Let Iraq Collapse

Let Iraq Collapse

Mini Teaser: February 28, 1996 marked the fifth anniversary of the U.

by Author(s): Daniel Byman

February 28, 1996 marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led
coalition's defeat of Iraq, a military triumph that resulted in the
liberation of Kuwait and the extension of U.S. power and influence in
the Persian Gulf. The following month, however, marked a different
anniversary, one less gratifying to American self-esteem. For it was
in March 1991 that Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed rebellions by
Iraqi Kurds and Shi'a while the American president and other Western
leaders passively looked on, out of respect for Iraq's territorial

The U.S. commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq was mistaken
then and remains ill-considered now. Opponents of Iraq's
dismemberment argue that an intact Iraq is necessary to balance Iran,
that a separate Kurdish state would destabilize Iraq's neighbors, and
that a new Shi'a entity would tilt toward Tehran. In reality,
however, an Iraqi break-up would pose little threat to U.S. allies,
including Turkey with its large Kurdish population. Iran's
ideological appeal to Iraqi Shi'a is limited at best, and any tilt in
the regional balance of conventional forces in favor of Iran could be
easily countered by U.S. power. On the positive side of the ledger,
the division of Iraq into three entities would eliminate the Iraqi
threat to the oil-rich Gulf states, end the Ba'athi quest for nuclear
weapons, free the Shi'a and Kurds from oppression, and remove Baghdad
from the list of revisionist rogue states. Hence, if the central
government in Iraq collapses, the United States should support the
division of Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni Muslim, and Shi'a
Muslim entities, rather than try to restore overall authority to a
new regime in Baghdad.

This essay argues for just such a shift in policy by first laying out
why Iraq has the potential to fragment, and then by describing in
more detail why many U.S. policymakers oppose the dismemberment of
Iraq. It proceeds to show both why their fears are misplaced and why
their sense of opportunity is blunted. The essay concludes by
proposing steps the United States could take to capitalize on an
Iraqi collapse to bring some semblance of security to the area and
some solace to its long-traumatized people.

The Fragile Iraqi State

Although far from certain, the chances that Iraq will collapse are
high. The Iraqi state is inherently fragile, having never been able
to build up widespread popular legitimacy among its heterogeneous
population. Since its creation following the disintegration of the
Ottoman Empire, Iraq has wrestled unsuccessfully with the question of
how to incorporate the interests of its Shi'a and Kurdish populations
into a Sunni-dominated political system. Between the formation of the
British mandate in 1922 and the 1968 Ba'athi coup, roughly forty
local or national uprisings occurred. The main reason is that almost
every Sunni-dominated Iraqi regime promulgated a version of Arab
nationalism that served as an excuse for preserving the unbalanced
communal status quo, and that scorned Iraq's Shi'a and Kurdish

Since the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1968 several cosmetic
solutions for the country's divisions have been proposed, but none
has worked for long. The Ba'athi regime has faced near constant
Kurdish unrest in the north and agitation by Shi'a Islamic leaders in
the south. Both have been exacerbated by the pan-Arab ideology of the
Ba'ath, which both Kurds and Shi'a consider an alien doctrine. But
Ba'ath or no Ba'ath, the pattern of Iraqi domestic politics is plain
and consistent: from 1922 until now, each cycle of Shi'a and Kurdish
revolt and Sunni repression has been bloodier than the one before.

After Desert Storm, the Ba'athi regime was in utter turmoil, with
much of its armed forces shattered and both the Kurds in the north
and the Shi'a in the south in open revolt. The regime barely
survived, abetted by both American actions and inaction. The United
States did not recognize (or overlooked) the fact that much of the
elite Republican Guard was still intact and loyal to Saddam Hussein.
This, combined with an unwillingness to allow rebel Shi'a and Kurds
to use arms that coalition forces had captured (while letting the
Republican Guard use helicopter gunships to suppress them), helped
Hussein cling to power. Superior firepower won the day; later,
thousands of Kurdish and Shi'a fighters who survived the regime's
onslaught were systematically rounded up and murdered, sometimes
along with their entire families.

Although Saddam Hussein has remained in power these last five years,
his regime is cracking under the pressures of the U.S.-led sanctions
system established after the war. Saddam's legitimacy has virtually
vanished as his extended clan-based power and patronage structures
have grown increasingly narrow. As is well known, in August 1995 two
of Hussein's sons-in-law and members of his inner circle--Lieutenant
General Hussein Kamel and Colonel Saddam Kamel, who headed Iraq's
weapons of mass destruction program and special forces
respectively--defected to Jordan, called for Hussein's overthrow, and
revealed to Western governments considerable information on Iraq's
politics and arms programs. They returned to Iraq in February 1996
and were promptly murdered. In March 1996, former chief of staff
General Nizar al-Khazraji joined the ranks of defectors; he now lives
in Jordan. Less well known is that earlier in 1995 members of key
tribes--particularly the Dulaymi--rebelled against Hussein's regime
and were brutally put down. Such defections have led Saddam to rely
increasingly on the power base of his own sons, Uday and Qusay, and
not merely on the threat but the actual use of brute force to
survive. This, in turn, narrows even further what remains of the
regime's popular base.

In addition to Saddam's troubles among the Sunnis and his own
extended family, the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq has achieved
de facto autonomy, protected by allied airpower through Operation
Provide Comfort and the tenacity of Kurdish fighters. In the south,
the Shi'a revolt has been crushed, but the regime rules there by
sheer terror alone. Sanctions, despite the recent U.S. decision to
ease them slightly, are also leading to widespread popular anger even
in the central, Sunni-dominated areas of the country.

Although a post-Saddam, or even post-Ba'athi, regime might restore
some semblance of normal rule, "normal" in the Iraqi case still means
authoritarian repression based ultimately on the omnipresent threat
of brute force. The history of this cobbled-together and sorry entity
makes manifest the truth that its basic problem cannot be solved
merely by a change in regime in Baghdad. Moreover, the legacy of
Ba'athi repression for the better part of the last three decades will
make it even harder for a successor regime to incorporate Sunnis,
Shi'a, and Kurds into a unitary and relatively harmonious state.
Iraq's historical trajectory is unmistakably aimed toward

U.S. Policy: Conservatism at its Worst

It has been said that conservatism at its worst is the habitual
resistance to all change, even when the change at issue would benefit
those resisting it. If so, then U.S. policy toward Iraq is a perfect
example of such conservatism.

The United States remains committed to the territorial integrity of
Iraq despite the weakness inherent in the Iraqi state and the various
depredations, internal and external, caused by that weakness. After
Desert Storm devastated the Iraqi armed forces, the Bush
administration sought indirectly to replace Saddam Hussein with
another Iraqi strongman committed to holding the country together.
U.S. officials preferred a unitary Iraq in order to balance Iran.
Washington therefore wanted the Kurdish and Shi'a revolts to succeed
to the extent that they would cause Saddam's downfall, but not to the
extent that they would lead to national dismemberment. Such fine
tuning proved beyond American officials, and, tilting excessively to
the side of caution, they succeeded only in undermining the power of
the revolts which were to topple Saddam Hussein.

Shortly after taking office, key Clinton administration principals
made clear that they endorsed the Bush administration's basic policy
approach, a policy supported to this day by an impressive bipartisan
consensus. But that alone does not make it right. Because of its
commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity, the U.S. government is
currently caught between two very unpleasant alternatives. On the one
hand, the continuation of Saddam Hussein's rule guarantees poor
U.S.-Iraqi relations and involves an unpredictable but hardly
insignificant degree of danger to every U.S. ally in the region.
Hussein has not moderated his attitudes since Desert Storm, and his
behavior demonstrates in many ways his eagerness to defy the West and
pursue Iraqi hegemony in the region. On the other hand, Hussein's
overthrow portends a collapse of order in Iraq, leading to a
fragmentation into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'a components--something
Washington vigorously opposes. This leaves a policy based on the
familiar wishful thinking of a "third way": a unified post-Saddam
Iraq under a moderate reformist leader who would bring internal
harmony and a responsible regional foreign policy to Baghdad. Such a
moderate successor would not only keep Iraq together but, ideally,
would support the growing U.S. military presence in the region--or at
least not oppose or effectively complain about it.

But this hope for a "third way" is merely that: a hope. The most
likely successor to Saddam would emerge either from the Ba'ath Party
itself or from the highly-politicized army, neither of which is known
for its moderation, respect for human rights, or friendliness toward
the West. Moreover, there is history's hangover with which to reckon.
Following decades of Sunni sprees of violence and repression, any
successor to Saddam would have to deal with seething sectarian and
ethnic rage. Iraq's Kurds, in particular, have been victims of some
of the most infamous massacres of the century and, as a result, any
Kurdish leader who relied on Baghdad would be scorned--if not also
butchered--by his own people. Similarly, the Shi'a--whose 1991 revolt
was crushed by tanks bearing the slogan "No more Shi'a after
today"--would hardly be prepared to trust any Ba'athi or post-Ba'athi
military successor to Saddam. Thus, even if by some miracle a kinder,
gentler successor did emerge, he would face a legacy of blood and
suspicion that would make any form of genuine power-sharing untenable.

Essay Types: Essay