"Iraq's greatest challenge is an old one"
Drafted by Matthew Riemer
May 03, 2003 

One of the greatest obstacles facing those attempting to introduce the concept of democracy to Iraq is a problem that is actually centuries old: the complexities of the nation-state. Unlike the fledgling United States and many European regions during the 17th and 18th centuries, the geographical puzzle and political, religious and ethnic arrangement now referred to as Iraq is not -- and really never was -- conducive to the coherent formation of a modern day Western-inspired nation-state. 

Not widely discussed is that Iraq is a fusion of three former Ottoman provinces -- Basra, Baghdad and Mosul -- devised by the British in the inter- war period last century. While many regions within modern day Iraq have cultural and historical homogeny, Iraq, unlike, say, Iran, has no distinct history, ethnicity, or language with which to create a national identity in the modern sense. The people who happened to be living in the Ottoman provinces at the time of the British demarcation were many: Arabs and Kurds; Muslims, Christians, and Jews; Shi'a and Sunni. 

The events in Iraq over the last three-quarters of a century since its inception as a nation-state have reflected this diversity and the inherent conflict it presents -- a host of coups took place in the late '30s and early '40s and then in 1958 King Faisal II was ousted by army officers; and today, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party -- pervasive and almost ancient institutions in a country so young -- major political groups within Iraq are moving in disparate ideological directions. The various visions espoused by the different groups follow the traditional lines of religion, ethnicity, geography and occasionally doses of sectarianism. 

The Kurds live in the northern part of the country and consider the lands inhabited by their people in Iraq and three bordering countries -- Turkey, Iran, and Syria -- Kurdistan. This de facto ethnic-state, representing a splotch on an ethnographical map, has been the region the Kurds have fought for and from for centuries as a distinct people. In more recent decades, the Kurds have fought for their own nation-state -- one that would surely exclude most of current day Iraq -- insofar as they desire complete independence and absolute self-rule. 

The Kurds are primarily interested in their own sovereignty and any commitment to a greater Iraq is secondary. Because of this, the greater Kurdish movement, outside of its many parties, is fundamentally one aimed at an ethnic-state -- not one that is ethnically exclusive but simply with a single ethnicity as its defining quality. The only appeal for the Kurds of a "democratic Iraq" -- aside from the fact that such a situation precludes the existence of Saddam Hussein -- is an increase in regional independence and, perhaps, power, not necessarily an integrated Kurd-Arab political entity called Iraq, which would surely contain many elements competitive with if not hostile to Kurdish interests. 

The Shi'a Muslims, on the other hand, seek political legitimacy through their religion, Shi'a Islam, and its tenets. The Shi'a, though Muslims like the Kurds, conceptualize a religious-state rather than one based on ethnicity. This subtle yet significance difference is manifest in the desire for an Islamic Republic by many Shi'a, which -- depending on one's view -- the Iranian revolution of 1979 establishes both an inspirational and frightening precedent for. An Islamic Republic founded within Iraq would symbolize the aspirations of the religion-state, one where religious affiliation is the primary defining characteristic and form of identity. 

The Shi'a Muslims of central and southern Iraq are also spiritually aligned with Iran. The United States has already warned of "outsiders" interfering with Iraq's political rebirth and has directly mentioned Iran regarding the matter; the Ayatollah Khomeini also spent time in Iraq at Najaf during his exile under Iranian dictator Mohammad Reza Shah. Washington has now commented on the fact that they underestimated the organizational skills of the Shi'a and are wary of what may arise. Sheikh Abd-Jabbur Manhell, head of the Baghdad office of the Society of Honorable Scholars of Najaf, a Shi'a group, is quoted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as saying: "We won't rush to declare a Jihad against Americans; we'll wait and see if the U.S. sincerely wants a free and democratic Iraq. If it's up to the Iraqi people to choose their own government, I'm sure that up to 70 percent of the Iraqi population will want an Islamic state." 

Secular Arabs and Western administrators represent a third stream that seeks to reconcile the many differences and create an integrated government in which all interested parties are fairly represented. This approach, however, sometimes ignores the fact that many Iraqis don't primarily think of themselves as "Iraqis" and that Iraq itself contains the perfect elements for the emergence of competing regional powers. Many of these individuals are aligned with the United States and are intimate with the concept of the nation-state as perceived by Washington policy makers. Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), is one of these people. His group has received tens of millions of dollars in funds from the United States and is enthusiastically approved of by the Pentagon. 

Because of this relationship, many Iraqis are suspicious of the Western educated Chalabi and his intentions now that he's returned to Iraq after a decades-long absence. On April 28th, RFE/RL described Chalabi's organization's offices: "The INC occupies an impressive building of the Iraqi Hunting Club in Baghdad's prestigious Mansur neighborhood, once favored by top members of the former regime. Now, hundreds of the INC's camouflaged men, called the Free Iraqi Forces, stand at checkpoints around Baghdad." 

Jay Garner, the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, is also a key political figure in the proceedings. Garner, with his Western background, is also a member of this third group that has the most unified vision for Iraq -- one based upon neither ethnicity nor religious affiliation but upon a political, administrative, and economic whole. Garner recently said, "The reason I am here and General Tim Cross, my deputy, is here is to create an environment in Iraq which will give us a process to start a democratic government, which represents all people, all religions, all tribes, all the ethnics, all professions, and to begin that process so that we can have a government that represents the freely elected will of the people." 

So there are three very different, powerful groups within Iraq all pulling the country in politically dissimilar directions. Members of each at times will seemingly reconcile their differences, but the fundamental schisms between the various ideologies are great. It is these conditions, the same ones that have prevented Iraq from becoming a coherent nation-state, that will be the same ones encountered and indeed that may prevent the infusion of Iraq with some kind of Jeffersonian Democracy. Religion, race, and idealistic integration are all still battling each other in the philosophies and hearts of the new and old Iraqi policy makers.

Courtesy of The Power and Interest News Report (PINR).