Iraq Geoploitics

Henry C K Liu

Part 1: Geopolitics in Iraq an old game

Part II:
Geopolitical weeds in the cradle of civilization

First appeared in Asia Times Online on September 3, 2004

The 35-year-old Ba'athist government that the US unwisely chose to topple with the second Iraq War in April 2003 saw Iraq as playing a key role in providing strategic depth and vigor in the eastern flank of a re-emerging Arab nation. Iraq, after all, was the artificial product of Western geopolitical maneuvers in the cradle of civilization during the age of European imperialism, and Iraq's full geopolitical spectrum has always included Pan-Arabism beyond narrow state interests.

Pan-Arabism holds that a common Arabic heritage is the natural basis for a cohesive, strong and prosperous Arabic world. It perceives the division of the Arab world into 22 states as the unhappy and unnatural outcome of deliberate efforts by Western imperialism to prevent the re-emergence of Arab greatness, a strategic theme stressed repeatedly by many Arab leaders, including Saddam, who stressed the popular theme in public statements all through his two decades of power. In a press conference on November 10, 1980, Saddam said, "[Foreign] powers are still trying in every possible way to divide these 22 parts into at least another 22 parts."

There is ample evidence that Israeli policy on Arab resistance has picked up this extension of the old "divide and rule" strategy of the imperialist West. Oded Yinon, an Israeli foreign policy advisor, in an article in Kivunim, February 1982, singled out Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for further division. An Israeli official was quoted in the July 26, 1982 issue of Newsweek: "Ideally, we'd like to see Iraq disintegrate into a Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni community, each making war on the other."

The British had successfully practiced the "divide and rule" strategy in British India, and to perpetuate British influence by fanning the India/Pakistan divide after independence in 1947. Malaysia and Singapore became two nations as a result of British decolonization policy. The US has also employed this geopolitical strategy all over Asia for almost six decades after World War II, with North and South Vietnam, North and South Korea and China and Taiwan, behind the disingenuous ideological mask of democracy versus communism, even though neither true democracy nor true communism were practiced in these artificial political entities divided primarily on the basis of superpower geopolitics.

In Europe, the case for a divided Germany was based on the geopolitical aim of weakening Germany's prospect of dominating Europe in the post-war world.

A by-product of World War II was the rise of nationalism in the colonies. The US, under the leadership of Franklin D Roosevelt, had no trouble getting Congress to declare war on Japan after the "surprise" attacks on Pearl Harbor, even though the march toward war between a rising Japan and a US eager to defend its expanding national interests in the Pacific should be no surprise to anyone, but to convince the American people to war against Germany, with the pretext of Germany being an ally of Japan, World War II had to be sold as a good war primarily on the promise of the spread of democracy through decolonization of European empires.

Churchill and the Iron Curtain

British premier Winston Churchill's resistance to Roosevelt's war-justifying decolonization commitments was encapsulated in his famous proclamation that Britain did not fight the war to give the empire away. Churchill, who developed a war-time fondness for referring to the Allies, which included communist USSR and fascist Nationalist China, as the Democracies, had wanted to continue the war after the fall of Nazi Germany to rid the world of communism and to keep the British Empire in the name of democracy. The fact was that democratic processes were largely suspended during war time in the Democracies. Churchill had been appointed prime minister by the king after the failure of the Munich peace process and granted power without a general election to lead a coalition war-time government.

He had to face and lost the test of democracy in a general election in 1945, immediately after the end of the European phase of the war. Former premier Margaret Thatcher wrote in her Path of Power (1995): "Churchill himself would have liked to continue the National Government at least until Japan had been beaten and, in the light of the fast-growing threat from the Soviet Union, perhaps beyond then." Churchill had wanted to perpetuate the suspension of democracy in his own country for the purposes of defending democracy against communism. A similar development is taking place in the US, where after the attacks of September 11, the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress to defend democracy from terrorism by wholesale suspension of democracy at home. Churchill's shameful campaign attempts to compare a future Labour government in Britain with Nazi Germany by warning that a Labour government would introduce a Gestapo to enforce socialism backfired, giving Clement Attlee a landslide victory.

Having been rejected by voters at home even before World War II completely ended in the Far East part of the British Empire, Churchill, out of office at home, worked on the US by inventing the concept of an Iron Curtain in his famous speech on March 5, 1946 in little-known Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, president Harry Truman's home state, and convinced an insecure and paranoid Truman to launch the Cold War.  Later Churchill had to admit publicly that the term "Iron Curtian" was stolen from a speech by Nazi Propaganda Chief Joseph Gobbel.

A year later, on March 12, 1947, the Truman Doctrine was proclaimed before a joint session of Congress. It committed the US to protect Greece and Turkey militarily from communism by noting that: "The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by communists ... It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East."

Geopolitics had been the key consideration behind the US response to terrorist activities.In the Iron Curtain speech that marked the beginning of the Cold War, Churchill said: "The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with this primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. As you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done, but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement. Opportunity is here now, clear and shining, for both our countries. To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the aftertime."

As Churchill correctly observed, the US became the world sole superpower at the end of World War II, before the start of the Cold War, not after its end. Churchill with his own geopolitical agenda played on the American national psyche of not ever wanting to be an under-achiever. Churchill went on: "It is necessary that constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war. We must, and I believe we shall, prove ourselves equal to this severe requirement."

Grand simplicity of decision was exactly what it was, unnecessarily plunging the world into five decades of divisive misery and escalating threats of nuclear annihilation by turning a war-time ally into a peace-time ideological nemesis. It seems that another grand simplicity of decision is now plunging the world into another half century of misery by the US finding in Islam a new deadly enemy and by its declaration that those not with the US in its frenzied broadside of uncontrolled rage are against it.

Churchill allowed: "I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal [Josef] Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain - and I doubt not here also - toward the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships. It is my duty, however, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe." Then he delivered the punch line: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent."

Then the justification for a Cold War against communism: "The safety of the world, ladies and gentlemen, requires a unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast. It is from the quarrels of the strong parent races in Europe that the world wars we have witnessed, or which occurred in former times, have sprung. Twice the United States has had to send several millions of its young men across the Atlantic to fight the wars. In a great number of countries, far from the Russian frontiers and throughout the world, communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the communist center. Except in the British Commonwealth and in the United States where communism is in its infancy, the communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization."

Replace communism with Islam extremism and you have the neo-conservative argument for widespread regime change as the main tool of the "war on terrorism". Samuel Huntington was not the first to talk about a clash of civilizations, notwithstanding that the early Christians practiced communism for centuries before Rome co-opted the religion. One may also now draw the parallel conclusion that the safety of the world requires a unity in the Arab nation.

Then Churchill made a pitch for the permanent militarization of peace: "I repulse the idea that a new war is inevitable - still more that it is imminent. It is because I am sure that our fortunes are still in our own hands and that we hold the power to save the future, that I feel the duty to speak out now that I have the occasion and the opportunity to do so. I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines. But what we have to consider here today while time remains, is the permanent prevention of war and the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries ... From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness. For that reason the old doctrine of a balance of power is unsound. We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength ... If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealth be added to that of the United States, with all that such cooperation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe, and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure. On the contrary there will be an overwhelming assurance of security."

'Peace through strength'

That was the beginning of Anglo-US unilateralism which has existed since the beginning of the Cold War. The argument that the enemy respects only strength has since been repeated by Israel about the Arabs, and the neo-conservatives about Islam extremists. Peace through strength has been the rallying cry of the Anglo-US alliance ever since the end of World War II.

Multilateralism, which some critics of US foreign policy have of late accused the US under the Bush administration of abandoning, is a recent development after the end of the Cold War. Multilateralism conflicts with the prerogatives of a superpower except as a legitimizing device of superpower status. Defenders of absolute US sovereignty espouse a doctrine of US "exceptionalism", arguing that superior US domestic institutions and law take supremacy over international obligations to lesser states, and US domestic standards of political legitimacy may require opting out of certain international initiatives, such as peaceful co-existence for states with difference political/economic systems or cultural/religious values. It is a fascist argument that associates military power with moral superiority.

A structural impediment to multilateralism in US foreign policy is a constitutional separation of powers that grants the executive and legislative branches joint control over foreign policy. This shared mandate, absent in parliamentary democracies, single-party polities and theocracies, often complicates domestic confirmation of multilateral commitments, particularly when the two branches of government are controlled by opponent political parties. Because the ratification of international treaties or declaration of war requires the concurrence of two-thirds of the US Senate, minority political views, particularly extremist ones, frequently can block US participation in multilateral proposals. The form of democracy practiced in the US gives disproportionate power to the swing vote, particularly on controversial issues with no clear majority view, allowing extremism to dictate policy by default. Since the Watergate scandal of 1974 first weakened the prestige and authority of the presidency, and during the first post-Cold War decade when threats to national survival were no longer perceived as imminent, Congress reasserted itself in foreign policy formulation, making use of its legitimate constitutional prerogatives to compete with the leadership of executive branch to shape the terms of US global engagement. The attacks on September 11 revived the perception of clear and present danger to national security and gave new impetus to presidential leadership. Alas, instead of enlightened leadership towards a harmonious world, US exceptionalism now emanates from the office of the president, whose occupant sees multilateralism as a form of weakness.

By labeling all post-World War II populist nationalist movements in former colonies as communist fifth columns, Churchill gave colonialism a second lease on life after the good war to end colonialism. A new "democratic" colonialism based on market capitalism was fashioned out of insipid racist colonialism to play a geopolitical role in resisting the spread of communism. Local elites were allowed to join exclusive white clubs as superficial signs of liberal progress. Discrimination shifted from racial to poverty lines, while race and poverty remained wed among the masses. Colonial jewels in the British Crown, such as Hong Kong, suddenly were presented as models of democracy and freedom while a newly benign but still dictatorial colonial rule continued for another half century. Mercantilism, a term describing a trade regime to acquire national wealth in the form of gold through the imposition of monopolistic export of manufactured products onto colonies, was replaced by neo-liberalism, a term describing a trade regime of deregulated global financial markets to bypass national economic sovereignty to exploit low wages and failed markets beyond national borders. Just as mercantilism was the main economic tool of colonialism, neo-liberalism became the main economic tool of neo-colonialism. Fortunately for the colonized world, Churchill was removed from power in his home constituency by the very democracy he tried to exploit as a convenient tool for keeping the empire. Political colonialism met a timely death in many former colonies, but economic neo-colonialism lived on through neo-liberalism. For the Middle East, the threat of Arab nationalism to the British Empire gave the pre-World War II Balfour Declaration a whole new geopolitical perspective.

Back on November 2, 1917, Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, who virtually established a family monopoly for the floating of large international loans (The Crimea War Loan 1856), whose influence Britain needed to help finance World War I, received a short letter from Arthur Balfour, British foreign minister. The letter stated that Britain "views with favor" a Jewish homeland in Palestine, provided the religious and ethnic rights of all sects and groups were upheld. This simple three-paragraph letter, which came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, was in many ways similar to the Crimea war, involving a decision by a Western power to give Arabic land in the Middle East to Jews mostly from Europe and Russia without the participation of the Arabs. Arab nationalism was not a significant consideration in the initial geopolitics behind the Balfour Declaration. A Jewish state in Palestine under British mandate did not conflict with British plans because the British never intended to give back the Ottoman Arab provinces to the Arabs. With the rise of Arab nationalism after World War II, Britain began to see geopolitical utility in using the creation of a Westernized Jewish state as an effective proxy to combat rising Arab nationalism. The local problem of Palestinian-Israeli conflict was hereafter framed in the context of a new conflict between Western neo-imperialism and Arab nationalism.

Arab nationalism, and resistance

Post-World War II resistance by Arabs to foreign intervention and domination in their affairs generally takes two forms that share common diagnosis of the problem but are diametrically opposed in proposed solutions. The diagnosis is clear: the centuries-long decline of Arab culture and power invites foreign intervention and domination. The first form of response to arrest this decline is Arab nationalism. History has shown that European nationalism was the main vehicle for the rise of the West. While recognizing the importance of Islam in Arab culture, Arab nationalists feel that Islamic fundamentalism, as a political ideology, does not fully encompass the modern needs of the Middle East any more than Christian fundamentalism encompassed the complete needs of Europe. The reasons in support of this view are complex, weaving around three obvious strands. The first strand is that the region includes sizable non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities that must be reckoned with in an inclusive political structure. The second strand is that there are fundamental differences of religious interpretation within Islam that would present difficulties, if not insurmountable obstacles, to religion-based political unification. The history of political developments associated with the rise of Protestantism in Europe is an object lesson. The third strand is that Islamic fundamentalism cannot effectively adapt to the rapid changes facing the region and the world and that resistance to change has been the chief reason for the decline of Arab culture and power. The history of the rise of the West is inseparably tied to the steady long-term decline of Christian fundamentalism since the 17th century.

Arab nationalists and Islam fundamentalists are both opposed to Westernization, but Arab nationalists are committed to Arab modernization through secularization that would also facilitate Pan-Arab unity. In this sense, Arab nationalism's concept of modernization is comparatively more progressive than that of US neo-conservatives who attempt to move a secular modernity in the West back toward revived Judeo-Christian fundamentalism. Yet while secularization in Christianity decidedly promoted Western advancement and progress, Islamic fundamentalism has been encouraged by British imperialism since the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and by US neo-imperialism since the end of World War II to retard Arab revival. The real target is of course Arab nationalism.

Nasirism, developed by Gemal Abd al-Nasir of Egypt, had been generally accepted as the main political manifestation of Arab nationalism, but Ba'athism has evolved as a more effective political movement in recent decades. In contrast to Nasirism as espoused in Egypt, which relied more on leadership by personality cult in a transfiguration of tribal structure, Ba'athists operated with a high level of discipline in political organization. Although Ba'athist leaders are also inescapably tied to ritualistic supremacy in the hierarchical tradition of tribal culture, the Ba'ath Party is designed to continue to function in the event of the leader's sudden demise or ouster. Thus if the US aim was to remove from power an unruly Ba'athist leader in the person of Saddam Hussein, the de-Ba'athification program adopted after the 2002 second Iraq war was counterproductive. Iraq might be governable without Saddam, but it cannot be governed without the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, at least not without a long period of social chaos and political instability during which the US occupation regime would face hostility with extreme prejudice and incur costly payment in blood while it attempts to fashion a new political landscape out of an unnecessary political vacuum it itself created. US marginalization of the Ba'ath Party from the Iraqi political arena will set political stability in Iraq back for decades, with an end game that may very well require a reconstitution of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party.

Birth of the Ba'athists

The Ba'ath movement was created in Damascus in the 1940s by an Arab Christian named Michel Aflak and a Sunni Muslim named Salah ad-Din Bitar, both Syrians, after World War II as a nationalist anti-imperialism movement. In 1953, the movement crystallized as the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party. It reached its operational zenith in the 1960s when it evolved into a strong expression of Arab revolutionary nationalism. Aflak remained a leader of the party until his death in 1989. Pan-Arab unity is at the core of Ba'athist ideology and dominates all other objectives. Ba'athism advocates a tribal socialist system domestically which emphasizes socio-economic development for the benefit of greater Arab society. The party's organizational structure is similar to communist parties, which in turn is similar to the Roman Catholic Church. The basic organizational unit of the Ba'ath Party is the party cell. Composed of small membership, party cells function at the urban neighborhood or the rural village level, where members meet to formulate tactics to implement strategic party directives. As in communism and Catholicism, this type of organizational structure particularly thrives during the underground phase of the movement and cultivates members who are committed, intelligent, moral and principled. At the time of the first Iraq war in 1991, about 10% of Iraqis, the cream of the population who effectively ran what was arguably the most socially advanced and secular country in the region, were estimated to be Ba'ath Party members, many being younger generation members of conservative anti-Ba'athist parents.

The Ba'ath Party achieved political success first in Syria, but its leaders were exiled in 1961 after Syria's Pan-Arab experiment of a union with Egypt failed. Aflak and others then relocated to Iraq. In 1963, the Ba'ath Party succeeded in taking power in Iraq, but it failed to hold power for long due to inexperience in public administration. The party took power again in 1968 when General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr staged a coup, with Saddam Hussein as deputy. The Iraqi Ba'ath Party remained committed to a unified Arab nation, even though in practice pressing domestic concerns within Iraq commanded immediate attention. Nonetheless, Iraqi foreign policy under Saddam had been significantly motivated by Ba'ath ideology.

Aflak saw the dispersed Arab peoples as a single nation the destiny of which rests with the aspiration of becoming a single state with its own independent role in the world as a major power. Although persuaded of the importance of secularity, Aflak recognized the indigenousness of Islam to Arab culture and advocated socialism in a tribal context. In the 1950s, the Ba'ath Party called for a pluralist democracy and free elections in Arab countries. Although it is not indifferent to the Palestinian question, the Ba'ath Party has not taken it up as a primary cause, as it takes the position that the Palestinian question is only a putrid symptom of the cancer of Arab disunity and that a strong united Arab nation will be able to solve the local problem of Palestine to satisfaction. Israel subscribes to a similar view and treats Pan-Arabism as a lethal enemy to the long-term survival of the Jewish state.

The Ba'ath Party entered into active politics first in post-World War II Syria where political instability after independence produced frequent changes of government. Ideology and organization of the party went through changes in response to political events. The turning point came in 1958, the year of the creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) by Egypt and Syria. The Ba'ath Party accepted the dissolution of its Syrian section as it shared Nasir's views on Arab and international politics. The breakdown of the UAR in September 1961 set off a long internal crisis in the Ba'ath Party.

The failure of the UAR caused some senior Ba'ath Party members to reconsider the pragmatic obstacles to the high ideals of Pan-Arabism. In Syria, those known as "Regionalists" led by Hafez al-Assad, as opposed to the "Nationalists" who were more in favor of a more universal Arab line, dominated the Syrian section after the Regionalists gained power in 1963. Nationalist founders of the Ba'ath Party, including Aflak, were forced into exile. Two separate Ba'ath headquarters were set up: a revisionist one in Damascus, the other in Baghdad, where Aflak had found refuge after the Iraqi Ba'ath Party had risen to power in July 1968, with Saddam in a key position. In Iraq, Ba'ath Party ideology directed state policy, the clearest illustration being Iraq's recovery of Kuwait in 1990, which was seen by the party as "a stage of Arab unification". US opposition to the Iraqi recovery of Kuwait, developed only after it had communicated to Iraq diplomatically an initial posture of non-interference, was a delayed geopolitical reaction against a major material advance in Pan-Arabism, with the reluctant silent acquiescence of many of the Arab Regionalists. The first Gulf war was financed by and with active logistics support from Saudi Arabia as the wealthy head of the Regionalist snake.

In Syria, under Article 8 of the constitution, the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party is the leading party in the state and society. It leads a national progressive Front that works for uniting the potentials of the Arab masses and placing them at the service of the objectives of the Arab nation. The party's leadership of the Front is embodied by its being represented by majority in the Front's establishment. Hence, the chairman of the Front is the secretary-general of the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party, and he is the president of the republic. The Front decides on policy matters of war and peace. It approves the five-year plans of the state, discusses economic policies, and lays down the plans of national socialist education, and leads the general political orientation.

Paradoxically, with the party's rise to state power in Syria and Iraq and with policies in these state governments forced to respond to local needs, Ba'ath ideology began to decline in influence in the Arab world, contradicting its key political aim of promoting Pan-Arab nationalism. However, its secular approach along with its socialist ideals remain driving forces in internal party politics.

Arab fundamentalism

A separate Arabic approach to oppressive foreign domination is the notion that Islam provides the guiding light for unity, despite theological divergence in the form of Islamic modernism, reformism, conservatism and fundamentalism. This approach took on new appeal as religious fundamentalism was encouraged by the US all over the world as an effective force to combat secular communism. With the threat of global communism subsiding after the Cold War, a special bond between the opportunistic US and Islamic fundamentalism lost adhesiveness and the strange bed-fellowship fell into benign neglect by the sole remaining superpower. With the post-Cold War spread of the US global neo-liberal economic empire, Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by its holding of the short end of the economic stick, then turned its wrath toward US neo-imperialism and neo-liberalism. Continued foreign interference in the Islamic world poses profound reactive consequences that push all Islamic movements to adjust political goals with a return to the purity of fundamental Islamic values.

Arab Islamic fundamentalism has been centered in Saudi Arabia, where the state religion is Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam fundamentalism out of which rose Osama bin Laden, who would become leader of al-Qaeda, meaning "the base" in Arabic, a guerrilla force sponsored and trained originally by the US in Afghanistan to oppose the Soviet-backed communist Afghan government. After the Cold War, al-Qaeda turned its militancy against the US, its erstwhile sponsor. Followers of Wahhabism are opposed to communism: which they consider a profane ideology formulated by a German Jew (Karl Marx); Ba'athism: another profane ideology formulated by an Arab Christian (Aflak): and Pan-Arabism: a secular ideology that denies both the truth faith and tribal culture. The Saudi Wahhabis believe it is God's will to reveal the Koran (God's constitution) in Saudi Arabia and god has blessed Saudi Arabia, the true defender of the faith, with oil riches and tribal social harmony. Saudi Arabia, for decades a closed society of minimal social contradictions due to its homogenous tribal culture and as a result of new prosperity brought on by the sudden quadrupling of oil revenue after the 1973 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil boycott, feels it needs no instruction from the decadent West on democracy and social reform. The vicissitude of its oil fortune in the 1990s, with oil prices falling below US$10 per barrel, caused socio-economic stress hitherto unfamiliar in God's kingdom and led Saudi Wahhabis to blame the infidel US for interfering with God's will. The rise of Wahhabism in the Muslim world coincided with the revival of Christian fundamentalism in the US, exacerbating the conflict, leading some to superficially frame it as a clash of civilizations, obscuring geopolitical factors.

The US, with its foreign policy under the second Bush administration hijacked by neo-conservatives supported by Christian fundamentalists, blinded by its fixation on the need to control Mid East oil and misguided by its dismissal of the relevance of Arabic history and culture, made the geopolitical error of misidentifying the secular Ba'ath Party as its target enemy in its "war on a terrorism" waged principally by Wahhabi extremists, such as al-Qaeda.

Non-Arab Shi'ite Islam fundamentalism, as espoused by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, mistrusts both Arab nationalism and Arab Islamic Sunni fundamentalism as parochial and anti-progressive philosophies to the point of being obstructionist against true faith and holy justice. This ideological conflict between Arab nationalism and meta-Arab borderless Shi'ite Islamic fundamentalism was a major cause for the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, in which Saudi Arabia, despite its opposition to Arab nationalism, provided substantial financial aid to Ba'athist Iraq because the Saudis, who are fundamentalist Sunnis, consider fundamentalist Shi'itism a worse enemy than secular Arab nationalism.

The Saudis, like other Regionalists, are not against Arab solidarity. Out of self interest, they are weary of Arab nationalism in the form of a unified Pan-Arab state. While both Arab nationalism and all the diverse sects of Islamic fundamentalism oppose Western political, economic and cultural imperialism and neo-imperialism, there is no convincing evidence that Arab nationalism is linked to Wahhabi/al-Qaeda, the branch of terrorism on which the US has focused its global "war on terrorism" after September 11. Al-Qaeda is opposed to the Ba'ath Party of Iraq and considered Saddam an evil infidel. In fact, the 2003 toppling of the secular Ba'athist government in Iraq served to enhance both Sunni and Shi'ite extremist Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

Britain drawn to Iraqi oil

Oil had emerged as a key strategic consideration in post-World War I British policy on Iraq as the British navy shifted from coal to oil power. The British rushed troops to Mosul in 1918 to gain control of the northern oil fields. Britain and France clashed over Iraq's oil during the Versailles Conference and after, with Britain eventually taking the lion's share by turning its military occupation into colonial rule. In 1921, Hashimite Prince Faisal of Hejaz, now southwestern Saudi Arabia, was hand-picked to rule Iraq by the British following the advice of Gertrude Bell, a Middle East expert with the British intelligence service who had worked with T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In keeping with British co-optation of the institution of democracy as a devious tool of neo-colonialism, Faisal was made to win a British-staged one-time "popular" referendum on his becoming king, with 96% of the votes counted, albeit in the absence of any opposing alternative or candidate. It was a tribal confirmation rather than a democratic election. Faisal was declared king of Iraq on August 23, as the history's only king "elected" by the people. In picking the Hashimite monarchy, the British had hoped to exploit the temporal legitimacy of the Islamic heritage of the al-Hashim, who were Sunnis descended from the Prophet Mohammed. As a condition for bogus independence from direct British control, Iraq had to allow unrestricted Royal Air Force operation within its borders, give Britain land and resources to maintain military bases, and "coordinate" foreign policy with the British government to avoid conflicts with British interests for the next 25 years. The US extracted similar terms from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after World War II.

The domestic interests of British Iraq were based on assuring water supply, overcoming land-locked transportation, and protection of oil wells and oil export. The foreign policy of an independent sovereign Iraq was not independent of similar domestic needs. The only difference was that the larger geopolitical objective of enhancing the security of British India was no longer a factor, and that the dissolution of British dominance over the entire region meant regional interests were now based on Pan-Arabism, and that for a sovereign Iraq independent of British control, relations with its Arab and non-Arab neighbors had different realities.

The new Iraqi state, ruled by a British-appointed "elected" Sunni king did not enjoy easy afterbirth, as Shi'ites in the south, who made up nearly 60% of the population, and Kurds in the north, who comprised 20% of the population, predominantly Sunnis with Sufi influence, continued to fight for their separate independence. The Sufi (woollen robes) are a mystic group responsible for large-scale conversion of Hindus and Africans into Islam. One founder was Ahmad al-Qadiana, who lived in Cairo in the eighth century and claimed to be an incarnation of Allah. The schism between Shi'ites and Sunnis traces back to the early days of Islam over the question of succession to the caliphate. Shi'ites believe that the person of the caliph should incorporate not only secular but also religious or divine ideals. They recognize Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and his descendants to be the legitimate successors after the Prophet's death.

The Kurdish factor

Although the Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, religious, nationalistic, tribal, and linguistic differences among them have obstructed their unity, and in turn prevented them from fulfilling their nationalist and separatist aspirations from their separate host countries. The history of Kurdish agitation dates back to 1800. The Kurdish question has remained a persistent problem for governments in the region, including that of Iraq, with echoes of the Jewish question in Europe. Throughout the 20th century, Iraq's various governments of different ideological persuasions had conducted up to 10 military campaigns against Kurdish guerrilla, some recent ones prior to the two Iraq wars of the past decade, some conducted with covert US help as part of its tilt toward Iraq in the decade-long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. In 1970, Iraq, under Saddam, granted formal autonomy to Iraqi Kurds, making political concession more extensive than those of previous governments, allowing Kurdish guerrillas to keep their arms, extend their influence territorially and permitting access to the media. Kurdish resistance over the decades had qualified as terrorist attacks on a succession of Iraqi governments by any definition.

Kurds are people who live in a land called Kurdistan, covering southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, western Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Kurds also live in central cities of all these countries, as well as in European countries and the US. Estimates on the number of Kurds vary widely, due to reluctance of many Kurds to openly assume Kurdish nationality in countries like Turkey and Iraq. Estimates run between 15 and 25 million, where the majority live in Turkey. Kurds speak Kurdish, a language of the western Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. The clear majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but a small group of less than 100,000 living in Iraq and in small communities scattered in Turkey, Iran and Syria are Yazidis, the so called "devil worshipers". The Kurdish question illustrates clearly that a common religious heritage does not prevent ethnic conflicts, as the Sunni Kurds resist the rule of a Sunni Iraqi government.

Yazidism is a syncretism of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Islamic elements. The Yazidi themselves are thought to be descended from supporters of the Arabic Umayyad Caliph Yazid I. They themselves believe that they are created quite separately from the rest of mankind, not even being descended from Adam, and they have kept themselves strictly segregated from the people among whom they live. Although scattered and probably numbering fewer than 100,000, they have a well-organized society, with a chief shaykh as the supreme religious head and an amir, or prince, as the secular head. The chief divine figure of the Yazidi is Malak Taus (Peacock Angel), worshipped in the form of a peacock. He rules the universe with six other angels, but all seven are subordinate to a supreme god, who has had no direct interest in the universe once he created it. The seven angels are worshipped by the Yazidi in the form of seven bronze or iron peacock figures called sanjaq, the largest of which weighs nearly 700 pounds. Yazidi are anti-dualists; they deny the existence of evil and therefore also reject sin, the devil and hell. The breaking of divine laws is expiated by way of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, which allows for progressive purification of the spirit. The Yazidi relate that when the devil repented of his sin of pride before God, he was pardoned and re-installed in his previous position as chief of the angels; this myth has earned the Yazidl an undeserved reputation as devil worshippers, since the devil is no longer a devil once he repented. Shaykh Adi, the chief Yazidi saint, was a 12th century Muslim mystic believed to have achieved divinity through metempsychosis, the transmigration of soul from body to body.

In Kurdistan, Kurds live predominantly in rural areas, and among Kurds there are some who keep up nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles, with the majority living in agricultural villages and cities. Agriculture and sheep herding are dominant in the rural Kurdish economy. Kurds have lived under foreign rulers for centuries, and have never in their history formed larger states or ruling dynasties. In the 20th century, there were several serious attempts to create a Kurdistan state. Kurds were promised their own state after the World War I. This Kurdistan was promised to be established on Turkish territory. But this promise was never kept for obvious geopolitical reasons.

From 1962 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1975, Iraqi Sunni Kurds fought against a succession of Sunni Iraqi governments, with funds from Shi'ite Iran based on a geopolitical agenda. The Kurds gave up fighting as a precondition for a promise of autonomy by the Iraqi Ba'ath government in 1970, and after a normalization of relations between Iran and Iraq in 1975. A Kurdish rebellion in Turkey started in 1984, and still persists even when it failed, and keeps the issue of self-determination as a thorn in the conscience of the world community. A Kurdish rebellion in Iraq started on the eve of the first Gulf war in 1991 with the encouragement of the US, but was quickly suppressed by the Iraqi army, forcing one million Kurds to flee to Turkey. From 1992 to 1996, a zone in northern Iraq was controlled by the United Nation, and this area was as close as Kurds ever have been to their own state. The region came back under Iraqi control in 1996 and after that some Kurdish tribal chiefs became allied with Saddam.

The Kurds have suffered recurring attacks from their various host governments as punishment for their separatist aspirations. US condemnation of atrocities against Kurdish separatists has been tempered by changing geopolitical considerations. For example, the US repeatedly looked the other way over Turkish attacks on the Kurds because Turkey is a member of NATO. And US moral indignation leveled at Saddam over his attacks of Iraqi Kurds began only after the official demonization of Saddam, after Iraq moved to repossess Kuwait. The reason for the Western powers' reluctance to support the establishment of a Kurdistan rests on its impact on existing regional stability and balance of power, the geopolitical importance of the region and the fact that such a development would affect many states in the region. If a Kurdistan was established in one country, neighboring countries would regard this as a hostile act. In 1991, the US could have taken steps to form a Kurdistan in northern Iraq, but such moves would never have been accepted by NATO member Turkey.

Iraqi 'independence'

On October 10, 1922, Iraq was forced to enter into a dependent alliance with Britain, formalizing its protectorate status, with the world's then superpower. Parliamentary elections were staged in 1925 to mask colonialism with bogus democracy, packing the Iraqi legislature with reactionary, pro-British local elite Anglophiles. Britain was granted by Iraqi law the right to maintain military bases in Iraq with the power to veto Iraqi legislation. The British immediately began privatizing Iraqi national assets and nurtured the political consolidation of a reactionary land-holding class on the British Indian model, resistance to which Tariq Ali in his Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq attributes the rise of the Iraqi Communist Party and popular anti-British Iraqi nationalism. With the ending of the British mandate in 1929, economic domination and control from London continued through Faisal's pro-British puppet monarchy and the institution of private property imposed on a tribal culture. Concessions to search for oil on terms not more equitable than the Dutch purchase of Manhattan from Native Americans were granted to British companies. A 1930 treaty declared that colonial Iraq would be granted "independence" in 1932, notwithstanding that true independence cannot be granted by a foreign occupier, any more than true sovereignty can be transferred by the current US occupational authority to the US-appointed interim Iraqi government. Pilfering oil concessions in the north were handed over to the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), in which US and French firms were allowed token minority positions to defuse inter-imperialist rivalry, with the Iraqi monarchal government receiving fixed small yearly royalties to satisfy the selfish greed of the puppet royalty. IPC acted solely in the interests of the Anglo-American oil cartel, holding down Iraqi production to maximize the cartel's worldwide oil profits. IPC operated as a monopoly of Iraq's oil sector until its nationalization in 1972 during the Arab oil boycott.

Iraq was declared an "independent" kingdom on October 3, 1932 with Faisal as king and admitted to the League of Nations. A year later, Faisal died and was succeeded by his 21-year-old son, Ghazi. When Ghazi assumed power in 1933, he responded to nationalist sentiments by changing course from his late father's pro-British policy. Ghazi denounced British imperialism, purged his government of British lackeys and claimed Kuwait, even before oil was found there, as a legitimate, integral part of Iraq's Basra province. By 1936, a Pan-Arab movement took hold in Iraq, with aims of merging with neighboring Arab states. A treaty of non-aggression was signed with Saudi Arabia. A mysterious car crash in 1939 cut Ghazi's life and his nationalist program short.

Throughout the early 1920s, Britain had suppressed rising nationalist currents in Iraq with relentless force, claiming all the while, as they did in 1914, to be "liberators, not conquerors" to modernize and democratize a backward nation. With Hindu troops from the British Empire of India who harbored century-old genetic hatred for Muslims, Britain sustained control of Iraq amid a violent nationwide wave of revolts and anti-British fatwas (religious decrees). During the bloodiest six months of rebellion, some 2,000 British Imperial Indian Regiment soldiers of the Hindu faith were killed, insulating the British from heavy casualty to their homeland Christian troops.

After the death of Ghazi in 1939, resistance to British domination continued and in 1941, a four-week long revolt was put down mercilessly by the British with Churchill as prime minister. British control of Iraq was firmly re-established with the formation of a new pro-British government, which declared war on the Axis powers in 1943. After the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Iraq joined other Arab states in their opposition to the new pro-West, mostly European Jewish country imposed on an Arab region by the victorious West, although the degree of Iraq's commitment to the struggle against the Jewish state fluctuated with the degree to which its various governments managed to be independent from Western control or pressure. Iraq considered the creation of Israel as a symptom of tragic fate of Arab disunity and that the problem can only be resolved through Pan-Arabism, a view that is shared with apprehension by many in Israel itself.

Despite British containment of the Iraqi revolt in 1941, British high commissioner Kinahan Cornwallis refused to send British troops into Baghdad to restore order to put a stop to the chaotic looting, rioting and violence against the Jewish population in Baghdad, allowing as many as 600 Jews killed and over 2,000 injured, adding to the tragic cycle of violence between Arabs and Jews. A replay of condoned anarchy was perpetrated on the Iraqi nation by US forces after the fall of Baghdad in 2002 in the name of "catastrophic success", albeit without the massacre of Jews, most having already migrated to Israel.

After World War II, to appease Iraqi nationalism, the British allowed substantial increases of oil revenue for Iraq while maintaining British control of Iraqi oil. King Faisal II assumed the throne at age 26, having been only three years old when his father died, but democracy was nowhere to be found in Iraq or the Middle East.

Next: A Poisonous Geopolitical Jungle