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The search for a solution in war-torn Iraq

Hamid Ansari

A beginning could be made with a regional conference of all neighbours. This must include the invading powers; having created the problem, they must share the burden of resolving it on terms that are not unilateral.

CATEGORICAL ASSERTIONS make media headlines and produce political capital. They may nevertheless be untrue. This is so with many judgments on Iraq based on dichotomies: good Iraqi-bad Iraqi, Arab-Non Arab, Arab-Kurd, Sunni-Shia, fundamentalist-modernist, etc. Each has a grain of truth, none the totality of it. This was lost sight of when the decision was taken to commit aggression on a member-state of the United Nations. Its fallacy is today readily conceded even in Washington.

The medical journal Lancet published on October 11 a report by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health indicating the figure of 655,000 Iraqis dead since March 2003. The methodology used in the survey has been disputed in some quarters. Even if the figures are considerably lower, that a substantial number died pursuant to a conspiracy to make war is indisputable. The same holds for the American dead. Does this not make a case for accountability under post-World War II norms of international law?

More official data relating to the Iraq misadventure are now available. A September 8 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that the U.S. misjudged the impact of sanctions and inspections on Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) goals. Its declassified portions show that Iraq destroyed its WMD capabilities in July 1991 and that its primary goal in the 1991-2003 period was to end sanctions while preserving its manpower to reconstitute a WMD programme at a later stage. It found no evidence of Iraq's links to Al-Qaeda in the pre-war period. It assessed that Saddam Hussein's policy of seeking regional supremacy was primarily motivated by his apprehensions about Iran.

The gravity of this revelation is to be assessed in the context of the secret British memorandum of July 23, 2002, in which the head of British intelligence had reported, after discussions in Washington, that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of removing Saddam "through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD."

Also in September, the U.S. Comptroller General, acting on his own authority, made public results of a study of the security situation in Iraq. He found that "over the past 3 years, worsening security conditions have made it difficult for the United States to achieve its goals in Iraq." He presented three questions for `Congressional oversight'. (a) Under what conditions would the U.S. reduce forces in Iraq and eventually withdraw? (b) Why have security conditions worsened despite the political progress in Iraq and the building up of an Iraqi army? (c) If present U.S. policies are not reducing violence, what new measures can be contemplated?

The conservative consensus has eroded and the national consensus all but collapsed. The situation is grim enough for the Republicans to avoid mention of Iraq in the election campaign. News leaks are now appearing with regularity about the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton and tasked to suggest policy options. One senior adviser says "we are really at a point where any talk of victory is an illusion"; another asserts "the starting point is to recognise that Iraq is not going to be a democratic, unified country that serves as a model for the region."

The public and parliamentary pressures for corrective action are even greater in London. It is being acknowledged that in official discussions between the two governments, eight options have been explored: (a) an immediate British withdrawal from southern Iraq; (b) an immediate pullout of all coalition forces; (c) a phased withdrawal; (d) talks with Iran and Syria for help in stabilising Iraq; (e) propping up of an Iraqi strongman even at the cost of a rollback of democracy; (f) break-up of Iraq into three states; (g) re-deployment of coalition forces into a series of super-bases in the desert from where policing expeditions could be mounted; (h) one last push by deploying more U.S. troops.

The political cost of the first two options makes them unavailable; the third is broadly reflective of the present, unsuccessful, policy; the fourth is realistic but involves painful doctrinal changes in Washington; the fifth would play into Saddam's hands. He has recently sent a message to his followers suggesting as much and there is some support for it in circles in the Gulf; the sixth, though tempting to Neocon ideologues, is impractical given demographic complexities relating to Iraqi cities and the strength of opposition from all of Iraq's neighbours; the seventh is face-saving but provides no real solution; the eighth remains possible as a military option but would face domestic political obstacles in America, more so if the Republicans lose control of Congress in November.

In the condition of war, wrote Thomas Hobbes, every man is enemy of every man. This is true of Iraq today. Beneath the anarchy, however, is a pattern of violence that sheds light on the objectives of the actors. Arab Iraqis, Shia and Sunni, are fighting the Coalition. They are also fighting each other. There is also a tussle between Shias themselves. All are seeking space for the worst case scenario. Forms of ethnic cleansing are under way; many Sunnis in mixed localities in Baghdad are now adopting Shia names to escape being targeted. The telegram of June 2006 from America's Ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, gave graphic details of the social situation as experienced by the Iraqi employees of the U.S. embassy.

The total strength of the Coalition forces in September 2006 stood at 166,000. The Iraqi security forces of all categories and at different levels of operational efficiency number 307,800. A study undertaken by the Saudi National Security Project in July gave figures of other armed groups — Badr, the armed wing of Abdulaziz Al-Hakim's SCIRI, 25,000 fighters; Mahdi army of Muqtada Al-Sadr, 10,000; Al-Quds forces supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, 5,000; Sunni insurgents, 77,000 (over 75 per cent of these are said to be former soldiers and Baathists, 16 per cent religious fighters and seven per cent foreign religious fighters).

The number of foreign insurgents has doubled in the past year and stood at 5,380 in March 2006. Their nationalities are indicative of the widespread Arab concern for the future of Iraq: 22 per cent Algerians, 16 per cent each from Yemen and Syria, 12 per cent Egyptians, 11 per cent Sudanese, 10 per cent Saudis, and seven per cent other North Africans. The American estimates of insurgent numbers, however, are considerably lower.

The Saudi study assessed the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni challenges to Iraqi unity and concluded on a grim note: (a) the Kurdish quest for semi-independence with continue and the question of Kirkuk will become a point of contention with the central government in Baghdad; (b) the Iranian influence will increase as the American one wanes; (c) the insurgency will continue to grow in strength and popularity; (d) all indicators point to increased likelihood of civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi state.

Land of multiple identities

Iraq is a land of multiple identities — ethnic, tribal, and sectarian. This holds good for the Kurds, and for Shia and Sunni Arabs. All three call themselves Iraqis and do not disown this aspect of their identity. Little attempt was made in the past to accommodate them in a plural framework. The focus of successive regimes was on administrative cohesion. The Constitution of 2005, drafted in great measure by Professor Noah Feldman of New York University, presented a drastic shift of power and resources from the central to regional governments but did not incorporate a balancing plan of social cohesion and equitable allocations. The disquiet of the deprived was inevitable.

The second question raised by the U.S. Comptroller General — Why have security conditions worsened despite the political progress in Iraq and the building up of an Iraqi army? — thus needs to be addressed comprehensively. This requires a comprehension both of the inherent complexity of Iraq and of the need to eschew simplistic solutions. Resort to physical force without a meaningful political plan of action will not resolve the problem.

The Coalition has failed to impose a settlement on Iraq. The insurgency is a fact; so is Kurdish autonomy; so is Shia majority and regional cohesion; so are the neighbours in the totality of their strategic interests. A viable solution has to reckon with each of these. It has to desegregate the Shia and Sunni `monoliths' and seek points of convergence. A realistic assessment needs to be made of the influence today of the traditional structures of authority — religious and tribal. An atmosphere of accommodation, and incentives for it, has to be generated and platforms created for dialogue. A beginning could be made with a regional conference of all neighbours. This must include the invading powers; having created the problem, they must share the burden of resolving it on terms that are not unilateral.

The acknowledged failure of one invasion comes on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of another — of Egypt on October 29, 1956. Are there any lessons in this for Western approaches to West Asia?

(The writer was India's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Iran.)

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