Saturday, February 10, 2007

Iraq and Yugoslavia


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Iraq has seen a great deal of misery in the last three decades — 24 years of the vicious rule of thug-like dictator Saddam Hussein, a debilitating eight-year war with Iran that killed a lot of the most promising young people of both countries, 12 years of crippling economic sanctions following Saddam’s stupid attempt to conquer Kuwait (which overnight moved him from the U.S. friends’ list to its enemies’ list) and a four-year U.S. occupation during which electricity, water, other infrastructure and even basic security and order have almost totally collapsed — but the Iraqis ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The immediate future for Iraq is a bloody, brutal civil war that will leave hundreds of thousands of them dead (on top of the hundreds of thousands that died from the sanctions and the hundreds of thousands more that have died in the war), will last for at least a decade and will end in the partition of Iraq into three countries: a Kurdistan in the north, an Iranian-allied Shi’a region in the south and a Sunni redoubt in the center.

We can be sure this will happen because it already did elsewhere in the world, in a country founded under remarkably similar circumstances to Iraq: Yugoslavia. Both Yugoslavia and Iraq were artificial countries, pieced together from different ethnic and tribal regions much the way Baron Frankenstein put together bits of corpses to make his monster. Both, in fact, were created at the same time and place: in 1919-1920, in Versailles, France, during the elaborate negotiations that ended World War I. Among the losers in that war were two decrepit empires, Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, which had long since lost any sensible political reason for existing or the military force to hold their disparate populations and ethnicities together. Their leftover colonies were either divvied up directly among the winning powers — Britain got what is now Israel, the West Bank and Jordan (on top of Egypt, which had been a virtual British colony even before the war) and France got Syria and Lebanon — or organized into so-called “states” without any reason for being, whose borders assembled ethnic and tribal groups which had hated and fought each other for hundreds of years.

As artificially created countries full of people who hated each other, Yugoslavia and Iraq had one other thing in common: both could be held together only by a dictator. True, Yugoslavia had considerably better luck of the draw in its dictator; it got the relatively benign Marshal Tito, while Iraq was stuck first with a British-installed monarchy à la Iran, then with a revolving door of military men who assassinated each other to gain power, and finally with 24 years of Saddam Hussein. But while Tito and Saddam were alive and in power, both were able to hold their improbably constructed countries together and keep the ancient ethnic and religious rivalries between Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Macedonians and Montenegrins — or Sunni Arabs, Shi’ite Arabs and (mostly) Sunni Kurds — under control. Once they were removed from power — Tito by a natural death and Saddam by the U.S. invasion — the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Sunnis, Shi’ites and whoever were left free to kill each other for reasons most of the rest of the world could not even begin to comprehend.

The Yugoslavian civil war lasted over a decade and ended only after so many people on all sides had been killed that the violence was no longer sustainable. It also helped that the international community, working through both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), ultimately took sides, championing the Bosnians over the Serbs in a military intervention that had a lot more worldwide credibility than the U.S.’s rump invasion (under the guise of a “coalition of the willing” that had only one other significant member, Great Britain) of Iraq. The Iraqi civil war promises to be at least as intractable as the Yugoslav one — or as other, more recent killing fests in places like Rwanda and Congo. It has all the same ingredients: historic rivalries lasting hundreds or even thousands of years, clever propagandists skillfully inducing people who lived next to each other peacefully for decades to hate and kill each other, and a basis in two of the three most powerful bonds by which human beings come together and determine whom to like and whom to hate: religion and tribe. (Family is the third.)

The Iraqi civil war will last at least a decade and kill at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqis. It will be marked by the same brutality of so-called “ethnic cleansing” (and, in Iraq’s case, sectarian cleansing as well) as those in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. What’s more, it will be practically unstoppable. It will occur whether the American occupation forces stay in Iraq or withdraw. It will occur whether President Bush’s so-called “surge” of 20,000 additional troops in Iraq (actually, since the U.S. doesn’t have 20,000 additional troops to spare, the “surge” is being accomplished by sending soldiers who’ve already served a tour or two in Iraq on second, third and even fourth tours) manages to achieve its short-term goal of securing Baghdad or not. It will occur because, without a dictator of Saddam’s unscrupulousness and ability to instill fear in the population, no power on earth can stop it. We saw in Yugoslavia, in the years between Tito’s death and the start of the civil war, how easy it was for Slobodan Milosevic and his counterparts in the other ethnic groups to create the hatreds among their people that would persuade them that they not only could commit such wanton acts of mass murder but had a moral obligation to do so. That process has already been accomplished in Iraq.

I have written above that “no power on earth” can stop Iraq from being wracked by a decade-long civil war with a horrible toll in human life and the virtually complete destruction of what’s left of Iraq’s infrastructure. That’s not quite true. The Iraqi people could stop it themselves if they somehow reached a collective consciousness of sanity and simply refused to kill each other for all the ancient, crazy reasons their current leaders are telling them to. But believing in a hope like that is about as realistic as believing in Santa Claus. The grim reality is that all the people Iraqis generally respect and look to for advice on how to live moral lives — particularly the imams in both Sunni and Shi’a mosques and the guerrilla leaders in Kurdistan that already won Iraq’s Kurds a surprising level of freedom from Saddam’s control — are committed to telling them to fight and kill each other.

And, next to the Iraqi leaders themselves, the United States will bear more responsibility for Iraq’s impending bloodbath than any other party. The U.S. went into the buildup to the Iraq war with an incredible tool — the ability to get the U.N. to lift the economic sanctions against Iraq — which they could have used to force Saddam Hussein to back off from his most brutal acts and guarantee human rights to his people. A negotiated end to the sanctions in return for progress on human rights, and an arena in which the Iraqis could have met and discussed a post-Saddam future either as one country or a peaceful partition into three: that was the great “road not taken” in U.S. policy towards Iraq. Instead, from the moment he took office, eight months before 9/11, the current President Bush was committed to overthrowing Saddam’s regime by force, and ultimately his regime propagandized the U.S. Congress and the American people into supporting this immoral, evil and unnecessary war. It was the United States that sowed the wind in Iraq — and it is the Iraqis who will reap the whirlwind.