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September 05, 2005

Iraq: what matters is the dropping of pennies, not of bombs

Posted by Brendan Simms

How might the violence currently gripping Iraq be abated? Dr Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge's Centre of International Studies - detects signs that the Iraqi "resistance" is beginning to realise that it cannot win. Much like with Northern Ireland paramilitaries, elements of the "resistance" will realise that they can achieve more through politics than through violence. This is not the future for Iraq that those who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein hoped for - but it will certainly be an improvement on what went before and will be a significant step towards the democratisation of the Middle East.

If you listen closely to the din coming out of Baghdad and the "Sunni Triangle", you will hear a new and distinctive sound. It is not the familiar babel of recrimination against Shia and Kurds and Sunni Democrats, the crash of "improvised explosive devices", or the dropping of coalition bombs, but the quiet clink of dropping pennies.

More than two years after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the truth is beginning to sink in. The "resistance" cannot win. Coalition forces are standing firm, and the security services of the new Iraqi government are making an ever greater impact. Even if the Americans were to sicken and withdraw, the Sunni Arabs would face odds of four to one against the Shias and Kurds, not to mention the likelihood of Iranian intervention. By contrast, the only firm friend the Sunnis have in the neighbourhood, Baathist Syria, is itself under increasing pressure in the Lebanon and from the United States. Bashir Assad has recently said that he can foresee a day when he will no longer be President, hardly the words of a leader determined to see off the threat of western democracy next door.

The Sunni "resistance" is made up of many different and often antagonistic strands including urban professionals, tribal chiefs, Baathist cadres, and extreme Islamists of the Zarqawi variety. All of them are united in seeing the Shia and Kurd majority, and Sunni democrats, as the running dogs of the occupiers. Many Sunnis, apparently, believe themselves to be the true majority in Iraq, the Shia numbers being artificially bloated by immigrants from Iran. They have long regarded themselves as the authentic voice of Arab nationalism and even modernity. Now they are split between those who wish to explore some form of accommodation with the new regime in Baghdad, and those mainly Islamist groupings - who wish to continue the war against the "occupation" to the bitter end.

The vast majority of Sunni political leaders now recognise that their boycott of January's poll was a catastrophic mistake which left them without a real voice in government or the drafting of the constitution. This is a very risky stance to take: recently, a prominent Sunni cleric who had long supported the insurgency was murdered for calling upon his flock to register to vote on the constitution.

It will be objected that the Sunnis are now registering in droves only to vote down the constitution, not to engage in democratic politics. But as the historian Lewis Namier once said in defence of eighteenth-century corruption: "who will bribe where he can command". Today one might add that the Sunnis have to vote down the constitution because they cannot blow it up. Indeed, probably the only way a halfway consensual constitution can be agreed is for the Sunnis to block the constitution at the polls, participate in fresh elections and then help to revise it. The nominated assortment of Sunnis drafted ad hoc into the process this summer cannot agree to the constitution they have no standing; only democratically elected Sunni representatives will be able to bite this particular bullet.

It is perfectly possible that, as many predict, Iraq will now be consumed by a Sunni intifada against the constitution, ending in full-scale civil war. But a more plausible future may look something like this. Insurgent violence will continue, but not at a sufficient level to drive out the coalition or dislodge the government of Iraq. The Sunni mainstream, including elements previously involved in or sympathetic to, the "resistance" will begin to engage in the political process, however haltingly. This trend will be accompanied by set-backs, misunderstandings, disappointments and recrimination; but over time it will isolate the rump of the insurgency politically and make possible a form of fractious power-sharing in which ethnic and confessional differences are (largely) defused. No doubt, the Sunnis will insist throughout that they have by no means abandoned the struggle against the "occupier", only transferred it to a new level. This is, of course, what has happened in Northern Ireland since the first IRA ceasefire. One Sunni "resister" in Fallujah grasped this as far back as April 2004, when he explained that all he wanted was a ministry "like Martin McGuinness".

All of this is encouraging news in the military sense, but those who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein hoped for something better; those who opposed it will not hesitate to point this out. But in Northern Ireland a long war was fought, at the end of which former paramilitaries were let into government on condition they renounce violence for good, and rightly so. We should be clear that such an outcome in Iraq would be a significant step in the democratic transformation of the Middle East. It would be a "Lebanonisation" in the best sense: a durable power-sharing arrangement which reflected the ethnic and confessional diversity of Iraq. This system will resemble western democracy far more than the theocratic, totalitarian and monarchic alternatives on offer to the west, east and south; but it will have a distinctive regional and perhaps even "Muslim" character. Shia leaders are entitled to pursue an Islamic Republic of Iraq, providing they do so peacefully and accept that the process is reversible. So long as certain basic political and civil rights to vote and to express oneself freely are guaranteed, the new constitution will provide Iraqis, and especially Iraqi women, with the democratic instruments to achieve true democracy.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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