Belfast Telegraph

Peace hurts as Iraq opts for acceptable level of violence

A grim stability is the real legacy of the US invasion, says Patrick Cockburn

A few days after the US announced that it had withdrawn its last combat brigade from Iraq, the local branch of al-Qaida staged a show of strength, killing or wounding 300 people in attacks across the country.

The continuing ferocious violence in Iraq is leading to questions about its stability once US forces finally withdraw by the end of next year.

American politicians, soldiers and think-tankers blithely recommend American troops staying longer, though at their most numerous US troops signally failed to stop the bombers.

The unfortunate truth may be that Iraq has already achieved a grisly form of stability - though it comes with a persistently high level of violence. Bad though the present situation is in the country, there may not be sufficient reasons for it to change.

It is oil revenues which prevent Iraq from flying apart and make it such a different country from Afghanistan, where the government is dependent on foreign handouts.

Shia, Sunni and Kurds may not like each other, but they cannot do without a share of the oil money or the jobs it provides.

Communal loyalty almost entirely determined the outcome of the parliamentary election in March as it had done in the previous poll in 2005. There is little sign of this changing.

This should not be too surprising. Kurds, Shia and Sunni all nurse memories of being massacred. The legacy of these massacres is that each of the three main Iraqi communities behaves as if it were a separate country.

The political system was devised to encourage power sharing with none of the three main communities able to disregard the others. In practice, unwillingness to make concessions has turned into a recipe for a permanent political stalemate.

Sunni who believe themselves to be non-sectarian simply re-label Shia leaders as quasi-Iranians. Shia leaders welcome the Sunni as their brothers, but then try to exclude those whom they denounce as Baathists.

For all these strains, Iraq has achieved a sort of stability. Shia and Sunni may not like each other, but there are three Shia to every Sunni. The civil war had winners and losers and it was the Shia who emerged as the victors. It is they and the Kurds who control the state and they are not going to give this up.

For all the differences between the Kurds and Arabs over territorial control in northern Iraq, the Kurds have a lot to lose to let this spill over into war.

For good or ill, the present Iraqi political system is gelling. The external forces which destabilised it are becoming less powerful.

The US army is withdrawing. This is presented as a source of instability, but in practice the presence of an American land army in Iraq since 2003 has been profoundly destabilising for the whole region.

Iran and Syria both took seriously President Bush's 'axis of evil' speech denouncing their governments and made sure the US never pacified Iraq.

The Iranians have largely got what they wanted, which is the dominance of their Shia co-religionists in Iraq and the departure of American forces. Such an outcome is not unexpected.

Once President Bush and Tony Blair decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein it was likely that his predominantly Sunni regime was going to be replaced by one dominated by the Shia and Iranian influence in Iraq would become paramount compared to other foreign states.

For seven years Washington struggled vainly to avoid this near inevitable outcome. The new Iraq may not be a very nice place, but it has probably come to stay.

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