by Mordechai Kedar
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Read the article in Italiano (translated by Yehudit Weisz, edited by Angelo Pezzana)
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Two of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden - according to the Book of Genesis - are located in Iraq. The Tigris and Euphrates flow from the mountains of Turkey, through Syria and into Iraq, they join in Shatt al-Arab and whatever remains of its waters then flows into the Gulf. Many canals, or arteries - (in Arabic, "artery" is "al-Iraq") - have been dug between the rivers, to provide irrigation for agriculture in the hot, dry desert. Without the rivers and the canals between them, Iraq would be a dry, arid desert. Anyone who wants to survive in the burning Iraqi desert must live as part of a cohesive armed and violent group, ready to do battle in order to defend his water source and his livelihood.
Over the generations, many groups have settled in Iraq, and today they constitute the population of the state. There are four ethnic groups: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Persians, who are divided into more than seventy tribal groups, eight religions (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabeans, Mandeans, Yazidis and Baha'is) and innumerable sects (the Muslims are divided into Sunnis, Shi'ites, Salafis, Sufis and others, and the Christians are divided into Catholic sects: Chaldean, Syriac, Armenian, Roman and Byzantine; Orthodox sects: Aramean, Armenian, Ancient Oriental, Assyrian, Byzantine, Coptic (Egyptian refugees); Protestant sects: Assyrian National, in addition to Seventh Day Adventists and Subbotniks.
For our purposes it is important to note that many Muslim Iraqis regard members of other religions as believers in false religions, and the punishment for this is either having to live as a "protected people" ("ahl dhimma"), considered an appropriate solution for Jews and Christians, or having to choose between converting to Islam or being slaughtered as infidels.
The meager living conditions in the desert have resulted in a proliferation of tribal, sectarian ethnic groups, resulting in a split and polarized population, quarrelsome and violent, with a generations-long tradition of battles and blood feuds. This is the source of all of Iraq's misfortunes.
The British, who held the mandate for Iraq, crowned Faisal as king of Iraq in 1921, and his brother Abdullah as Emir of the Emirate of Transjordan, to give the sons of Sharif Hussein from the Hijaz "jobs", as a reward for his support in the First World War against the Ottoman Empire. The fact that Faisal spoke with a Saudi accent and the people of Arabic Iraq speak with an Iraqi accent did not matter the British. The Iraqis never accepted the royal house that the British had imposed on them, or the way that Britain determined the borders of the state according to British interests - principally concerning oil - and not according to the needs of its population.
Throughout the history of Iraq, there have been battles between its Arab government and the Kurdish region, and there has been continual tension between the Sunni minority and the Shi'ite majority. This was the inevitable outcome of Iraq's demographics. And this is why this country has been dominated by dictatorial groups these past nine years, each one harshly and cruelly oppressing anyone who did not belong to the group in power.
Due to the parochial nature of government, some sectors of the population remained loyal to their traditional group, because this granted its members a sort of defense against the government's fury, since consolidated traditional collectives are better able to defend themselves and negotiate with the central regime regarding the division of power.
To avoid being in continual conflict with the various groups, the central government found ways to appease the heads of the groups by means of economic franchises and government positions. By Western standards, such conduct is considered corrupt, while in the Middle East it is necessary, and is considered natural.
The two rulers who shaped Iraqi history in the second half of the twentieth century were Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (1968-1979) and Saddam Hussein (1979-2003). Ideologically and organizationally, they both based their rule on Baathist ideas and on the party that was established to implement them, but in reality, their rule was based on a system of balances between harsh oppression and appeasement of potential adversaries, while creating rivalries in order to prevent the formation of coalitions against the central government.
An illegitimate state ruled by an illegitimate government must have an external enemy to unify the opposition to the government and bring them under its umbrella. Iraq found this enemy in Iran, and over the years conducted bloody wars against it: The first, in the years 1974-1975, and the second between 1980 and 1988. The first was against the Shah and the second was against the rule of the Ayatollahs.
With the aim of increasing Iraq's economic and political strengths at the expense of its neighbors, Saddam conquered and occupied Kuwait in 1990. Although he expected the world to condemn the invasion, he believed that it would ultimately be accepted as a fait accompli, but he was mistaken. In the five-week war that was waged in January-February of 1991, he was forced to withdraw from Kuwait because of the tremendous damage that was done to the army and civil infrastructure of the state. But the war and the regimen of sanctions that were imposed on Iraq did not bring about the fall of Saddam, because dictators know how to direct hardships onto their populations, while remaining unharmed for the most part themselves.
In the year 2003, an international coalition was formed headed by the United States, to attack Iraq. Saddam disappeared, and in 2004 was arrested and tried, and was hanged in 2006. But the tragedy of Iraq is that despite the country's population having been freed from dictatorial rule, civil and political mechanisms based on thought patterns, behaviors and conduct other than the traditional loyalty to the tribe, ethnic group, religious group and sect were not developed.
On the surface, there are political parties, elections are held, there seems to be an operational parliament and a functional government, but when one examines in depth how these modern mechanisms work, one discovers that all of them, in one way or another, present the usual frameworks and conduct the usual battles, but by means of the modern tools that liberation from Saddam have provided. But the worst thing is that the system - mainly since the withdrawal of American forces at the end of 2011 - does not have one single balancing power that can impose its agenda on all the conflicting forces. And the result is that the government is non-functional, parts of the country - principally the Kurdish part - behave as independent states, Sunni jihad organizations blow up car bombs in Shi'ite neighborhoods, and in response, Shi'ite jihad gangs blow up truck bombs in the markets of Sunni cities.
The social disorder, political chaos and power vacuum make Iraq vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers and two of Iraq's neighbors are up to their necks in the bloody affairs in the Land of the Two Rivers: Saudi Arabia finances, arms and trains the Sunni militias, while Iran is the money, weapons and training behind the Shi'ite militias. In the wide canals of the Tigris and Euphrates, two of the rivers that irrigated the Garden of Eden with their waters, Iraqi blood flows today, making it seem, ironically, more like Hell.
In every single month of 2013, several hundred people have been killed in terror attacks in Iraq. The security forces are infiltrated with agents of organizations that are enemies of the state and therefore they have limited ability to fight effectively against the bombing attacks and the terrorists. Many politicians' hands are stained with the blood of their rivals, but their violent dedication to their group is what got them elected in the first place, "democratically", of course. And since the Shi'ites are a majority in Iraq, a Shi'ite coalition rules there, under Iranian auspices, while marginalizing the Sunni minority politically, economically and socially.
Sunni political activists are arrested and disappear into torture dungeons no less horrifying than Saddam Hussein's, but inside these dungeons the tables have been turned: then, Saddam's Sunni jailers tortured Shi'ites, and today it's the Shi'ite jailers of Nuri al-Malaki, the Shi'ite prime minister, who are torturing the Sunnis. Several Sunni leaders who were identified in the past with the Ba'ath party and who are today in prison, might yet be executed by hanging.
Meanwhile, Syria, Iraq's neighbor to the west, has joined the list of states involved in the "Arab turmoil" that began in Tunisia in December of 2010, and Tunisia is also becoming embroiled in the bloodbath. Sunni, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia supports the Salafi Sunni jihadist organizations operating in Iraq against the Shi'ite regime with funds, arms and fighters, and in Syria against the Alawite dictator under the influence of al-Qaeda, even if they do not have the name of that specific group on their lips.
The Americans watch what is going on in Iraq astonished and helpless. On one hand, Obama brags that he took the American army out of Iraq, but on the other hand he sees how Iraqi "democracy" is turning into torture dungeons with blood in the streets and ever increasing Iranian influence, and he has no desire to strengthen such an Iraqi regime.
On the other hand, if the regime in Iraq is weak, then militias such as al-Qaeda and The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria might take over parts of the state, especially the region of al-Anbar in the west, which is settled by Sunni tribes, and turn this area into a new Afghanistan, along with with the Dir a-Zur region in eastern Syria after the state has disintegrated.
It is against this background that Nuri al-Malaki, prime minister of Iraq, is visiting Washington. He is coming to tell Obama about the things that Iraqi governments - and especially his - have achieved in recent years: an improvement in oil production and resulting rise in income; a decline in poverty and unemployment rates; resettling the refugees who had fled from the state during the past decade; better quality of nutrition for children and adults together with a decline in infant mortality; an improvement in the quality of drinking water; more children enrolled in organized education; an improvement in the status of women and allowing women the opportunity to be elected to parliament; almost total eradication of malaria; holding democratic elections for parliament and local government.
In order to maintain these achievements and progress onward to additional achievements, al-Malaki needs American weapons that will enable him to fight effectively against the forces threatening to turn Iraq into a Sunni Jihadistan under Saudi Arabia's influence. The problem is that if American weapons are transferred to a Shi'ite government, it might help the Shi'ites turn Iraq into a Shi'ite Jihadistan, operating under Iranian influence.
Al-Malaki is principally interested in Predator drones that will enable the regime to attack Sunni jihad operatives without endangering pilots. These drones have proven themselves in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But what would happen if al-Malaki allows his friends in Iran to examine these drones so that they can develop weapons to counter them? How would the Americans be able to use these weapons against Iran if and when they decide to do so in the future? And what would happen if the Iranians share these secrets with their friends, the Russians and the Chinese?
The strategic cooperation agreement that was signed between Iraq and the United States just before the American withdrawal provides the background for these discussions, because the United States is obligated to provide for the stability of the regime in Iraq even if its behavior is not perfect and it doesn't reflect the democratic values of the United States and its regional interests. Al-Malaki will need to exercise all of his persuasive powers to get an agreement from the United States - which is tired of wars and involvement in the crises of the Middle East - to take meaningful steps that might again lead to United States into involvement in the Iraqi swamp.
The crisis in Syria will also be part of the dialogue with Obama. Al-Malaki represents the Iranian position, and his presence in the Second Geneva Conference, if it is held, might tip the scales in favor of Asad. On one hand, Obama is not enthusiastic about the participation of the Iraqi-Iranian duo in the conference, because he sees Iran as the dominant part of the problem, but not necessarily part of the the solution. On the other hand, everyone knows that there is no point to the resolutions that will be taken in the conference if this pair of states does not honor them and acts against them.
The underlying question about the events in Iraq is whether the blood will stop flowing in the Tigris and the Euphrates, in Syria and in Iraq, and if the waters of the two rivers will again nourish the Garden of Eden as they once did?
Dr. Kedar is available for lectures
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by SallyZahav with permission from the author.
Additional articles by Dr. Kedar
Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the author.