Historians offer dismal forecast for Iraq
January 21, 2007
Charles J. Hanley
To historians and others pondering Iraq, forecasting a final outcome for that sad land is like finding your way through one of its "shamal" sandstorms. You may not know where you're headed, but you know it's going to be dark.
The Middle East historian David Fromkin sees a breakup of the jerry-built country. Phebe Marr, doyenne of Iraq scholars, sees ``distrust and suspicion" too deep to overcome. "Bleak," concludes Baghdad University's Saad al-Hadithi.
"At the moment," said the British historian Niall Ferguson, "a happy ending has a 1-in-100 look about it."
In interviews with The Associated Press, few experts see much chance that U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to add 21,500 troops to the U.S. force in Baghdad and western Iraq will suppress either the anti-U.S. insurgency or the bloody underground warfare between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, or induce a political settlement among the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.
The Senate this week is expected to begin action on a nonbinding resolution repudiating the Bush troop buildup. The measure was introduced by the Democratic-majority but has attracted some Republican support.
Mohamed el-Sayed Said, of Cairo's al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said he expects the growing U.S. political opposition to the war will lead at some point to a redeployment of American troops to northern Iraq's Kurdistan and to elsewhere in the Gulf region. After that, said this Arab scholar, "events will take their own course, which is basically generalized civil war."
Harvard University's Ferguson, a leading analyst of modern wars, said history suggests "a kind of critical mass of violence can be reached in a multi-ethnic society after which it's really hard to stop." That seems the case in Iraq, he said. "The only way this kind of thing ends is that one side wins," he said. "It's increasingly hard to imagine a happy power-sharing agreement among Shia, Sunni and Kurds. This one is going to run and run."
That winning side is likely to be the Sunnis, according to Said, who believes that minority's background of military and political leadership in Iraq better equips them for a fight. They can "easily triumph," he said, "unless there's extensive Iranian intervention," that is, on behalf of Iran's fellow Shiites in Iraq.
That kind of regional "spillover" has worried Mideast analyst Andrew Terrill, of the U.S. Army War College, since the conflict took on a sectarian look.
"Saudi Arabia, for example" – a Sunni kingdom – "would be hard-pressed to do nothing if the Shias in the Iraqi government were waging a war of conquest against the Sunni areas," he said. If not Saudi troops, "they would at least provide money, arms and other support."
Ferguson sees turmoil possibly spreading through the Middle East as religious and ethnic groups finally sort themselves out, almost a century after Turkey's vast Ottoman Empire broke apart at First World War 's end and the British and French rearranged the pieces to suit their interests.
In his classic study of those times, "A Peace to End All Peace," Boston University's Fromkin quoted an American missionary who warned the British in Baghdad against tying Arab and Kurdish provinces, Sunni and Shiite provinces together: "You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity!"
Nonetheless, Fromkin said, Iraq once looked as though it might hold together, under the late president Saddam Hussein's iron fist. But today, "if I had to bet, I would bet on disintegration" into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities.
Marr, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, has seen a lot of Iraqi history, having first gone there in the 1950s. She knows what has been lost since the U.S. invasion of 2003: "We've destroyed more than we intended – the army, the bureaucracy, the middle class is in bad shape and many are leaving, and now we're getting ethnic cleansing. These are hard things to put back. These are very fundamental changes.I have problems myself seeing where it's going to end," she said. But "Iraq could tend to break up."
A better scenario – "but I'm not telling you it's the most likely" – would be a "muddling through" in which the current level of violence continues for years and factions "finally get tired of it and they begin to make agreements," Marr said.
Al-Hadithi, the Baghdad political analyst, sees only one chance, and it doesn't lie in new U.S. military strategies.
"What is needed," he said, "is drastic political changes and international involvement under the mandate of the United Nations. Otherwise the country is heading toward the bottom – civil war and partition."