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Partitioning for Peace
An Exit Strategy for Iraq
By Ivan Eland
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 2009 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
The History of a Fractured Land
IRAQ IS AN ARTIFICIAL COUNTRY with only a recent national history. Although Reider Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, insists that a divided Iraq is a historical myth, his own data show that Mesopotamia was only united for sixty-eight years of the more than 1,300-year period of Islamic rule in the Middle East between 600 CE and the creation of Iraq by the British after World War I. Although Visser is correct that periodic uprisings during the long era of Islamic rule were not Kurdish or Arabic nationalist in nature (modern nationalism only became a powerful force in the twentieth century as a response to Western colonialism in non-Western areas that began in the latter half of the nineteenth century), he does admit that, during that extended period, sporadic revolts in Kurdish areas and sectarian Shi'i–Sunni conflict arose. Almost all of Iraq's tribal and ethno-sectarian groups place loyalty to their group above allegiance to the nation. Without an iron-fisted ruler there is little chance that Iraq will remain unified in the long term.
Thus, Iraq is likely to be partitioned (into autonomous regions or independent states) one way or another. It can be partitioned by full-blown civil war or it can be partitioned by a peacefully negotiated settlement. In fact, to some extent, Iraq is already partitioned into autonomous areas, with local forces providing security and governance. This unratified partition is dangerous. It is in the interest of the United States to help facilitate a peacefully negotiated partition, to be ratified by all of Iraq's heterogeneous groups, and then rapidly withdraw its military forces from that land.
The Ottoman Empire and Before
Iraq has only been a country since the victorious British, after World War I, artificially drew lines on a map and combined three disjointed former provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire — Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra — into the new League of Nations–mandated British protectorate of Mesopotamia (the name Iraq evolved later). And as Edwin Black, the author of a history of Iraq, implies, the lack of unity among these provinces preceded even the Ottoman Turks' conquest of Mesopotamia during the Safavid Persian Empire in 1534.
For centuries ahead, Mesopotamia would be a mere grouping of outpost provinces, once again ruled from afar by a foreign people — this time the Ottomans. As before, devoid of national identity or cohesion, Mesopotamian society distilled down to its basic units — the clan and the tribe against everyone and anyone.
The violent conflict between the Sunni and Shi'i versions of Islam — which are based on different views of who should have succeeded Mohammed as head of the faith and which can trace their deep roots back to the religion's youth in the 600s CE — raised its ugly head in Mesopotamia. According to Gareth Stansfield, associate professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, this original schism of Islam into Sunni and Shi'i factions was a defining moment in Iraq's history. Yet he also notes correctly that the modern-day Shi'i–Sunni cleavages are not based on sectarian differences alone; they also derive from Sunni political and economic dominance over the Shi'a during the Ottoman Empire and in every Iraqi government up until the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein, and from the more religious nature of the Shi'i community compared to that of the Sunnis (today there are no secular Shi'i political parties).
In the early 1500s, Ismail I, the shah of Safavid Persia, demanded that the predominant Sunni sect in that nation convert to Shi'ism. Ismail then forced Sunnis in Mesopotamia — all three regions of which the Persians conquered to safeguard the holiest Shi'i religious shrines in Najaf — into a similar conversion. The Sunni Ottoman Turks frowned on this development and invaded Mesopotamia, displaced the Safavid Persians, and ruled the three Mesopotamian regions from around 1535 until the British took over from the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Middle Eastern specialist Charles Tripp, who wrote a history of Iraq, concurs with Edwin Black that the Ottoman provinces of what is now Iraq had no national identity before the British created the country not all that long ago (in terms of ethno-sectarian heritage):
It would be fanciful to assume that in the years leading up to the British occupation of Mesopotamia, the future state of Iraq was somehow prefigured in the common experiences of these provinces. In many respects, the central political relationship with the Ottoman state was broadly similar to that of the other Arab provinces. ... From the perspective of the government in Istanbul, the three Mesopotamian provinces were neither treated administratively as a unit, nor accorded any form of collective representation that set them apart from other regions of the empire.
Even Peter Sluglett — a professor of Arab Middle East history at the University of Utah who believes that most of Iraq's current ethno-sectarian tensions are rooted not in long-term grievances, but rather in Saddam's setting the groups against each other and the U.S. occupation exacerbating such recently induced tensions — admits that the Sunni elite argued in the early 1920s "that however faintly Iraq might resemble an independent Arab state, it was at least 'more Arab' in its administration and certainly more of a coherent entity than the three provinces had been under Ottoman rule."
The Ottoman Empire grew very weak centuries before it collapsed after losing the Great War. In fact, the empire was so weak that it relied on local rulers in fragmented Mesopotamia. For example, from 1733 until the early 1800s, local rulers governed the province of Baghdad without interference from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, and refused to send more than token tribute to the Ottomans. By the early 1800s, the provinces of Mesopotamia, although nominally still under Ottoman rule, were so autonomous that they were subject to a struggle for power raging between the pasha of Baghdad, the Persians, the British, the Indians, and occasionally the fanatical Wahhabi religious armies from Arabia. During the later Ottoman era, the Kurds wanted to be independent. The Shi'a in southern Mesopotamia simply ignored the Sunni Ottoman institutions.
In the 1820s, a new sultan, Mahmud II (Mahmud the Reformer), came to power in the Ottoman Empire. He wanted to bring Western ideas into the decaying empire and also to reconquer the autonomous provinces of Mesopotamia. Daoud Pasha, the ruler of Baghdad, was amassing wealth and power comparable to the sultan's, yet he refused to send taxes and tribute to the sultan, and he failed to defend Karbala (in modern-day southern Iraq) from Wahhabi armies. The sultan demanded a huge tribute from Daoud, and Daoud declined to provide it. In 1831, the sultan's armies took Baghdad and deposed Daoud. Mahmud next turned to Karbala — an independent Shi'i city run by Persians and criminal gangs — to reassert Ottoman control, but he had difficulty and died before he could subdue it. In 1843, desiring to "Turkify" the Shi'i city, the Sunni Ottomans, under a new sultan, penetrated the city's wall, looted the city, raped the women, and slaughtered men, women, and children. In all, 15 percent of the city's population was brutally massacred. The Ottomans also reconquered the cities of Basra and Mosul, but this victory did not result in control of the tribes in the countryside. Those pieces of Mesopotamia were returned to the Ottomans but were hardly a unified region. In fact, piecemeal efforts by the Ottomans to strengthen and standardize the rule of their empire only led to more political and social fragmentation in Mesopotamia.
In sum, the Ottomans (with a fairly small administrative bureaucracy in absolute numbers), and later the British colonial overlords, would rule Mesopotamia by relying on decentralized methods — that is, governing through regional leaders or tribal chiefs. Istanbul had little control over the three provinces, and the governors of the provinces had little control over the tribes within them. Because of their weakness, the Ottomans developed a "divide and conquer" strategy. The Ottomans encouraged rivalry between tribes, ethnic and sectarian groups, and social classes, which led to the retention of strong communal groups throughout the Mesopotamian area.
World War I
Even before the major battles in Europe during World War I, the British had invaded Persia and Mesopotamia. They wanted to safeguard the oil refinery at Abadan, Persia, which the British government-controlled Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum) had recently built. The British also feared that the upcoming war would impede movement of oil from this refinery through the Persian Gulf because the port of Basra was in Mesopotamia, which the enemy Ottomans controlled. Although no oil drilling concessions had yet been granted in Mesopotamia, the British wanted this port to ensure that this critical Persian oil flowed to the British navy for the war effort.
After the Ottoman Turks had opted to side with Germany in the war, but before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire, the order went out to colonial Indian naval forces poised near Abadan to make war against the Turks. One day after the British declaration against the Turks, Indian forces captured the Anglo-Persian refinery, and British and Indian forces later occupied Basra. From Basra, their most important objective, the British decided to move north to conquer more of Mesopotamia. But some Arabs and Kurds had joined the Ottoman jihad against the British, and it took the British a year and a half and tens of thousands of lives just to make the short trip to Baghdad.
The British had promised the Arabs post–World War I independence if they helped the British and rebelled against their Ottoman overlords. But the British excepted Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul from the offer of independence; they wanted to occupy these areas because of their likely future role in the oil business. In early 1916, while the war still raged, however, the British, French, and Russians negotiated the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement to carve up the Middle East. The French wanted Mosul because, unlike the British, they had no Middle Eastern oil fields. The British kept the Ottoman provinces of Basra and Baghdad, but pledged to give up Mosul to the French in order to assure safe passage of oil and commerce from southern Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Persian Gulf through Syrian ports (the French controlled Syria at that time) to the Mediterranean Sea. Thus oil would move south to Basra and the Persian Gulf and west through Syria and Palestine to the Mediterranean. No one ever asked the Arabs their opinion, and the separate principalities of Syria, Mosul (both French), Baghdad, and Basra (both British) were designed to keep the Arabs divided and weak against their colonial masters. Thus, at this point, the colonial powers were not thinking in terms of uniting the three provinces that are now called Iraq.
But the French were never to get Mosul. The British knew that valuable oil deposits lay underneath the soil there and began scheming to retain that Ottoman province just after signing the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the French. The British wanted to control the oil deposits in Persia and Mesopotamia for industrialization and for fuel in their warships to police their still growing, but decaying, empire.
Unlike the French, the British had enough military forces in what is now Iraq to make possession of Mosul nine-tenths of the law. When the Ottoman Empire surrendered in October 1918, British forces stopped forty miles south of Mosul. The armistice with the Ottomans called for the surrender of all Ottoman military bases in "Syria and Mesopotamia." The British took advantage of the fact that the term "Mesopotamia" was not in official use in the Ottoman Empire. The British wanted Mosul, but the Ottoman governor protested that Mosul was not in Mesopotamia. Declaring them in violation of the cease-fire, the British demanded that the Turks evacuate Mosul, and then the British marched into the city.
According to Edwin Black, "An uneasy new national outline had been cobbled together that was mainly Kurdish in the north, Sunni in the midsection, and Shiite in the south." British civil administrator Arnold Wilson, essentially the creator of Iraq, noted that "we had established de facto, the principle that the Mosul vilayet [province] is part of Iraq" and so "laid the foundation stone of the future State of Iraq." Although British forces occupied Mosul, the British Foreign Office sent a message to Wilson ordering him to govern Basra and Baghdad separately and to maintain only a defensive military position in Mosul. In contravention of these orders, Wilson, on his own, decided to administer all three provinces together from Baghdad — thus creating Iraq. The situation on the ground essentially rendered the Sykes-Picot Agreement null and void. The French eventually gave up their territorial claim on Mosul in exchange for a substantial percentage of Mosul's oil. The British got 55 percent ownership of Mesopotamia's oil, the French received 25 percent, and the local inhabitants 20 percent. Later, by the late 1920s, the Americans demanded and got a percentage of Iraqi (and Middle Eastern) oil, and the ownership share for local inhabitants was eliminated in exchange for a share of the royalties.
According to Gareth Stansfield, the European concept of a "melting pot" of peoples brought together in a sovereign territory with a cohesive national identity is foreign to the Middle East and Iraq. In contrast, most modern Middle Eastern states are fragments of empires containing rival groups. He further notes that at the time the British created it,
Iraq was a powder keg of considerable dimensions, and was certainly not a logical construct in a domestic sense. Indeed, the political and economic lives of the communities of the Ottoman vilayets [provinces] remained loosely focused upon their major towns of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, with a strong rural-urban divide being evident, and each of these towns existing within quite separate geoeconomic and political spheres with Mosul being linked with Anatolia and acting as a bridge with Iran, Baghdad looking westwards towards the Arab lands and Basra having a notably "Gulf-centric" identity. It is clear that the boundaries of Iraq were drawn not by "some irreducible essence of Iraqi history." Instead, Iraq was created because of the logics of colonial and imperial power. Far from emerging from the natural interaction of the communities of the region, the Iraqi state was imposed from afar.
Charles Tripp best sums up Britain's creation of the artificial, factionridden country of Iraq out of whole cloth:
The British invasion and occupation of the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul and their subsequent consolidation into the new state of Iraq under a League of Nations Mandate administered by Great Britain radically changed the political worlds of the inhabitants of these territories. The history of Iraq begins here, not simply as the history of the state's formal institutions, but as the histories of all those who found themselves drawn into the new regime of power. It demanded new forms of identity. ... Of the three million or so inhabitants of Iraq at the beginning of the Mandate, more than half were Shi'i and roughly 20 percent were Kurdish, with another 8 percent or so composed of the Jewish, Christian, Yazidi, Sabaean, and Turkmen minorities. Yet the government ministers, the senior state officials and the officer corps of the armed forces were drawn almost exclusively from the Sunni Arabs, who constituted less than 20 percent of the population. Given their minority position, in economic and sectarian terms, as well as their authoritarian inclinations, this was not a promising basis for the national integration that was in theory intended to accompany the construction of the modern state.
In short, although Iraqi nationalism was practically nonexistent in Mesopotamia after World War I, these three provinces of Mesopotamia — Kurdish, Shi'i, and Sunni — increasingly were labeled "Iraq."
Although Stansfield seems to admit that Iraq was an artificial state when the British created it, he reports the argument that Iraq has now lasted almost one hundred years and has developed its own momentum and nationalism among the population to support it. This supposed momentum toward integration, however, went in reverse after the U.S. invaded the country. This paper will show, by studying other countries' partitions, that ethno-sectarian forces, often powerful, can bubble up and defeat nationalism in multi-ethno-sectarian states decades, and even centuries, later.
After World War I, the European victors adopted subtler and more "politically correct" forms of colonialism to replace the independence for Arabs that was promised to get them to fight their Ottoman overlords during the war. With little regard for what native peoples wanted, the great powers created League of Nations–approved "mandates" for nations targeted for eventual self-determination, but which weren't yet prepared to stand on their own (in the opinion of the great powers). France got Syria and Lebanon, and Britain got Palestine, Jordan, and Mesopotamia.
Excerpted from Partitioning for Peace by Ivan Eland. Copyright © 2009 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
1 The History of a Fractured Land,
2 The Current Instability in Iraq,
3 The Best Alternatives: Partition or Confederation,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
"[Argues] that a partition plan is the least-worst approach to a post-occupation Iraq . . . Mr. Eland acknowledges that partition will not be easy, and . . . he offers 15 guidelines for those seeking a confederation (modeled after the European Union)." —Orange County Register