01 December 2003

The war in Iraq is not over; instead it has entered its decisive phase. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship did not have the capabilities to defend itself militarily against the last remaining superpower and was despised, feared and hated by most of its own population. Overthrowing it was the easy part, achieved in a few weeks. But the main battle is over controlling and reshaping Iraq. And in this regard, the record up to now is quite contradictory, it still being too early to predict whether Washington will succeed or fail.

Most of the Iraqi population breathed a sigh of relief when Saddam fell, but most Iraqis have been cautious and sceptical about US intentions. Hardly anybody believes that Washington waged war against Saddam because it wanted to "liberate" the country, but because of its strategic and economic self-interest. The general sentiment in Iraq towards the US therefore is still ambivalence, with considerable difference in perspective within and between different groups of the population.

In the Kurdish autonomy areas in the North support for US troops is still substantial. Generally, they are being perceived as liberators from Saddam. There exists distrust about US intentions, born out of historical experiences of US betrayal, e.g. in 1975 and 1991. But the Kurdish leadership and most of the population today consider the US armed forces as a necessary protector against Turkey and Iran, and against a future Iraqi Government, should it fall back to Arab nationalism. Kurdish politicians do criticize US mistakes and its lack of understanding the situation; they might feel worried about specific policies, like US control over financial flows whereas Kurdish autonomy areas had previously been more self-financing. But still, the Kurds overwhelmingly are supporting the US presence in Iraq and try to strengthen their position in Iraq by making themselves indispensable to Washington.

Most Sunni Arabs in Iraq generally have also been suffered from Saddam's repression, but compared to the other major groups to a lesser degree. While Kurds and Shiites had been suffering collective repression, the Sunni Arabs were never repressed as a group, but "only" politically and individually. Political opponents were persecuted under any circumstances and with little regard to ethnic or religious affiliation, but Sunni Arabs were not repressed because of their identity. Repression among them therefore was less brutal than towards the other groups. Also, some sectors of them have been among the few beneficiaries of the dictatorship. The perks were mostly distributed among Sunni Arabs, and most key jobs in the dictatorship were controlled by them. Therefore it was of little surprise that Sunni Arabs in Iraq were the group most sceptical as regards the US. Today, military resistance to the occupation is most acute in the "Sunni belt" north of Baghdad.

Key to the future of Iraq are the Shiite Arabs, located mostly in the South, but with sizeable numbers also in and around Baghdad. The Shiites are potentially the biggest winner of the fall of Saddam, since they have been ruthlessly oppressed, and in contrast to the Kurds had achieved no area of de facto autonomy from the government. Traditionally in a backward and politically weak position in Iraq, the Shiites constitute the majority of Iraqis (some 60 percent) and will be very difficult to marginalise in the future. While the US and the Shiites share a feeling of mutual distrust and suspicion, the level of violence in Shiite areas is still relatively low. The major reason is that the Shiite groups believe that they can only win by remaining quiet: in the case of a peaceful transition they will automatically dominate the future political scene, since they constitute the clear majority of the population, and the potential opponents - Kurds and Sunni Arabs - being split. The potential of violence in Iraq right now is less between the ethnic groups, more within the Shiite community, where different groups compete for domination.

In regard to "ethnic" relationships, Iraq is a different country today compared to a year ago: while formerly the Sunni Arab minority dominated politics and economics, now Shiite Arabs and especially their religiously based parties and the mostly quite secular Kurds have formed an informal alliance to keep them in check. This may work for a while, but will not be a stable combination, given the different views on both sides. Also this constitutes a weakness of the current political process: the fragmentation and paralysis of the traditional "centre" of Iraqi politics - Sunni Arabs - may have tactical advantages for the occupation forces and the other groups inside Iraq, but poses a strategic weakness in Iraq's political fabric, that has to be corrected before the country can become stable and functioning again.

One of the major problems of politically reconstructing Iraq - besides the US military occupation - is the combination of two factors:

One, with the US-troops advancing on Baghdad in April 2003, the Iraqi state structures have suddenly evaporated or were dissolved. Therefore a formerly dominating and highly repressive state apparatus disappeared over a very short period of time, leaving an administrative and political vacuum.

Two, the former dictatorship had suffocated all political life and any attempt to create civil society organizations. While the state had been overpowering, society had been weak, intimidated and strangled. Political organization independent of the regime was impossible and deadly, exile was the only space for it. The result was that Iraqi society outside the Kurdish autonomy zone after the fall of the regime was extremely weak, unorganized and not in a position to fill the vacuum of power. Political groups in exile in the West were weak, fragmented, without a significant political base or credibility inside Iraq and dependent on the US for financial and political support. Shiite groups based in Iranian exile fared somewhat better. These had a chance to organize, including setting up paramilitary units beyond the border, while the potentially strong secular sector among Iraqi Shiites remained weak, unorganized and therefore politically irrelevant. Only the Communist Party can be seen as an expression of Shiite secularism, but despite its strength in the 1950s and 1960s, it is not a major player today. The political discourse among the Shiites therefore is now heavily dominated by religious groups and parties, competing among themselves. Secularism is still a strong sentiment among the Shiites, but it is hardly organized, leaving the field open for the religious groups.

Taken together the result is that in Iraqi society at the downfall of Saddam a state of confusion, fragmentation, disorganisation existed, with barely any civil society organizations and the political sector hardly in a functioning condition.

The US occupation stepped in to monopolize power in Iraq, trying to keep the influence of internal groups at a minimum. At the same time, the US forces messed up badly in the process of rebuilding the infrastructure and a political framework. This was mostly due to incompetence, lack of serious planning, inter-agency conflict, and a misunderstanding of Iraqi society and its most urgent needs. In the course of a few weeks, the US turned Iraq from an overpowering into a "failed state". Today the main stumbling block to building a stable and democratic Iraq is the key contradiction in US policy: on the one hand, Iraq can only be stabilized by integrating Iraqis into the governance of the country and providing security. Only handing over power to the Iraqis can open the road to both stability and democracy. But this practical and political need faces two decisive obstacles: one, there are few credible and functioning actors in Iraq to whom power could be transferred. All political parties and movements (outside the Kurdish areas) are weak and have a very limited social base. Two, while the US occupation troops have to bring about Iraqi self-rule to solve the main problems of Iraq and their own, their first priority is control of Iraq. The US has not conquered Iraq to give it away to some Iraqi politicians, but to control it. And handing over power to Iraqis is conditioned on not losing control. Iraqization and democratization of Iraqi politics is supposed to be a tool of indirect rule, not of giving it up. The practical need to hand power to Iraqis is in contradiction to the imperial design of the Bush-Administrations policies, which places power and control above everything else. This contradiction produces a wobbly, incoherent and somewhat paralyzed US policy of occupation, which is often reduced to a policy of trial and error. The complex and weak political fabric of Iraq collides with a US policy lacking any consistent and working strategy.