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January 24, 2005

The Iraqi "Passivstance" - or why we need Shia Democracy

Posted by Brendan Simms

An argument which will be widely heard is that next Sunday's Iraqi elections will not be legitimate because of the low-level of Sunni participation. Dr Brendan Simms - fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge - argues that it was inevitable that the Sunni leadership would oppose free Iraqi elections; "Sunni leaders and Islamist extremists fear elections not because they will be rigged by the Americans, but because they know that with about fifteen percent of the population a fair vote will break their longstanding stranglehold on power". Dr Simms further argues that what is defeating the allies is not the Iraqi "resistance" but the Iraqi "passivstance", i.e. the unwillingness of the vast majority of Iraqis who oppose the Sunni supremacists to take an active stance against them. If the allies are to be successful experience shows that the conflict will have to be "Iraqified" - with Shia, Kurds, and any Sunni democrats on one side and Sunni supremacists on the other. In short, what is needed is a type of Iraqi civil war; "a civil war mediated as much as possible through democratic institutions and moderated by the occupation forces, of course, but a civil war none the less".

"If twenty-five million Iraqis did not want us there", a very highly placed British officer recently returned from Baghdad told me last summer, "we would not last a day". This remains the case. Even during the dark days of the "Sadr revolt", there was no doubt that the vast majority of Iraqis, the Shias and Kurds who make up about three-quarters of the population, wanted the transition to democracy to succeed. Of course, they do so for their own reasons: the Shias to gain control of the levers of central power, the Kurds in order to strengthen their case for substantial autonomy, at least. In the Sunni areas of the notorious "Triangle" bounded by Fallujah, Mosul and Baghdad, of course, it is different. Here the insurgency has an undoubtedly popular dimension. It is killing more than fifty coalition soldiers a month, as well as countless Iraqi police, national guard and well-disposed civil leaders.

Some say that we missed an opportunity to reassure the Sunnis in the immediate aftermath of victory over Saddam Hussein. They suggest that we in some sense "constructed" our enemy. No doubt the coalition has made many mistakes, but the confrontation with the Sunni Supremacists was pre-programmed. Sunni leaders and Islamist extremists fear elections not because they will be rigged by the Americans, but because they know that with about fifteen percent of the population a fair vote will break their longstanding stranglehold on power. Here they make common cause with local and foreign Islamist terrorists to whom the very notion of democracy is a satanic foreign import.

The example of the disbandment of the Iraqi army so often cited as a major blunder by the occupation regime illustrates the differing points of departure. The vast majority of these were Shias who returned to their homes and minded their own business. Many of the Sunnis, by contrast, joined the insurgency sooner or later. By the same token, numerous Shias have been at the receiving end of coalition brutality, and yet the Sadr revolt ultimately petered out; a negotiated solution, however precarious, proved possible. The peace-keeping skills of the British in the south are an immense help, of course, but there is no significant current armed resistance in American-patrolled Shia areas, either.

In military terms, the Sunni rebels Baathist, Islamist and "tribal" have inflicted about one thousand fatalities on the coalition. Rather like the case of the IRA, however, they have caused even greater political damage. Through intimidation and with some help from disproportionate coalition responses they have completely shut down any democratic and cooperative tendencies among Sunnis outside of Baghdad, and to a considerable extent within there as well. They have put "moderate" Sunnis in the position where they seem to perceive a choice only between the "resistance" and Shia or Kurd domination.

There are good reasons why this insurgency has proved so intractable. It is orchestrated by more or less the entire former Sunni Baathist national security apparatus. The local allies of the coalition, have tended to melt away, be they the phantom battalions of the Sunni police, or the Shia recruits, who have died in large numbers but to little effect. Only the Kurds demonstrate anything like enthusiasm for the fight, and this is politically problematic not only within the "Triangle", but throughout the Shia areas as well. The analogy is imperfect, but as one expert put it to me that it was rather like what a guerrilla war between the ex-RUC and the Orange Order, backed by more or less the whole Protestant community, on one side, and the inexperienced forces of a united Ireland on the other, would look like. The best estimates of Sunni insurgent numbers run to several tens of thousands.

When all is said and done, however, the sad truth is that we are being run ragged by fewer than twenty percent of the population. If the coalition is finally driven out of Iraq, and the democratic government it leave behind collapses, it will have lost a contest in which it had or should have had the vast majority of the population on its side and a total monopoly of heavy weapons. None of this proves conclusively that Arabs or Muslims are fundamentally unsuited to democracy. It does show that, so far, the majority of Iraqis have not yet found or do not want to find an effective a way of defending their democracy. It is not the Iraqi "resistance" which is defeating us, but the Iraqi "Passivstance".

In the midst of all this, the prospect of a three-sided civil war between Shia, Kurd and Sunnis, seems like all that is needed to complete the nightmare.

On the contrary, what we need more than anything is some sort of "civil war". A civil war mediated as much as possible through democratic institutions and moderated by the occupation forces, of course, but a civil war none the less. This would be a civil conflict pitting Iraqi Shia, Kurds and any Sunni democrats who cared to join them against Sunni rejectionists. As what I have said will almost certainly be misunderstood, let me elucidate.

Most successful counter-insurgencies have been in some senses civil wars: between the Mau Mau and the Kikuyu loyalists in Kenya; between the Malays and the largely Chinese communists in Malaya; and so on. Likewise, the military stalemate of the IRA in Northern Ireland was in part due to the ability of the British government to depend on the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary. Even in Vietnam, the United States was allied to the Republican forces of South Vietnam, who whatever their faults, suffered and inflicted heavy casualties. The Saigon government survived for nearly three years after US ground forces withdrew. So did the unfortunate Afghan communist Najibullah after Gorbachev pulled out. At the moment, the current wisdom is that Allawi would hardly survive three days on his own. The Sunni insurgents certainly believe this; and the Shia majority have not indicated any willingness to prevent it from happening.

Paradoxically, therefore, the problem in Iraq is not the threat of civil war but its absence.

So it is time to take stock and recognise three things:

1. Some buses are never going to come. The "Sunni moderate" is a chimera we have pursued too long. He either does not exist, has been eliminated by the insurgents or lives in fear of being so. The only feasible strategy in the short-term is one of military containment within the "triangle". It will be up to the new government to decide whether it wishes to enforce its authority there. In due course, the west can help to reintegrate the Sunni rejectionists though not the foreign and islamist terrorists - through a Northern Ireland style peace process. Eventually, the penny will drop in the old Sunni military-bureaucratic-tribal complex that life without access to the central levers of power, and the oil resources in the Shia and Kurd areas, will be bleak.

2. If we want democracy to work we have to accept that this will be Shia democracy in the first instance. For too long this has been a spectre designed to evoke fears of a theocracy and Iranian infiltration. Now we have little choice but to take a chance. No democratic system we can devise will provide foolproof guarantees against the will of the majority. We should defend Kurdish interests when the constitution is drawn up, but there should be no reward for Sunni intransigence. On the contrary, we should accept the will of the majority, recognise the moderation of the Shia leadership, and depend on Iraqi nationalism to keep them at arm's length from Teheran.

3. What is decisive on 30 January is not whether the whole country votes. A boycott by twenty percent of the population does not automatically delegitimate the process. What is much more important is whether the Kurds, Sunni Democrats, and the Shias, especially the latter, finally "take ownership" of their state. We can hand them the democratic title-deeds on a plate, but they will have to fight for vacant possession. We can and should help them to do this, but we cannot do it for them.

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.


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