Iraq: Plan B From Inner Space


March 27, 2013: In the northern city of Kirkuk, two more candidates for local elections were killed by a roadside bomb. So far 11 candidates have been killed, and there will probably be more before the April 20 election. Sunni Arab terrorism continues to thrive in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs feel threatened by Kurd efforts to expand their political control. During the 1980s and 90s Saddam Hussein forcibly pushed many Kurds out of their homes in Mosul and Kirkuk and moved in Sunni Arabs from the south. This set the stage for the current unpleasantness. Terrorist attacks have killed about 235 nationwide so far this month.  That’s less than ten percent of the monthly death toll during the peak of Sunni Arab terrorism in 2006-7, but still enough to keep Iraqi politics in turmoil.

Despite continued criticism from the United States, and the recent visit by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to deliver that criticism personally, Iraq continues to allow Iran to fly weapons and military personnel into Syria via Iraq. Last year Iraq gave in to foreign pressure (especially from the United States) and agreed to inspect all Iranian aircraft passing through Iraq on their way to Syria and check for weapons. Iran protested but agreed. In practice Iraq did not inspect most Iranian aircraft, and those that were forced to land for inspection were found to be clean (apparently because the Iranians were warned in advance). There is ample evidence on the ground that weapons, spare parts, and all manner of military equipment are being flown in from Syria via Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraq complains that it simply does not have the resources to halt and inspect all the Iranian air freighters passing through on their way to Syria. In more practical terms, the Shia dominated government of Iraq feels obliged to remain on friendly terms with Iran. For one thing, Iran is run by a Shia religious dictatorship, and so far the elected Iraqi Shia officials have managed to persuade the Iranian leaders not to support that minority of Iraqi Shia Arabs who want to establish a religious dictatorship in Iraq by force (and terrorism).

There’s also the problem with Iranian efforts to become the leader of the Moslem world. This has brought Iran into direct confrontation with the Gulf Arabs (especially Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom where the Saud family justifies its rule by being the caretakers of Islam’s most holy shrines). Iran believes it would be a better guardian of those shrines and all of Arabia (and all of its oil). This makes even Iraqi Shia Arabs nervous because this is all about the Indo-European Iranians wanting to dominate the Semitic Arabs. The Iranians have been kicking the Arabs around for thousands of years, and that only slowed down a bit when the Arabs managed to convert Iranians to Islam 1400 years ago. Now that conversion is backfiring and all Arabs are nervous about it.

Iraq is caught in the middle of a growing Shia/Sunni confrontation. The Shia form of Islam has been around for over a thousand years and has always been a minority (currently about ten percent of Moslems). Shia Islam was particularly strong in Iran, where it had become the dominant religion by the 18th century. As powerful as the Iranians were, they could never conquer the larger number of Sunni Moslems. This was particularly true because the Turks conquered most of the Arabs and created an empire that lasted until 1918. After the 16th century Turkish victory over Iran in modern Iraq, the Sunni Turks have relied on the Baghdadi Sunni Arabs to help run things. The Iranians never did become powerful enough to defeat the Turks. When the Turkish Empire was dissolved after World War I (1914-18), because the Turks were on the losing side and the empire was weak anyway, the Iranians found themselves up against much more powerful forces from the West (especially Britain and, later, the United States). This made Iranians very angry. In the 19th century Iran saw its empire shrink to its present size (losing Azerbaijan and chunks of western Afghanistan and southwest Pakistan) because of Russia, Britain, and an independent Afghanistan defeating them. This was a humiliation that is still not forgotten. The Shia clerics who rule Iran now see an opportunity to expand the empire by subverting and rolling over the oil-rich Gulf Arab states. This is being presented as a religious dispute, wherein Iran seeks to impose its superior Shia form of Islam on the largely Sunni Arabs. If it were just the Iranians and the Arabs the Arabs would lose, but the Arabs have cultivated powerful allies (Greeks, Romans, Turks, Britain, and now the U.S.) over the centuries to keep the Iranians out. Undeterred the Iranians keep trying. This time, building nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism throughout the region, and even farther afield, is supposed to work. It probably won’t, but the Iranians will keep at it anyway.

The tenth anniversary of the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power is also the tenth anniversary of Saddam's henchmen trying to regain control of Iraq for the Sunni minority. These Sunnis were smart enough, and resourceful enough, to build a police state apparatus that kept Saddam in power for over three decades. Shortly after Saddam was toppled the invaders began hearing rumors of Saddam’s “Plan B.” This plan involved using the cash and skills of the Sunni minority (especially those who got rich under Saddam and those who ran his security services) to regain control of Iraq via terrorism.

After 2003, the violence in Iraq was basically a campaign against the Sunni Arab minority, who refused to acknowledge defeat and used terror tactics to stimulate a civil war that would, as their fantasy went, enable them to regain power. There was never any secret about this. The story of Saddam's "Plan B" made a brief appearance in the mass media right after Saddam fell. But that was the last you heard of it. Saddam’s followers believed the civil war would force other Sunni states to intervene, eject the foreign troops and restore the Sunni minority to power. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs still believe this.

Throughout the world many objected to the continued violence in Iraq, for emotional, political, or financial grounds. This opposition could not cope with what the violence was actually about but instead invented many alternative versions (Iraqi freedom fighters, al Qaeda on steroids, and so on). There was an al Qaeda component, which quickly united with their natural enemies, the Sunni Arab nationalists, to put the Sunni Arabs back in charge. Added to the mix was Shia Iran, eager to see Iraq turned into a Shia Islamic state. This was competing with the al Qaeda goal, which was to establish a Sunni Islamic state. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs liked the idea of a religious dictatorship, because the secular version (Saddam) had been a disaster and democracy would put the Iraqi Shia (who made up 60 percent of the population) in power. 

The American strategy for such a war is simple, hold elections and get the elected government strong enough so that it can take care of itself without American troops. The media missed an obvious part of this story. That is the fact that for decades the majority Shia and Kurds had been excluded from leadership positions in the military, police, and government. There were obvious reasons for this, but the result was that in 2003, loyal security forces required experienced Shia and Kurdish leaders, who had to be created from scratch.

There were some Sunni officers and officials that could be trusted but most were suspect. That's because of another problem you encounter in much of the Arab world: family and tribe count for more than national loyalty. This makes sense when you remember that there are no Arab governments that are "just and reliable" in the Western sense. The only institution the individual can depend on for help was the family and tribe. Thus you keep hearing about "Arab tribal leaders" getting involved in whatever is happening in Iraq. 

At first, most of the Sunni tribal chiefs refused to participate in a democracy. This didn't get the media coverage it deserved, partly because by 2004, it was becoming dangerous for Western journalists to operate in Iraq and partly because most of the interpreters and free-lance Iraqi reporters hired by Western news organizations were Iraqi Sunni Arabs (who were the most educated segment of the population and most likely to speak English). Naturally, these Sunni Arabs would spin the news in their favor. If you knew anything about Iraq, you could pick this out. But most people didn't and couldn't. As a result, reporting on Iraq veered off into fantasy land, where much of it still resides.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Iraq Sunni Arab fantasy that only they could, or should, rule Iraq, slowly fell apart. The Sunni Arab terror campaign, however, kept going, fueled by cash from Saddam backers in exile and pro-Islamic organizations and individuals in the Middle East. The Sunni terrorists were formidable opponents because they had many advantages. The Sunni Arabs were better educated and had more people who had held positions in police and paramilitary organizations. In effect, the same thugs who terrorized the Iraqi people for Saddam were now doing it again, in order to restore Saddam or another Sunni Arab. 

But as capable as the Sunni terrorist were, they found it was much easier to kill Iraqis than it was to kill Americans. The terrorists quickly realized that the first order of business was to force the foreign troops out of Iraq. But the foreign troops were skilled professionals and killing them was very difficult. In fact, many of the attacks on foreign troops, as with roadside bombs, ended up just killing Iraqis instead. Some 95 percent of the dead in Iraq were Iraqis, and most were Iraqis killed by Sunni Arab terrorists. The Iraqis noticed. 

If the victims were the new Iraqi police or soldiers, than that was good as far as the terrorists were concerned. And many terrorist attacks were directed at the new police force and army. But then a strange thing happened, one that never got the attention it deserved. Despite all the terror attacks, people kept joining the police and army. While the cops were often corrupt, as they had always been, they were less corrupt than in the past and they began to take back the streets. The big problem with the cops was the lack of experienced leadership. That would only change slowly. One could see how the future would develop by looking to northern Iraq. There, the Kurds had been free of Saddam since the early 1990s, when U.S. and British forces basically told Saddam to stay away, or else, and Saddam did. Left alone for a decade before 2003, the Kurds developed leadership for their security forces. The bumps along that road went largely unreported, but the end result were police and military units that were able to keep the terrorists out of northern Iraq. This began happening in other parts of Iraq. This was not news, except on a slow news day when it was okay to run a story on vacation sports and resorts in Iraq (they existed in the Kurdish north soon after 2003). 

Meanwhile, down south, the war played out in a predictable fashion. The Sunni terrorists made themselves very unpopular with the Sunni Arab population and as early as 2004, Sunni tribal chiefs began turning against the terrorists. By 2005, this had developed into open warfare between the Sunni terrorists and some tribes. By 2006, most of the tribal chiefs had abandoned the Sunni Arab dream of taking over again and had sided with the government. The terrorists were losing but no one outside Iraq was paying attention. Or, to put it more accurately, few journalists saw defeated terrorists as a story worth pursuing (for both personal and professional reasons). 

Another angle largely ignored by the mass media was the battle against corruption. This shortage of honest officials (both civil and military) is one of the reasons the Arab world is in such a sorry state. Again, this goes back to the dependence on family and tribe. Even Iraqis who understand the need for honest and clean officials are also under pressure to favor their family and tribe because, if this democracy doesn't work out, their only lifeline will be the tribe. This transition from tribal government to national one is not unique to the Middle East. It is playing out in other parts of the world, and most successful democracies had to pass through it in the past. Iraq will not be a victory until that passage is made. The Arab world is watching. Iraq is a test case, the model for an Arab future of success and not more of the current tyranny and failure. 

Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab terrorists continue to fight on, despite huge losses in personnel and resources. By 2007, fighting had reduced the original 100,000 or so core Saddam thugs to a few thousand diehards. In 2004, there were hundreds of thousands of allies and supporters from the Sunni minority (then, about 20 percent of the population but now about half that), who wanted to be back in charge. By 2007, the remaining Sunni Arabs just want to be left in peace. The “battles” against the Sunni terrorists was often officially about rooting out al Qaeda and hard core terrorists but it was also about taking down the Baath party bankers and organizers who have been sustaining the bombers with cash, information, and encouragement.

Both the terrorists and U.S. troops knew that victory was defined as several weeks with no bombs going off in Baghdad. The media was keeping score and they used their ears and video cameras. No loud bangs and no bodies equals no news. That's victory.

Not really. The real war is within the Iraqi government. The terrorists lost by 2005, when the relentless slaughter of Moslem civilians turned the Arab world against al Qaeda. Journalists missed that one, but the historians did not. The war in Iraq has always been about trying to show Arabs that they can run a clean government, for the benefit of all the people, not just the tyrants on top. So far, there have been a lot of victories and defeats in this and no clear decision overall. Elections have been held several times but the people elected have proved to be as corrupt and venal as their tyrannical predecessors. Everyone admits that this bad behavior is not a good thing, but attempts to stop it have been only partially successful. Changing thousands of years of custom and tradition is not easy. The clay tablets dug up in the vicinity of Baghdad reveal similar scandal and despair over four thousand years ago. Most Iraqis realize, however, that if the chain of corruption is not broken, the dreary past will again become a painful present.

The current Shia rulers, although elected, are behaving like the tyrants in other Arab dictatorships or monarchies. A small number of families scramble to obtain control over most of the national wealth, leaving the majority to suffer.

In the United States a recent poll showed that 58 percent believe that America is safer because of the effort to overthrow Saddam. This percentage has not changed in three years.  Meanwhile, Iraqis watching the war in Syria, where Arabs are being killed at a faster rate than ever was the case in Iraq after 2003, acknowledge that Iraq would have eventually experienced a similar civil war. Shia and Kurdish anger at Sunni domination had periodically led to armed rebellion and eventually, as in Syria, it would have happened in Iraq.

March 26, 2013: Ten years ago the U.S. and Britain sent in three combat divisions to overthrow the Saddam government. That took about three weeks. Today Sunni Arab terrorists, still trying to regain power, set off several bombs that killed 60 people. The terrorists promised still more such attacks until they are back in power.

March 25, 2013: Sunni Arab terrorists blew a hole in a pipeline that takes oil to a Turkish port for export. This halts about four percent of Iraqi oil exports until the damage can be repaired (usually less than a week). 

March 13, 2013: In the Kurdish north PKK rebels (against Turkish rule in largely Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey) released eight Turkish soldiers and government officials, most of them had been held for more than a year. This was a peace gesture towards Turkey, which has agreed to work out a peace deal with the PKK and end the decade’s long Kurdish rebellion. Much to the dismay of the Shia Arab dominated government of Iraq, Turkey continues to support the autonomous Kurdish north, where Arab officials have little power and influence. This bothers the Iraqi Arabs a great deal because until the early 1920s, northern Iraq was part of the Turkish homeland and not, like central and southern Iraq, provinces of the Turkish Empire (Baghdad and Basra respectively). Britain took Mosul province away from Turkey and turned it into “northern Iraq” to deprive the Turks of oil. This was to ensure that if the Turks decided to reconquer their lost empire, they would not have their own supply of oil. The Iraqi Arabs see the autonomous Kurdish north as becoming an unofficial part of Turkey. 

March 8, 2013: The Sunni Minister of Agriculture resigned from the government, the second such resignation this month. Both Sunni politicians left the government to protest the use of violence to break up large Sunni demonstrations against the government (which Sunnis believe does not share the wealth and jobs with the Sunni minority).




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