanamo has been much more difficult than what the president had anticipated. Iraq will be an even trickier situation. If the west is unable to unseat Ahmedinijad in the near future, they might take a U turn and try and look for a possible Sunni leader who fits the bill. The choices either way are not too attractive. A Saddam emerges once in a life time. If the west does not isolate Kurdish Iraq, the Kurds will be the biggest losers in this whole game.  We are looking at shaky times. The Sunnite nations sitting around Iraq like hawks are now ready to pounce at the immense possibilities that lie ahead for them in their neighborhood. Most of them including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey are all close allies of the west. The west is therefore back to square one. They just might do an about turn and start wooing the Sunnite population in right earnest, with the help of their allies in the Middle East. Israel will also be more comfortable with a Sunnite rule and would hate to see an expanded role for Tehran now that they are on the cusp of becoming a nuclear weapon state. Obama will need to give the Iraqi question a long hard look. He may regret having promised to withdraw from Iraq during the hustings, unless of course, he is lucky enough to find another Saddam who can control the dichotomous nation that is Iraq. And that is a remote possibility.

Update 18.02.2010: The BBC has reported a massive bomb blast near Baghdad, in Ramadi. Their report is as follows:

At least 10 people have been killed and 15 hurt in a bomb attack in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, officials say.

The explosion occurred at a checkpoint near government offices in the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province, police said. Hospital officials told AFP news agency that four policemen and a young girl were among those killed. Violence has been rising as Iraq prepares for a March general election, with Ramadi targeted more than once. In late December, twin suicide blasts in the city killed 25 people and severely injured regional governor Qassim Mohammed. Three co-ordinated explosions last October left at least 22 people dead and many more injured. Until two years ago, the Sunni insurgency was strong in Anbar province. Local Sunni tribes and their followers then turned against the militants and began co-operating with the Iraqi government and US forces.

But after a period of relative calm, the province is again suffering from mounting violence.

The only thing that can be said for sure about Iraq is that the situation is only going to get worse from here, unless there is some credible leadership that props up from the ‘democratic’ process that was being hailed by all and sundry.

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