A federation of weakness bodes ill for the region

The introduction of a weak Iraqi federal constitution is likely to unleash an ethnic and sectarian crisis over a wider theater

By David Hirst  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Thu, Oct 20, 2005 - Page 9

In the great settlement that followed World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, one of the Middle East's largest ethnic groups, the Kurds, were the main losers.

They had been promised their own state, but thanks to Kemal Ataturk's nationalist rebellion and abandonment of the project by the Western powers, they ended up as repressed minorities in the four countries -- Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria -- among which their vast domains were divided.

The Kurds are set to become the greatest beneficiary of whatever new order emerges from the current Western intervention in the region's affairs. This hasn't reached the scale of the earlier intervention, being mainly confined to Iraq, but, in its expanding -- and unplanned -- ramifications, it could well become comparable to the earlier one.

After all, its chief architects, US President George W. Bush administration's pro-Israeli, neoconservative hawks, with their grandiose ideas of "creative chaos" and "regime change," always saw Iraq as the springboard of an enterprise that had to be regionwide to succeed.

In this respect, if no other, they are in unison with the inhabitants of the Middle East themselves, for whom it is virtually axiomatic that what happens in Iraq profoundly affects everyone else.

WIDER IMPLICATIONS

At all stages in the Iraqi drama, Arab pundits and politicians have dwelt apprehensively on these wider implications. And they are doing so now with the new Iraqi constitution, which looks like it will be approved after Saturday's referendum. This is the latest and possibly the most fateful stage, enshrining as it does, under the general heading of "federation," a whole new concept of statehood and identity.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, the secret Anglo-French understanding that chiefly shaped the postwar settlement, drew arbitrary, colonial-style frontiers across pre-existing ethnic, sectarian, tribal or commercial links and grossly affronted the emergent, essentially Sunni-dominated pan-Arab nationalism and aspiration to unity that came with liberation from Ottoman rule.

Eighty years on, Iraq now portends yet another layer of divisions that will either supplement existing ones or, some of them being undoubtedly more "natural" than the old ones, erase them altogether.

In this constitution, Iraqi Kurds don't get the state that 98 percent of them want, according to a recent referendum, but they do get gains -- vast legislative powers, control of their own militia and authority over discoveries of oil -- which in effect consecrate the quasi-independence they have enjoyed since Western "humanitarian" intervention on their behalf in the 1991 Gulf war and which Kurds regard as a way station towards the real thing.

The Iraqi republic is to be "independent, sovereign, federal, democratic and parliamentary;" but one thing, explicitly, it is no longer, is "Arab." For that, says its Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, would be to deny the right of Kurdish citizens to look to membership of a greater Kurdish nation, just as its Arab citizens look to the greater Arab one.

Yet more shocking, and potentially rending, to Sunni Arabs everywhere, than this ethnic separatism is the new intra-Arab sectarian one. Not only have the Shiites established political ascendancy in a single Arab country for the first time in centuries but they are doing so -- like the Kurds -- in the context of a constitutionally prescribed autonomy which, if Shiite leaders such as Abdul Aziz Hakim mean what they say, will incorporate central and southern Iraq, more than half the country's population and the bulk of its natural assets.

The adoption of a federal formula is seen by the Arab world not as a remedy for Iraq's inherent divisiveness, but, in conditions of rising intercommunal tensions and violence, as a stimulus to it.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the veteran Saudi foreign minister and voice of the Sunni Arab establishment, told the US that it is "part of a dynamic pushing the Iraqi people away from each other. If you allow for this -- for a civil war to happen between Shiites and Sunnis -- Iraq is finished forever. It will be dismembered." What makes it more alarming is that, unlike the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, however ambivalently they feel about it, enjoy the strong support of a powerful neighbor.

Now, under its new president, in something of a neo-Khomeinist revivalist mode, Iran is clearly accumulating all the Shiite-based geopolitical assets it can, from Iraq to south Lebanon, in preparation for the grand showdown that threatens between it and the US.

Arabs have long warned of the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, automatically mindful of the fact that virtually every Western-created state in the eastern Arab world contains the latent ethnic or sectarian tensions that produced that archetype of Arab civil war.

But whereas, in concert with the US, the Arabs finally managed to put out the Lebanese fire before it spread, their prospects of achieving the same amid the violence in Iraq are slight indeed. The inter-Arab state system -- and its chief institution, the Arab League -- has long been incapable of concerted action against what, like Iraq, are perceived as threats to the Arab "nation."

Now the system itself is threatened by the growth of non-state activities, the cross-border traffic in extreme Islamist ideology -- along with the jihadists and suicide bombers who act on it -- or ethnic and sectarian solidarities of the kind that threaten to tear Iraq apart.

Syria, once the nub of the Sykes-Picot carve-up, is again in the frontline, alone among Arab states to be exposed to the Iraqi contagion in both its Kurdish and Shiite dimensions. Thanks to the sudden, self-inflicted weakness of Iraqi Baathist rule, it was Iraqi Kurds who, in 1991, achieved the first great, contemporary breakthrough in the Kurdish struggle for self-determination.

Syrian Kurds now sense similar weakness in their own, deeply troubled Baathist regime. If it collapses amid generalized chaos, many will push for secession and amalgamation with their brethren in north Iraq.

MOST VULNERABLE

On the Shiite front, if sectarian identity is to become the organizing principle of Arab polities, Syria is the most vulnerable to the convulsions that it will unleash. A small minority, the Alawites, has in effect run the country for more than 40 years. It is a predominantly Sunni society, which, historically, represents an even greater anomaly than the Sunni minority rule, also in Baathist guise, that the majority Shiites and Kurds dispensed with in Iraq.

A Sunni majority restoration will become unstoppable if, with the eventual break-up of Iraq, its disempowered Sunnis turn to Syria, of which, but for Sykes-Picot, a great many would long have been citizens anyway.

In the next most vulnerable region, the Gulf, historically persecuted Shiite minorities (or majority in Bahrain), inspired by their co-religionists in Iraq, will press their claims for equality with new vigor.

But nervous Sunni regimes will be loath to cede too much, not least in Saudi Arabia where, like their terrorist alter ego in Iraq, the al-Qaeda boss Abdul Musab al-Zarqawi, the more hidebound of the Wahhabi religious hierarchy still regard Shiite Muslims as no better than heretics.