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Culture History
Culture: History of Iraq: What History Teaches Us
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Monday, 30 October 2006 Written by Garrett Johnson
"Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis."
- Schopenhauer
"All modern wars start in the history classroom."
- Anonymous
"We learn from history that we never learn anything from history."
- Hegel
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Writing history is much easier than learning from it. Writing history only requires limited information and time. Learning from history requires vast quantities of information and wisdom.

Unfortunately I am gifted with neither.

So why should I bother? Because others in the Bush Administration who have less respect for information and wisdom than I are trying to tell us all what lessons to learn from history. They are trying to make reality conform to their agenda. I'm trying to make an agenda based on reality.

This is Part 10, and the final part, of my series on the History of Iraq. This is the part where you take all that information and try to apply it to today's world. Inevitably, this is also the part where I make lots of mistakes.
"History teaches everything including the future."
- Lamartine
"History is a myth that men agree to believe."
- Napoleon
The first trick to learning from history is not to learn the wrong thing from history. For instance, Bush and the rest of the pro-war, right-wing liked to reference Neville Chamberlain before WWII as reasons to invade Iraq (and now, Iran). The Republicans are right to compare WWII and Iraq, but not for the reasons they think.

If the Republicans weren't so ignorant about history they would have compared Yugoslavia to Iraq. No, not Yugoslavia in the 1990's. I'm talking about Yugoslavia during WWII.

Like Iraq, Yugoslavia was artifically put together by the victorious allies after WWI, and combined several ethnic groups that had long, hostile relationships. They managed to live together for decades until Hitler decided that he didn't like their current government in April, 1941. Hitler invaded for no other reason than he wanted "regime change". Yugoslavia's army collapsed quickly. However, that was merely the beginning.

Hitler did not have enough troops available to contain any outbreak of ethnic strife, and Yugoslavia decended into civil war.
In Croatia [in 1941] the indeginous fascist regime set about a policy of "racial purification" that went beyond even Nazi practices. Minority groups such as Jews and Gypsies were to be eliminated as were the Serbs: it was declared that one-third of the Serbian population would be deported, one-third converted to Roman Catholicism, and one third liquidated.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition
In the end, three times as many people died in Yugoslavia during WWII as died in the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990's. The trigger was the overthrow of the government without the military force to enforce its will on an ethnically diverse people. Republicans learned the wrong lesson from history. Saddam Hussein wasn't Hitler. Saddam was King Peter II.
Well, not really. But you get the idea.

There are a few things about Iraq that we can all agree on. The most pertinent of those things is that the current bloodbath in Iraq has its roots in history.

The Shiites and the Sunnis are killing each other because of things that happened a month ago, a decade ago, as well as things that happened centuries ago. It's our job to try to understand it, because if we don't understand it then we may as well "stay the course", or "cut and run", or whatever else the right-wing media has labelled it today.


"If we allow them to do this, if we retreat from Iraq, if we don't uphold our duty to support those who are desirous to live in liberty, 50 years from now history will look back on our time with unforgiving clarity, and demand to know why we did not act."
- George W. Bush
"I guess every generation is doomed to fight its war...suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own."
- Phillip Caputo


The Kurdish Problem


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Distribution of Ethnoreligious
Groups and Major Tribes of Iraq
(Click for larger image)
Of all the seemingly intractable problems of Iraq, the Kurds are probably the simplest. The reasons are thus: they never wanted to be part of Iraq, they never accepted being part of Iraq, and their agenda has never changed - separating themselves from Iraq.

The Kurds have fought nine different rebellions for independence since the creation of the idea of Iraq. They were literally fighting for independence from Iraq before Britain had finished creating Iraq as a nation. They have suffered genocidal military campaigns by the Iraqi army, and still continued to fight for independence. Even the name of the Kurdish warrior - peshmerga - means "those who face death."

The simple fact is that these guys aren't going to give up their fight for independence. It's a political fight based on an ethnicity, and it will never end until they have achieved their goal...or they are wiped out. Whichever comes first.

As it stands now, the Kurds have a de facto independent state of Kurdistan. The flag of Iraq is banned in Iraqi Kurdistan. The peshmerga have taken over security in Kurdistan, by agreement of the Iraqi government. In fact, the Iraqi government has agreed not to even send the military into Kurdistan unless the Kurds agree to it first. Right now, Kurdistan is only part of Iraq in name only.

There are two problems with their goal for independence, one internal, one external.
The internal one goes by the name - Kirkuk.

The Kurdish Democratic Party, the more powerful of the two Kurdish groups that control parts of northern Iraq, is determined to make Kirkuk the political capital of a Kurdish federal state in a post-Saddam Iraq. The KDP has drafted an Iraqi constitution outlining such a state, with Kirkuk as its most important city. Turkey opposes Kurdish control of Kirkuk, fearing it would strengthen Kurdish autonomy.

"We have a claim to Kirkuk rooted in history, geography and demographics. This is a recipe for civil war if you don't do it right".
- Barham Salih, Prime Minister for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
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Barham Salih
The Kurds will not give up Kirkuk. Period. One of the major reasons for the failure of the 1970 Accord, that led to the disasterous Second Kurdish-Iraq War, was because the Kurds refused to accept the Ba'thist determination of the borders of the Kurdish area, which excluded the oil-rich Kirkuk province. After war ended in 1975, Hussein implimented the Order of 111. The Order of 111 is believed to have facilitated Saddam's efforts to Arabization the region-often by forcefully evicting local, non-Arab residents from their homes.

Since our 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kurds have been returning to Kirkuk and forceably evicting the same Arabs that Saddam put there. Either way its ethnic cleansing, and it can't go on for long without causing violence.

Mosul and other cities also historically lean Kurdish and were subject to Saddam's "Arabization", but no other city are the Kurds so determined to hold onto as Kirkuk.

The external problem with Kurdistan independence mostly involves Turkey. While Iran has also endured its share of Kurdish revolts, Turkey has been the only nation who's Kurdish problem can compare with Iraq's. Turkey is also the only nation which has launched full-scale invasions of Iraq because of Kurdish rebellions.

After the truce in 1999, the PKK seemed to be working out their issues with Turkey. But Bush's invasion of Iraq had cascading effects and more than 2,000 Turks have died in resulting violence since then.

History shows us that the Kurds of Iraq have ethnic bonds with the Kurds of Turkey and elsewhere. Like the Pushtan tribes along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, they will continue to give their rebellious, neighboring tribes safe haven irregardless of the consequences.


"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results."
- Machiavelli

So what does history teach us in regards to the Kurds?

While the goals of the Kurds have never changed, their tactics have. They started with unorganized, tribal revolts under Barzanji. They evolved to more militaristic, guerrilla tactics under Barzani. Then, after the genocide in 1988, the Kurds became more politically savvy. For instance, they stopped fighting after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait simply because they wanted to see how it would play out.

Starting with Operation Safe Haven in 1991, the Kurds have learned to live with an autonomous region. Since the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Kurdistan has actually grown stronger in relative terms to Iraq. Therefore it is likely that the Kurds won't declare independence while American troops are on the ground in Iraq. However, once we leave that could (and probably will) change. The trick to keeping Turkey out of Iraq will be in getting the Kurds to continue playing the farce that they are still part of Iraq. As long as Jalal Talabani is still president of Iraq the Kurds have reasons to play along.

While the Kurds are Sunnis, its important to remember that they are not like the religious fanatics that are fighting American troops in central Iraq. For example, the Kurds have incorporated thousands of Kurdish women into the peshmerga.

There is also another element that may or may not play in the future of Kurdistan - the PUK/KDP rivalry. This rivalry has led to open civil war in both the late 1970's and the mid-1990's. The mid-90's Kurdish Civil War actually disrupted CIA attempt to overthrow the Hussein government. Will this erupt again in the future? In the past it only erupted after a crushing defeat at the hands of the Iraqi army. Therefore I believe that as long as Kurdistan prospers we likely won't see it again.


The Sunni vs. Shia Problem


"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
- Senior George W. Bush White House aide
"I believe that history is capable of anything. There exists no folly that men have not tried out."
- C. G. Jung
"The past is never dead; it's not even past."
- William Faulkner


With the failure of the Bush Administration's plan for Iraq, you are increasingly hearing calls for the partitioning of Iraq into three states. While this may make sense for the Kurds, it makes absolutely no sense for the rest of Iraq. When you look at the ethnoreligious map of Iraq above you can't help by notice something standing out right in the middle of the map - the big gray stain around the Baghdad area. There exists more than a third of the population of Iraq in that area and it is hopelessly mixed between Sunnis and Shiites. There is no clean, geographical division between the two religious groups.

There is simply no way to partition Iraq between Sunnis and Shias without causing a civil war that would make Yugoslavia's 1990's experience look bland in comparison. To put it another way, the partitioning of Iraq between Sunni and Shia would constitute a worst-case scenerio. Every other solution would be better, without question.

And if that wasn't enough to discourage you from the "partition solution", the full-scale civil war that would follow would likely draw Iran into the war on behalf of the Shiites, which would bring Saudi Arabia in on the Sunni side. Plus, the Kurds would no longer have any motivation to maintain the farce of them being part of Iraq, and that might draw Turkey into Iraq. In other words, we are talking full-scale regional war with no way to know what the likely outcome would be.


"While the mediocre European is obsessed with history, the mediocre American is ignorant of it."
- Anonymous


So what are the alternatives? For starters, its good to remember that the history of Iraq didn't begin in 1990. Everyone remembers the Shia Revolt of March 1991. What most Americans seem to not be aware of is that this was the first and only Shia revolt in Iraq's history. Before 1991 the Shia and Sunnis largely fought together in every conflict.

the theory of sectarian strife was undercut by the behavior of Iraq's Shia community during Iran's 1982 invasion and the fighting thereafter. Although about three-quarters of the lower ranks of the army were Shias, as of early 1988, no general insurrection of Iraq; Shias had occurred.

Even in periods of major setback for the Iraqi army--such as the Al Faw debacle in 1986--the Shias have continued staunchly to defend their nation and the Baath regime. They have done so despite intense propaganda barrages mounted by the Iranians, calling on them to join the Islamic revolution.

It appears, then, that, however important sectarian affiliation may have been in the past, in the latter 1980s nationalism was the basic determiner of loyalty.

[...]

In summary, prior to the war the Baath had taken steps toward integrating the Shias. The war placed inordinate demands on the regime for manpower, demands that could only be met by levying the Shia community--and this strengthened the regime's resolve to further the integration process. In early 1988, it seemed likely that when the war ends, the Shias would emerge as full citizens-- assuming that the Baath survives the conflict.
It wasn't just the 80's. The Great Iraq Revolution of 1920 was mostly a Shia revolt against British occupation with Sunni participation. In the Anglo-Iraq War, the Sunnis and Shias fought side by side (albeit poorly). The al-Wathbah Uprising in 1948 included both Sunni and Shia, both rural and urban.

So in other words, the violent conflict between Shia and Sunni in Iraq today is a new development that never happened on this scale before American troops first walked on Iraqi soil in 1991.

So what does this mean? It means that the Sunni/Shia situation is not as hopeless as many would lead you to believe (unlike the Kurdish situation). What is required is leadership that doesn't exist at the moment, and less foreign involvement. But to find a solution to this problem first requires people to understand what the current situation in Iraq actually is.
Another report, by the Centre for American Progress, says sectarian violence is one element in a security situation spiralling out of control. "Iraq's conflict is now worse than civil war; it's on the brink of total collapse," the report says. "The country suffers from at least four internal conflicts that risk further spiralling out of control — a Shiite-Sunni civil war in the centre, intra-Shiite conflicts in the south, a Sunni insurgency in the west, and ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the north."
Of those four conflicts, the last one (Kurdish tensions) is manageable in the short-term. As long as the Kurds feel they have something to gain by participating in the Iraqi government, they won't try to make an aggressive move on Kirkuk.

The second to last one (Sunni Rebellion) will be fixed the moment that America pulls its troops out - assuming that the Sunnis are empowered in whatever government exists, and the country has not been partitioned.

The intra-Shiite conflict is a little more tricky (not that they aren't all complicated).
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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
But Mr Maliki is in a complicated and perilous position. His key difficulty is that the Shiite militias are linked to political parties that are part of his Government coalition. He won office in April partly through the support of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the Mahdi Army militia, blamed for many of the sectarian killings.

Sheikh Sadr also controls 30 of the 275 seats in Parliament, and up to five cabinet posts. He has assumed, as a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) put it in July, "the role of Shiite kingmaker".

Hence the Prime Minister's dilemma: he can't afford to alienate Sheikh Sadr, yet Washington wants him to disband Sheikh Sadr's militia.

To complicate matters, some of the militias are splintering into more radicalised groups.
According to the Washington Post there are twenty-three militias in Iraq, a majority of them Shiite. The reason for the rise of the militias was very simple - the violent choas that followed the fall of Hussein's government left the people of Iraq nowhere to turn to for security except for the tribal militias.

The key word here is "tribal". It's a very unreported aspect of Iraqi culture. Ever since Britain first created Iraq there has been efforts to break the power of the tribes in Iraq, and those efforts have largely worked. By the 1970's the combination of land reform and urbanization of society had reduced the power of the tribes in Iraq to marginal players. But then King Bush decided to eliminate the government and fire the army (note: after the Anglo-Iraq war in 1941, the British decided against disbanding the Iraqi army. Because of this Iraqi never decended into chaos. The Bush Administration decided to learn nothing from this historic example). Suddenly everything holding back the power of the tribal chiefs was wiped away.

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Muqtada al-Sadr
There are two dominant militias - the Badr Brigade and the Madhi Army. The Madhi Army, led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has his power bases in Sadr City and Najaf.
"I think the Sadrists are a social movement, not really so much an organization," Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times. Mahdi followers have infiltrated Iraq’s interior and defense ministries. Some police cars in parts of Baghdad openly display the organization’s insignia.
The Badr Brigade is a very different organization.
It is the Iranian-trained wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq. The organization was built by Iraqi Shiite defectors and soldiers captured by Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Its members were funded, trained, and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Badr Brigade's power base is purely southern Iraq, which leads to another significant difference between the two militias - the Badr Organization advocates an autonomous region for southern Iraq (similar to Kurdistan), while the Mahdi Army opposes it. In other words, the Badr Brigade with strong links to Iran, advocate the eventual break-up of Iraq, something that the Mahdi Army opposes.

Given that information you would think that the Bush Administration would embrace the Mahdi Army over the Badr Brigade. You would think wrong. Instead the Bush Administration has decided on two allies to build a new Iraq around - the Badr Brigade and the Kurdish peshmerga. Both groups want an eventual partitioning of Iraq. It makes a person think that the Bush Administration's piss-poor performance in Iraq was by design, rather than incompetence.


"All who affirm the use of violence admit it is only a means to achieve justice and peace. But peace and justice are nonviolence...the final end of history. Those who abandon nonviolence have no sense of history. Rathy they are bypassing history, freezing history, betraying history."
- André Trocmé
"If history teaches anything about the causes of revolution-and history does not teach much but still teaches considerably more than social-science theories-it is that a disintegration of political systems precedes revolutions, that the telling symptom of disintegration is & progressive erosion of governmental authority, and that this erosion is caused by the government's inability to function properly, from which spring the citizens' doubts about its legitimacy."
- Hannah Arendt
"History, history! We fools, what do we know or care."
- William Carlos Williams


The most important obstacle to peace in Iraq is the Shia/Sunni civil war in the Baghdad area. For this problem, Iraq's history is a poor teacher. Sunni/Shia relations have simply never been this bad in Iraq's history. You would have to go back to pre-Ottoman days to find an applicable historical lesson, and that is not an era in which I am very familiar with.

Iraq's history says things shouldn't be this bad, yet they are. Of course, Iraq never went through an extended period of time without a functioning government and army before. So in looking for lessons to learn from history here, I have to look at other nations. In this case, I look at Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia, despite a horrific civil war, created its own solution in the latter part of WWII. A strongman emerged with popular support and Yugoslavia went on to experience four decades of relative peace and prosperity.

That seems to be a likely scenerio for Iraq. An elightened leader that the people will rally around seems to be an unlikely outcome. A capitalist democracy suddenly taking hold, the neocon wet-dream, is largely a dead issue at this point. I don't know who this strongman might be, but chances are he won't be much better than Hussein.


The other player


"Nothing falsifies history more than logic."
- Guizot
"Happy people have no history."
- Leo Tolstoy


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Of course there is one other element that needs to be considered - the occupying army.

How long will Iraq be occupied? What will the occupying authority decide to do? I can't honestly say. So far the Bush Administration has made every single wrong decision. In fact the decisions have been so totally devoid of logic, and contrary to history's lessons, that I am incline to think that chaos in Iraq was the plan all along. And if that is true then guessing what the Bush Administration might do next is a waste of time.

But the Republicans can't defy the laws of gravity forever. The militaries of both America and Britain are overstretched and breaking down. Our list of allies grow thinner every month. The budgets of America and Britain are stretched to the breaking point. History shows that empires generally have to retrench when they reach this point, whether they want to admit it or not. By 2008 we will have to start withdrawing no matter what the condition of Iraq is.

The question is: how much more damage can we inflict before that happens?

One last note: Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union was delayed for a month because of his decision to invade Yugoslavia first. Those four weeks later became critical when the Germany's invasion bogged down in the deep Russian winter, just 20 miles from Moscow.