Sat, Oct 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Should a Humpty-Dumpty Iraq be glued back together again?

By Shlomo Avineri

Iraq's draft constitution will probably be approved in the referendum to be held today. But whether it is ratified or not ultimately does not matter, as the finished product -- and the whole constitution-making process -- is totally out of touch with the realities of a country that no longer exists as a coherent body politic.

The problem is not with the constitution, but with the conventional wisdom -- almost an idee fixe -- that Iraq is a viable modern nation-state and that all it needs to make it work properly is the right political institutions. But this is a fallacy and responsible leaders should begin to think of alternatives.

The Iraqi state, established in the 1920s by British imperialist planners (with Winston Churchill in the lead), is a strange pastiche of three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire: Mosul in the north with a Kurdish majority, Baghdad in the center with a Sunni Arab majority and Basra in the south with a Shia Arab majority.

For their own political reasons, the British put the Sunni Arabs -- never more than 25 percent of the population -- in control of the whole country and even imported a Sunni Arab Hashemite prince to rule over their creation.

Ever since, the country could be held together only by an iron fist: Iraq's history is replete with Shia, Kurdish and even Christian Assyrian revolts, all put down in bloody fashion by the ruling Sunni minority.


Throughout its history, modern Iraq has always been the most oppressive of the Arab countries. Saddam's rule was only the most brutal in a long line of Sunni regimes.

It was this Sunni hegemony -- and not merely that of Saddam's Baathist regime -- that was toppled by the US. But, given Iraq's history and demography, the American attempt to refashion the country as a functioning democracy has foundered on three shoals: the Shia majority's empowerment, the Kurds's refusal to give up their hard-won de facto mini-state in the north and the Sunnis' violent campaign to undermine any system that they do not lead.

In short, the draft constitution is an attempt to square a circle. The Sunni resistance -- a guerilla and terrorist war that was well prepared in the last years of Saddam's rule -- will continue to try to subvert any semblance of order representing the current majority Shia-Kurdish coalition.

The Sunnis will go on with their murderous attacks on Shias, Kurds and the US-led military coalition. They will probably boycott the constitutional referendum and all subsequent elections, just as they have boycotted the previous elections.

After all, given the brutal logic of their long hegemony in Iraq, why should the Sunnis contemplate submitting to a process that is premised on their minority status, particularly when whole areas of the country are under the effective control of the Sunni insurgency?

Similarly, why should the Shias, for their part, submit to Sunni hegemony rather than building up their own political structure in the south, modeled on what the Kurds have already achieved in the north?


Let's be frank: Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia as it disintegrated in the early 1990s. This should be acknowledged and ultimately welcomed, despite conventional diplomatic norms regarding the inviolability of the territorial integrity of existing states.

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