Many years ago, one of the most venerated historians of Islam remarked: “The map of the Middle East has not yet been fixed.” What he meant was that almost all the Arab states in the Middle East are artificial creations, an outcome of the arbitrary dissection of the defeated Ottoman Empire following the First World War. Britain and France, the two main players in Middle East politics after the war, were each responsible for such artificial creations as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan and to some extant also huge Saudi Arabia. None of these countries, which have by now also created for themselves an artificial history, existed as even an administrative entity under the Ottomans or prior to the emergence of the Ottoman Empire. For example, what today is Syria was divided under the Turks, and virtually throughout the Islamic rule, into at least four administrative regions. However, in 1919, following the French takeover it was cobbled together as a “state” which became independent in 1946. This state incorporates such contradictions as the Aleppo region in the north, the Isma’ili-Ansari territory in the north-west, Homs and Damascus in the centre, and the Druze Mountain in the south, to mention only part of the ethnic, religious and cultural conglomerate making up modern Syria. While at it, the French created “Lebanon;” a mishmash of Moslem Sunnis, and Shi‘tes, Christian Maronites and Druze, all thrown into a pot of some 10,000 sq. km to cook together in impossible arrangements of power sharing. Jordan is even more ridiculous, Transjordan, torn away from the mandate of Palestine by the British, was created as a “kingdom” for an Arab sheikh from the Hejaz (first Emir and later King Abdullah).
British invention of the Kingdom of Iraq
But probably the most outrageous creation of the British is the state of Iraq. Here Britain’s cynicism reached its peak. They took three former provinces, Basra, Baghdad and Mosul (the first two in 1921, and the last added in 1926) and bound them together creating yet another artificial kingdom which they bestowed on another sheikh, the brother of the former, who carried the title of King – King Feisal of Iraq.
In 1932 they granted independence to the King who was left to rule over Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and a few other ethnic groups. Since being born in sin, this artificial state has been a collection of contradictions, ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic. In the north, most of the territory is controlled by the non-Arab Kurds. They have their own language, they are Sunnis but mostly belong to Sufi orders. They also inhabit some very oil-rich areas. Parts of them live in Turkey and some of them are also under Iran, but the bulk of the Kurds are in Iraq, and they want independence which they have every right to demand. Even under the great Empires they led a semi-independent life up in their mountains. Saddam Hussein made every effort to carry out a campaign of genocide against them, using the most deadly weapons of mass destruction, notably gas, to exterminate as many Kurds, men women and children. At present they are participating in the post-second Iraqi war government but they are virtually independent. They will not give up this independence even if an all-Iraqi authority is to be established. There are strong forces against them. Neither Turkey nor Iran wish to see a Kurdish state on their borders which would, no doubt, become an irredentist entity to the Turkish and Iranian Kurds.
Sunnis and Shi‘ites
Central Iraq namely, the great Baghdad area is occupied mainly by Sunni Arabs. They constitute about 35 percent of the Arab population of the country. Under the British and subsequent governments, they formed the elite of the administration. The British Mandatory government chose their civil servants almost exclusively from amongst the Sunni population, leaving the 65 percent of the Shi‘ites, who occupy the Southern parts of this “state” around the city of Basra and many parts in the centre in and around Baghdad, un-represented in the political life of the country, and virtually barred from the major economic activity.
In southern Iraq are the most important shrines of the Shi‘a: the tomb of the first Imam, Ali, in the city of Najaf, the tomb of the martyred Imam Husain in Karbala, and the tombs of the seventh and the ninth Imams in Baghdad itself. The highly venerated tomb of the eleventh Imam and the sites of the “disappearance” of the 12 Imam-Mahdi the Messiah of the Shi‘a in 873, who has since been hiding in his place of occultation and whose victorious re-appearance the Shi‘ites are awaiting, are in the north, in the city of Samarra,
These shrines belong to the whole Shi‘a. They are the sites of pilgrimage for the Shi‘ites from all over the world, for whom they are more important and meaningful even than Mecca and Medina the greatest holy sites of Islam. They are more than shrines for they amass around them the most active Shi’ite clergy, institutions of learning, Shi‘ite publishing houses and most intensive political activity. They are also targets of Sunni acts of terrorism. Moreover, they are places much coveted by the Shi‘ite establishment of neighboring Iran because the Iranian’s Shi‘ites as well as the Iraqi ones know that the Iranian Shi‘a originated in the area of the Holy Shrines around the city of Basra. In the 16th century, the rulers of Iran imposed the Shi‘a on their country with the help and active participation of the Iraqi clergy (ulema).
The tension between the Shi‘ites and Sunnis goes back to the beginning of Islam, but nowhere was it so obvious as in Iraq. These two communities did not cease to compete with each other over the right to rule Islam. This competition developed into open violence and bloodshed as we can see today, when major gatherings of Shi‘ites are targeted by al-Qa‘idah suicide bombers, booby-trapped cars as well as by open attacks. Nothing is safe: particularly not mosques and markets. Even the most holy shrine of the Imam-Mahdi in Samarra was annihilated by a Sunni bomb.
The Shi‘ite areas in the south are highly important strategically and economically. Both Iran and Iraq covet the oil-rich fields of the south and wish to control the tip of the Persian Gulf (which the Arabs call “The Arab Gulf”), the area called Shatt al-Arab, and around which conflict between the two countries flared in the last century into the long eight years war (1980-1988) between them. In this war, which cost the two sides some 1.5 million men, neither of them managed to gain any territory. But that does not mean that the Shi‘ite holy and rich southern Iraq is not desired by the Persians.
Shi‘ite southern Iraq is also a problem for the Saudis. The Persian Gulf’s western coast (occupied by Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Arab principalities) is populated by Shi‘ites who scarcely bear allegiance to their Sunni rulers. They would have been much more comfortable with their neighboring Shi‘ite brethren around Basra, enjoying the protection of the Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran.
Where the Americans went wrong?
I am not sure to what an extant the Americans learnt the complications of this artificial state of contradictions before embarking, together with the British and others, on their latest adventure. The idea of giving the second Iraqi war, which began in 2003, the extra aim of establishing democracy in Iraq is more than ridiculous. Which of the Arab countries in the Middle East is a democracy? Is democracy an idea which belongs to the Islamic world of concepts? Who has put into the head of the American policy makers the idea that they should sacrifice young American lives in order to attempt the imposition of an American-like constitution on a society that does not want to live free of dictatorship let alone regard all its members as equal human beings. The idea of personal and political freedom is an alien concept in the patriarchal society which exists in the world of Arab Islam and beyond.
The Americans, putting themselves in a position of the apostles of Western political thought, have harmed both themselves and the Iraqis. It would-have been far more practical if they had re-established, soon after Saddam was caught and hung, the three old Vilayets (provinces) of the Ottomans, one under the Kurds, one under the Sunnis and one under the Shi‘ites, and get out.
At any rate, this might still happen but with much bloodshed. The Americans will leave, but Iraq will remain the same artificial pot of boiling broth the ingredients of which can never mix. This anomaly, if it has to be maintained, needs a dictator not an unrealistic Western-style democracy.
Implications for Israel
The Western World and most of its media has developed a Pavlovian reflex in recent decades to blame Israel for every negative development in the Middle East. When things go bad in Iraq after the American pullout, Europe and America will explain that it is because Israel did not succumb to the all the Palestinian demands and built another two rooms in Jerusalem. What has this to do with Iraq? This question of course is irrelevant. However, following the American withdrawal no drastic change will take place as far as Israel is concerned. Iraq has always been part of Israel’s hostile Eastern Front and will continue to be so but with a much weaker military force. Alternatively, Iran might take advantage of Obama’s policy of appeasement and attempt to take Shatt al-Arab and southern Iraq. Such a major geopolitical development coupled with the Islamophilic regime in the US and defeatist Europe would put Israel in much greater danger and would be no less dangerous for Iran’s immediate Arab neighbors.