In its determination to create a modern Iraqi regime and society based on western values, the US is pitted against an anti-western and anti-American combination of secular Ba’athist and religious fundamentalist forces trying to sabotage these goals, their aim being to accelerate the exodus of US forces from Iraq sooner rather than later. More and more local groups and individuals not directly involved in this struggle and in agreement with the American vision and the progress it would bring, are increasingly swept with pessimism, questioning whether the US vision for them about their post-Saddam fortunes has any real chance of success. Questions in the US also are begun to proliferate, criticism about Iraq is fairly rampant. The quantum of stability which the US is able to instill will have a decisive impact not only on Iraq and on America’s prestige in the region but may well decide who will be the US President in 2005. The time factor is becoming critical.
Efforts to rehabilitate the Iraqi economy have already led to the revival of the oil sector and are making a significant contribution in other sectors. The rehabilitation of the Iraqi security forces has not had the same success. The intelligence services are in shambles and unable to provide the real-time information necessary for fighting urban guerilla warfare. Acts of sabotage and terror are daily occurrences, the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating instead of stabilizing. Suicide bombers are involved in most of the attacks in the cities, making it difficult for the intelligence operatives to track down their origins. The urban guerillas are suspected to be mostly secular Ba’athist Sunnis, supporters of the previous regime, as well as radical religious fundamentalists, including fanatic volunteers from other muslim countries. Latent internal rivalries among the Shias have surfaced post-Saddam but have yet to reach alarming proportions.
To facilitate an orderly transfer of power from the US to the Iraqi people and clear the way for the creation of political institutions on the basis of the understandings reached between the various ethnic groups, a new Provisional Constitution has been agreed upon, this will be effective on June 30, 2004. The interim Constitution, which sets out parameters for the building of new institutions, the structure of the regime and its internal relations is a major success for the US. Reflecting the interests of three major ethnic groups, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, the Constitution codifies future relations among the communities, and spells out their identification with the State and its Constitution. The checks and balances in the agreed Constitution are designed to allay the respective fears of the different communities. However, the new Constitution leaves open crucial questions, e.g. the shape of Iraqi institutions, the electoral system and the way the Provisional Government will be formed, these have yet to be agreed upon. In fact the relations between the American forces and the Iraqi State, defining their legal and political parameters, has also to be defined.
The vast Shia majority’s power to bring about radical legislation is feared by the Kurds and Sunnis. Having ruled Iraq till Saddam’s exit the Sunnis are particularly affected. Both the Kurds and the Sunnis’ fear that the Shias would turn Iraq into an Islamic State, the raison d’etre for enacting a clause extending legislation beyond the Shariah. A mutual determination to prevent any one of the ethnic groups being dominant at the centers of power was the reason for a shared Presidency, mandating the President and his deputies to make unanimous decisions.
The representatives of the ethnic groups set parameters determining the character of the Iraqi State for the foreseeable future, safeguarding their interests in a manner that would make it very difficult to effect changes after a new government is established and a permanent Constitution is voted upon. The Provisional Constitution reflects the current balance of power. The Kurds were able to get as much as they did partly because (1) they form an overwhelming majority in a contiguous region, (2) their longstanding cooperation with the Americans and (3) the maturity of their political leaders who erased their differences for sake of larger unity, and were able to work together despite their historical rivalries.
The Sunnis are for the moment the big losers since their top leaders disappeared with the exit of Saddam’s regime, those in the second tier lack experience and exposure, they have had to fall back on a moderate stance to prove they had no plans to restore the old regime. The Shias have tended to compromise because some of their more militant leaders were eliminated during the long period of the Saddam regime. The leading religious figure, Ayatolla Sistani, has been surprisingly moderate, holding out for less than what they could have got.
Iran was deeply involved with the Iraqi Shias against Saddam’s regime before the American invasion, Saddam’s exit, followed by the US occupation, has only made the task easier for the Iranians to try and frustrate US objectives. The Iranian interest in Iraq is derived from border disputes (over the Shatt-al-Arab and Khuzestan), historical enmity, competition over oil resources and the existence of a large Shia population in Iraq. The Iranians feel threatened by the US presence in Iraq fearing that a settlement under US rule in line with American interests, will arm President Bush with the ability to turn US power against Iran.
Iraq’s southern neighbors including the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are monitoring developments in Iraq with mixed feelings, hope tinged with apprehension. A settlement under US diktat may stabilize the situation in Iraq, allow Baghdad back into the Arab fold and allow Iraq’s oil revenues to support Iraqi political, economic and social objectives. The monarchies and other authoritarian regimes in the area fear that the seepage of ideas undermining Iraq’s Arab heritage and instituting of democratic rule into their countries could impact adversely on the stability of their regimes. The creation of a democratic regime based on civil rights, individual liberty and religious pluralism constitutes a threat to tribal regimes and to the privileged status of the monarchies. As it is the US plan for political reform has caused considerable anguish in the Middle East.
If the US fails to achieve stability and create a modern democracy before leaving Iraq, it will have major implications for the Gulf states. Iran or its proxies may try and fill the vacuum and establish Shia hegemony, leaders in the Gulf and Saudi area will see this as a disruptive process threatening their regimes. Libya has already made significant policy changes, Syria seriously feeling threatened by the US, is seeking rapprochement. Iraq’s new leaders will seek new understandings and alliances in the Arab fold, this could well change the existing balance of power.
Turkey is very interested in the developments. The erosion of the identity between State and religion, as expressed in the Provisional Constitution, are in line with Turkish interests and principles. Turkey’s potential influence on the water regime in Iraq could be a lever in future relations with any new regime in Baghdad. The strengthening of the Kurd region in Iraq worry Ankara, this could influence the large Kurd minority in eastern Turkey, close to the Kurd area in Iraq. They too might demand cultural and political autonomy and so undermine Turkey’s domestic stability.
The setting of a timetable for a reduced American presence and an orderly transfer of power to the Iraqis as well as preventing shockwaves among America’s allies in the Gulf, are essential milestones for the US President. If Bush fails to achieve any of this even partially, his Democratic rival will make use of it in his campaign and send him down Saddam’s exit lane. Washington’s failure to put together an agreement could seriously undermine America’s ability to go on dictating the regional agenda, it will open the door to rival forces. On the other hand, a settlement achieved under American auspices will be a major strategic gain for Washington, enabling President Bush to keep up his campaign to alter the regional balance of power vis-Ã -vis Iraq, Syria and other radical Islamic forces. Above all it will help Bush keep his Presidency!