Iraq at the Turn: Auditing Arrogance

Three months before the start of the American operation in Iraq, I visited the United States where I met with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Three months before the start of the American operation in Iraq, I visited the United States where I met with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Our conversations were difficult. When I commented that the action in Iraq would lead to serious losses - and not simply during the military operations - the vice president smiled dismissively and said that I was exaggerating the danger. I posed the question as to whether the United States had thought through the Iraq operation "one step ahead" to Condoleezza, with whom I have met several times before, and she answered: "Yevgeny, don't worry, the political decision about the start of the operation hasn't been made yet...."

At any rate, I received a firm impression that in Washington nobody gave much thought to the problems that might arise after Saddam's regime was defeated. And events have confirmed this conclusion.

The Resistance

First and foremost, it is evident that the United States did not foresee that resistance to the occupation would take on such wide parameters. And the paradox here is that the armed struggle against the occupational government is not identical to the resistance by supporters of Saddam. This makes the American position that much more complicated. It deprives or significantly weakens international support for the U.S. approach. If the situation were different, then U.S. policy in Iraq would be better understood, even by the Arab countries.

One of the centers of resistance in Iraq is the so-called "Sunni triangle." Of course, the Sunnis formed the base of the population upon which Saddam's regime depended. However, current Sunni resistance is not predicated on loyalty to Saddam. Rather, it springs from their fear that, as a result of the occupation, Sunnis will be diminished and become a second-class minority in Iraq.

Nor should we over-emphasize the role of the Ba'ath party remnants. Iraq lacks an organized Ba'athi resistance. Some of Saddam's supporters are undertaking actions, but only on an individual basis. We can reach a similar conclusion when assessing Saddam's army, the Republican Guard, the fedayeen and the police. None of these organizations of the former regime have become the overall center of resistance.

Indeed, it is those forces in society that did not fare well under the old regime that are more and more becoming part of the opposition and even taking part in armed resistance against the occupation. Here, the United States can sense Shi'a resistance the most. At first, the main Shi'a organization, comprising those spiritual leaders who returned from exile in Iran - leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri) - tried to adopt a stance of neutrality toward coalition forces under U.S. command. However, over time, Shi'a organizations that oppose the coalition have started to gain influence, the principal one of which is the Mahdi Army controlled by Moqtada Al-Sadr.

At one time, the United States thought it could count on the support of the Shi'a, who had been oppressed under Saddam's regime and who made up 60 percent of the country's population. Now, the Shi'a can be considered as neither a "reserve" or even fellow travelers for the Americans in Iraq.

The situation is aggravated by the notion of autonomy for the Shi'a, which in the end will solve nothing. The Kurdish model is not applicable to them. They are not territorially restricted to the south of Iraq - many reside in Baghdad, itself, and in other parts of the country. And they basically aspire to take control of the central government into their own hands.

Any decision to move forward with "federalizing" Iraq also has to take into account the Iranian factor. Many leaders of Iraq's Shi'a lived in exile in Qom, the religious center in Iran. Giving substantial autonomy to Iraq's Shi'a could have a negative impact on the internal situation in Iran, strengthening the hand of religious-extremist forces in that country. Federalizing Iraq could also increase the chance that an Islamic state would be constructed in Iraq as well.

The Kurds

The United States could have used to its advantage not only the animosity of the Kurds toward Saddam's regime, but also the tensions between Iraq's Arab and Kurdish populations. At present, the Kurds have two main interests: establishing their own control over the oil-rich regions of Kirkuk and Mosul, and returning to the north those Kurds who were displaced under Saddam. However, finding solutions to these questions that benefit the Kurds is extraordinarily complicated.

During the military campaign in spring 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga were actively collaborating with the coalition forces. Now, that cooperation will continue only if the United States is prepared to side with the Kurds in their conflict with the Arabs. However, this cannot be done without creating a serious rupture with the Arab side. This, once again, was demonstrated when U.S. representatives, in order to please the Kurds, tried to insist on giving Kurds a "veto" in the temporary constitution - giving the Kurds effective equality with the Arab population that far exceeds it in actual numbers.

The Turkish position is far from encouraging vis-à-vis U.S. maneuvers concerning the Kurdish issue in Iraq. Ankara is afraid that Kurdish control over Kirkuk and Mosul will strengthen Kurdish efforts to establish an autonomous or independent state. Under such circumstances - that is, if Turkey considers the plan for resolving the Kurdish question unacceptable to its own interests - there is a real threat that Ankara will bring its troops into northern Iraq. The possibility that its own territorial integrity might be threatened - since the majority of the world's Kurdish population lives in Turkey - would drive Ankara to take such a drastic measure.