IRAQ: Mission impossible
Shlomo Avineri

The current mayhem in Iraq shows that the US-led coalition is on a ‘mission impossible’ in that country. To topple a tyrant like Saddam is one thing; it is a wholly different matter to install democracy when the basic conditions are totally lacking. In this, the US has failed.

US President George W. Bush has recently compared the situation in Iraq to Poland in the 1980s. It is a deeply flawed analogy. The communist regime disintegrated in Poland, and in other Eastern European states, due to local movements for reform and democratization. The Solidarity movement in Poland was ‘blessed’ with a charismatic leader, Lech Walesa. Czechoslovakia had Charta-77 and another charismatic leader, Vaclav Havel, while Hungary had the Democratic Forum. Development in the Soviet Union was different – it was top-down reform – but it, too, was headed by a powerful and articulate leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nothing of this sort exists in Iraq. Exiles like Ahmed Chalabi or Adnan Pachachi, on whom the Americans place their bets, are as cut off from real social forces in their country as were the post-1917 White Russian exiles in Paris.

Moreover, tension between Sunnis and Shias is growing. Iraq was stitched together by British imperial planners in the 1920s out of three very disparate provinces of the Ottoman Empire: Mosul (with a Kurdish majority), Baghdad (predominantly Sunni Arab), and Basra (predominantly Shia Arab). These communities could only be held together by the iron fist of Saddam. Consequently, the Sunni-dominated regimes in Iraq were the most repressive in the Arab world, and they were constantly challenged by Kurdish, Shia, and even Christian-Assyrian insurrections.

It was a pipe dream to think that a democratic form of government could emerge following the removal of the latest, and most brutal, of these Sunni-dominated regimes – especially in a country with no tradition of civil society, tolerance, and pluralism. What failed in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union following communism is about to happen in Iraq.

It is inconceivable that the Kurds in the north will ever again be ready to submit to the brutalities of Arab domination. For the last 10 years they have enjoyed de facto autonomy under the protection of the Allied ‘no-fly zone’ policy.

The current Shia violence demonstrates that it is unlikely the Shia majority would ever accept Sunni hegemony. The Sunni atrocities in Fallujah and the ‘Sunni triangle’ are the desperate struggles of a once dominant minority fighting a losing battle to maintain the vestiges of its power. Both Shia and Sunni violence is aimed at coalition forces, yet at its core this is civil war for control over future power.

In this situation, it is not helpful to create a constitution. Crisis-ridden Haiti also has a constitution – in fact, it has had more than a dozen constitutions during its tragic history.

What should the Americans do? They should adopt a new strategy. Yugoslavia taught us that there are moments in history when attempts to preserve a nonexistent unity only cause more violence and anarchy.

The single way out of violence is to accept the emergence of a Kurdish state in the north, and two separate states – Sunni and Shia – in the predominantly Arab regions of what the British once tried to forge into a country – which, like many other imperial dreams, now lies in shatters.

This option may not be ‘politically correct,’ and is obviously fraught with immense international difficulties, but the Iraqi state may have come to its end.

Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem