Random posts on all sorts of things designed to inform and provoke.
Over the past few days, there have been a number of excellent articles and posts written on the reasons for and behind the US invasion of Iraq. While these have been interesting and valuable, I wanted to write something that looked ahead and not behind.
History is important but the present and future are more valuable and, therefore, I am focusing this piece on the challenges and opportunities facing this Middle Eastern Shia-majority oil rich nation as it attempts to maintain some semblance of peace and unity.
Iraq faces a number of formidable challenges, none more so than the sectarian animosity between the Shia and Sunnis.
During his administration, Saddam Hussain kept a lid on this hostility by the sheer brutality of his policies but his departure brought this enmity out into the open – apparently to the surprise of the US government. Since then, it has continued to rise and shows no signs of abating.
Therefore, due to its longstanding nature, scope and size, I believe this friction to be the most significant internal threat to Iraqi unity.
The other major challenge is of a political nature as the country’s present leadership – in no surprise to Middle East-watchers – has become increasingly power-hungry. This could have a significantly negative impact on the nation as the ambitions of Iraq’s political establishment could undermine the very government institutions that can develop this fledgling nation. For instance, the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has shrewdly enhanced his influence through a number of actions (such as appointing incompetent cronies) that have benefited him and his supporters but hurt his homeland.
Iraq’s geo-political challenges include being pulled in different directions by its two powerful neighbors who have widely divergent and contradictory interests.
Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s southwestern neighbor, wants to support the Sunni minority, ensure the stability of the oil market and prevent the Shia from becoming too powerful and influencing those in Bahrain and within its borders. On the other hand, Iran, its eastern neighbor, has the opposite agenda including using Iraq against the United States.
In the meantime, the US wants Iraq to be a beacon of democracy and stability in an undemocratic and unstable Middle East. In addition, if Iraq can start shipping its oil and reduce global crude oil prices, so much the better.
Stuck in the middle are Iraqis who don’t know which way to turn. Consequently, it’s very important that the country have a stable political structure as this could prevent one group from driving the country into a preferred direction.
Iraq also faces threats that it cannot control. These include developments in its neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan. Refugees from the former could overwhelm a social structure already stretched to the limit while instability in the latter country could present some formidable challenges.
Finally, there is the impact from Iran-US relations. If its neighbor is attacked, then the Shia-led Iraqi government will be forced to choose between a nation that brought it into power (the United States) and one with whom it has a cultural history and affinity (Iran). That will be a formidable challenge and likely only solvable with huge tranches of “aid.”
I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t any slivers of sunshine in this story. The country’s untapped natural resources provide significant opportunities for the local and global markets. One need only look at how the Kurds have managed their region – with its high economic growth rates, relative stability and growing prosperity – to understand the potential for Iraq.
On the other hand, the Kurds also pose a formidable challenge because if Baghdad does not get its house in order, that ethnic group could well be the first minority to secede from the union. The Kurds don’t want support from the central government and only need access to pipelines to ship their oil to the global markets. Plus, they have shown the capability and aptitude for self-rule.
If this does happen, the Sunnis will demand the same – breaking Iraq apart – and Turkey, nervous about its own Kurdish population, will undertake aggressive countermeasures. Indeed, if the Sunni-Shia conflict is the biggest internal threat to Iraqi stability, then surely this has to be the most significant external threat.
A decade since US troops freed Iraq from a vicious and dynamic tyrant, the nation finds itself once again fighting against a prime minister who wants to retain power for an indeterminate period, powerful neighbors who are pulling it in different directions and internal economic and religious animosity.
It may be too soon to judge whether the disposal of Saddam Hussain was beneficial or detrimental for Iraq but its clear this nation faces pressures that it may not be able to handle without US and western support. Consequently, while western military forces may have left Iraq, western presence and influence will likely continue to be present for some time.