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Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | July 2003
The destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq has opened the path to a new future for Iraqis, although it is not yet certain what direction that future will take. Iraq is a fragile political entity created in the aftermath of World War I through the involuntary union of ethnically and religiously diverse portions of the former Ottoman Empire. In the years following Iraq?s creation, a nascent nationalism emerged, which successive leaders sought to nurture and encourage. This effort culminated in Saddam Hussein?s efforts to generate a radical Iraq-centered form of Arab nationalism, which served to promote loyalty to the state and more importantly to Saddam.
The U.S.-Iraqi War of 2003 did not emerge as a strong test of Iraqi nationalism. While Saddam did have some committed defenders, large segments of the population remained neutral in the confrontation between the U.S.-led coalition and Saddam?s defenders. After the war, the United States emerged as a power on probation with the Iraqi population, many of whom were uncertain that their well-being was a major factor in the U.S. decision to intervene and remain in Iraq. Anti-American conspiracy theories became widespread in Iraq, while conservative Muslims worried about the corrupting influence of perceived Western vices.
The removal of Saddam?s regime created problems and opportunities for Iraqi ethnic and religious communities. Arab Shi?ites, who comprise the majority of the population, saw new opportunities for political leadership, perhaps with a powerful but fragmented clergy leading the way. Sunni Arabs correspondingly worried about a new distribution of power, and many began to view de-Baathification as a process that further threatens their community. Kurds remain interested in de facto, but not formal, independence from Iraq, and the danger of an Arab backlash to Kurdish aspirations is correspondingly serious. Tribal identities further complicate the situation.
Some attacks against U.S. forces have occurred following the war with most of the violence associated with residual Saddam loyalists from among the Sunni Arab community. Many Shi?ites are more reluctant to engage in such activity so long as it appears that they can take power by political means. Nevertheless, strong anti-U.S. views are present in the pro-Iranian Shi?ite organizations, and these views may spread among other Shi?ites over time. The possibility of confrontations between U.S. troops and hostile crowds is particularly worrisome as is the availability of massive quantities of weapons to the Iraqi population.
In light of this situation, the United States needs to search continually for areas of agreement with the nonextremist clergy while also recognizing issues on which collaboration is not possible. U.S. leaders must also support a continued strong information campaign, expand efforts to challenge Iranian activities in Iraq, and provide troops with extensive training in stabilization and occupation duties. The participation of troops from moderate Arab and Muslim states in stabilization and reconstruction activities is important and should be encouraged. U.S. administrators must also be careful how they use the word de-Baathification since some Baath ideals are not inherently anti-democratic, although the party itself was deeply corrupted by Saddam. Finally, any U.S. efforts to achieve long-term dominance of Iraqi politics can be expected to produce a serious backlash.
The destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime by a U.S.-led military force has opened the path to a variety of alternative futures for Iraq. The preferred option for the West is the creation of a secular, constitutional democracy, although it is deeply unclear that such an entity can be established and then survive in the turbulent milieu of Iraqi politics. A less desirable possibility that may still serve U.S. interests would be the rise of a pro-Western military authority figure who nevertheless displays some respect for human rights. An alternative that the United States considers unacceptable is the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic republic supported predominantly by the Iraqi Shi?ites.
The preferred option of most Iraqis is not yet fully clear. Moreover, the type of regime change that they support will have a great deal to do with how they define their own identities in a postwar environment. In the aftermath of Saddam?s ouster, Iraqis must determine how to order and emphasize their national and subnational identities now that unconditional loyalty to an entitycalled ?Iraq? is no longer proscribed by a totalitarian government. They must further decide if their ethnic and religious identities are complementary or antithetical to their identities as Iraqis. Moreover, they must consider to what extent pan-Arab values exist and if these values should be important to their lives.
Iraqis also must decide if their national, subnational, or pan-Arab identity will allow them to accept the concept of a friendly relationship with the United States as well as a U.S. presence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Does friendship with the United States require them to be ?bad? Arabs (for those Iraqis who are Arabs), bad Muslims, or bad Iraqis? Conversely, is cooperation with the West acceptable to help build a new and more prosperous Iraq? Moreover, can a pious Islamic government or an Arab nationalist leadership coexist with a U.S. presence in Iraq or support the development of Western style institutions?
Nationalist emotion seems to flourish when challenged or when an external power presents a threat of some kind. Palestinian nationalism developed rapidly and became angry in response to Zionism. Kurdish nationalism developed in response to Turkish, Iraqi, and other attempts to eradicate it. The danger of a new Iraqi Arab nationalism defining itself as an anti-U.S. force is real, but it may still be possible to minimize this phenomenon.
Iraqi nationalism is currently in the process of redefining itself for a post-Saddam world. The chances of this nationalism being anti-Western and anti-U.S. seem serious. With Saddam?s defeat, the choice for Iraqis is no longer between his brutality and foreign rule. The choice may appear to them to be between direct or indirect foreign rule and rule by indigenous elites, most probably the clergy. While Shi?ite clerics were among the bitterest enemies of the Saddam regime, this bitterness has not translated into love of the United States or a high level of toleration for U.S. influence in Iraq. With this in mind, the author provides the following policy guidelines and recommendations.
Finally, the United States has a reputation in the Arab World of favoring democracy so long as the democratic process produces leaders acceptable to Western interests. Advocating democracy and dictating who can be elected are two different concepts. One of the clearest ways the United States can avoid a nationalist backlash is to recognize that ousting Saddam Hussein has not earned for us the privilege of dominating Iraq for the indefinite future. If U.S. leaders believe that it does, then the United States has truly become a colonial power that will inevitably face colonial wars.