Back in the first heat of the Iraq conflict, I wrote quite a bit about it, but I’ve fallen silent because, like many others, I don’t see a good way forward. Recently, I’ve come across two interesting proposals for how we might get a reasonably good outcome. Here is a detailed ten-point plan from Juan Cole which sounds plausible if not cheery, more than you can say for the current, uh, I guess they call it a “strategy”. Second, the Vancouver Sun’s excellent International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe suggests biting the bullet and giving up on holding Iraq together. I don’t have a decent pointer to his piece, but you can read it here anyhow.

I emailed Manthorpe (did I say he was excellent? One of the reasons I still peruse dead trees over breakfast) wondering if his text was available anywhere except behind the CanWest paywall; Vancouver Sun subscribers can read it here. He replied saying probably not, but noting that ongoing is a nonprofit, he included his original text, which I reproduce here.

Fragile and divided, Iraq has little chance of surviving as a unitary state ·

Jonathan Manthorpe · Vancouver Sun

Tuesday August 30, 2005

The alarmist spin being put about in defence of Iraq’s draft constitution is that unless the document is approved the country may descend into a civil war that spreads to engulf the hub of the Middle East.

This begs the question: If that’s the danger, is it worth trying to keep Iraq as a unitary state?

Might it not be wise to bring the principle of the right to self-determination of distinct ethnic and cultural groups into play now?

Like many countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, Iraq is an artificial creation of the imperial age. It was cobbled together by the British in a sleazy deal with the French after the First World War to carve up the captured empire of the Ottoman Turks.

Thus the boundaries of Iraq were fixed by London’s deal with Paris rather than the compatibility of the peoples living within the country’s borders.

So modern Iraq’s 27 million people are made up of three main groups.

There are Arabs adhering to the Shiia branch of Islam who live in the south and make up 60 per cent of the population. In the centre are Arabs of the Sunni religious persuasion who represent 20 per cent of the people and in the north the non-Arab Kurds.

This is not a natural community and in order to make Iraq function the British used an administrative technique that worked well for them elsewhere. They picked a warrior minority, in this case to Sunni Arabs, and made them an elite class between the people and the imperial power.

From that choice flows the emergence of the Sunni-based Baath Party supremacy, Saddam Hussein, the current insurgency in the “Sunni Triangle” and the Sunnis’ fear that any new constitution is going to be a recipe for retribution by the Shiia and the Kurds.

Then there is the very practical consideration that Iraq’s copious oil reserves are mainly in the Shiia south and the Kurdish north, not in the Sunni Triangle.

The drafters of the new proposed constitution, with American officials looking over their shoulders and occasionally offering a helping hand, have attempted to appease the country’s three divided communities by envisaging a federation so loose as to be liquid.

The constitution would allow for any region or collection of provinces (there are 18 provinces in Iraq which are more akin to grand municipalities in Canadian terms) to declare themselves a federal state.

It is unclear from the document if the powers of these mini-states will supercede those of Baghdad, but that lack of clarity suggests they may.

At the same time the draft constitution pays all the respect to democracy and human rights that Washington demanded. But there are also articles insisting that “no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.”

Well, would that be the Shiia or the Sunni undisputed rules of Islam? And which laws apply when the rules of Islam come into conflict, for example, with the constitutional provisions on the rights of women?

This draft is a fudge of the worst sort and the chances of the document getting popular approval in the planned mid-October referendum are very slim. It only needs a two-thirds opposed vote in three of the 18 provinces for it to fail.

This high threshold for acceptance was meant to inspire the spirit of compromise. Instead it has produced a mush and handed the Sunnis a veto.

It is a prescription for civil war and probably regional instability.

The Kurds will want to entrench their nationhood, to the alarm of neighbouring Turkey with its substantial Kurdish minority.

The Shiia will want to establish an Islamic republic, perhaps in alliance with co-religionists in Iran, to the outrage of ultra-Sunni Saudi Arabia next door.

The Iraqi Sunnis will look to fellow Sunnis in Syria and Jordan to help them reimpose the control in Iraq that has been their only source of tribal security.

Could the outcome be worse if the door was now opened to the managed dismantling of Iraq within a framework of regional security guarantees?

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August 30, 2005
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