The Baghdad Puzzle
No. 1 2003 January/March

Georgy Mirsky, Doctor of Science (History), is a
professor and research fellow with the Russian Academy of Sciences’
Institute of the World Economy and International Relations, and a
member of the Board of Advisors of Russia in Global

Georgy Mirsky

The author would like to thank his colleagues – Alexei Denisov,
Vladimir Dvorkin, Vladimir Isayev, Sergei Karaganov, Vassily
Krivokhizha, Alexei Malashenko, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Alexei Pushkov,
Yevegeny Satanovsky, Mark Shkundin, Irina Zvyagelskaya – for
sharing their views on this article.

The number of times Iraq has been mentioned in the world press
over the last year has by far exceeds the exposure of other
nations. The conclusion of the Iraq issue is set to become an event
of great international magnitude in 2003. As the threat of war
approaches again, member states of the international community are
following Washington’s lead and are dead serious about eliminating
the dangerous Saddam Hussein. Either the international inspectors
provide sufficient proof that he possesses no weapons of mass
destruction, or – and this seems to be the more likely outcome –
Iraq will be disarmed. A great deal depends upon the future course
this conflict will take. For example, if military force is
implemented, what legal grounds will there be for using it? Where
will this potential conflict leave Iraq? Will the Baath party
remain in power? What kind of solution awaits the people of Iraq:
the Afghan scenario (an opposition-based regime loyal to the West)
or the Kosovo solution (international protectorate)? And, finally,
how should Russia respond to any conflict with Iraq considering its
many years of alliance with Saddam?

The Power Of Saddam’s Baath Party

It cannot be denied that Saddam Hussein and his Baath party have
maintained a strong hold on power despite two wars and decades of
international isolation. Back in 1968, when the Baath party rose to
power, it played a stabilizing role by ending a string of internal
upheavals and military coups. After an arduous wait Iraq was
finally given the opportunity to capitalize on its rich natural
resources (Iraq presently holds 10 percent of the world’s
prospected oil reserves, being second only to Saudi Arabia, while
its two great rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates – provide ideal
conditions for agriculture). In the 1980s, Iraq and Egypt were
recognized as the two most developed Arab countries. The large
influx of petrodollars allowed Baghdad to modernize its processing
industries, as well as to build up a powerful army.

Saddam Hussein’s influence rose steadily in Iraq from the very
first days of the Baath regime. His personal charisma, strong will
and hunger for power helped him to methodically and mercilessly
remove all of his rivals until he was the sole ruler of Iraq in
1979. In his rise to power hundreds of functionaries were executed.
A third of the members of the Revolutionary Command Council
confessed to charges of high treason after their families were
taken hostage. Brutal repressions devastated the Iraqi Communist
Party; almost all its activists died in prison.

Many generations of Iraqis have been brought up on the
personality cult of Saddam Hussein. They know him by many names: a
knight, a father of the Arab nation, a hero of the national
liberation movement, an invincible warrior, etc. But as with any
totalitarian regime, the people’s real attitude toward their leader
tends to deviate from the general perception of particular
propaganda cliches. A Baghdad correspondent of The Economist
British weekly observed recently, however, that the fear of change
for the Iraqi people is stronger than their frustration with the
Baath regime because the state, although cruel and repressive,
ensures security. Ironically, even Saddam’s archenemies would
prefer to have him remain in power. The Kurds are one such people.
Having secured a relative freedom in the northern regions of Iraq
through the auspices of UN protection, explained The
, they now fear they may lose their autonomy if they
are absorbed into the Arab majority of the Iraqi population.
Another concerned party inside Iraq is the Christian minority.
While this group is still prospering, it is steadily weakening at
the same time by emigration. It fears that should it lose the
protection of Hussein’s secular Baath government, there will be a
religious rebirth amongst the Muslims – already on the rise in the
country – which would possibly not bode well for them. Moreover,
the Sunni Muslims are now dominating most governmental positions in
the state, but are outnumbered by the Shiite population;
predictably, they are fearful of losing their traditional
superiority. And then there are those who support the present
regime – whether they are actual members of the Baath party, or
from other Arab tribes, including both Shiite and Sunni clans – who
fear the possibility of retribution should the regime collapse.

Indeed, those who have recently visited Iraq say that the
country is on the verge of a blood bath – a common occurrence when
a dictatorship which maintains authority over the various latent
discontented forces, thus ensuring stability in the country,
suddenly collapses. When a dictatorship falls, the discontent will
burst out, like steam out of a boiler, scorching everything and
everyone in its path.

And anyone familiar with the history of the Iraqi people
understands the potential cruelty of their mentality. Some trace it
back to the ferocity of the Mesopotamian rulers who governed the
country many ages ago. The famous Al-Hajaj, for example, who ruled
the country in the times of the Damask Caliphate, once placed the
chopped-off heads of various victims, who apparently strayed in
their obedience to him, on public display and addressed to his
people the following words (now known to every school student in
Iraq): “O people of Iraq, people prone to strife, hypocrisy and
malice! I swear by Allah, I will rip off your skin the way one
tears bark from a tree, I will shake you like a bunch of branches,
I will beat you like stray camels…”

In its struggle for independence through the years, Iraq, just
as neighboring Syria, went through a series of military coups. But
while in Syria the deposed officers were exiled from their country
by their opponents to perhaps South America as military attachОs,
the deposed in Iraq were always executed.

Sunni And Shiite Muslims

Is there any chance that the ethnic and religious groups in Iraq
will enjoy civil harmony in a post-totalitarian state?

Shiite Muslims represent about 60 percent of the Iraqi
population. What makes them different from the Sunni Muslims is
confusing even with many of the Muslims. After the Prophet
Muhammad’s death he was successively succeeded by four caliphs
(deputies) – Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman and Ali. Sunni Muslims hail all
of them as the “rightful caliphs of Islam,” whereas Shiites
consider the first three of them usurpers. According to Shiite
teaching, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was his only
legitimate successor, and so only Ali’s progeny are entitled to be
called the Prophet’s true heirs.

But does this seemingly insignificant difference matter very
much today? In the Muslim world it seems to matter very much.
Shiites believe themselves to be the only true faithfuls; to their
understanding, the Sunnis are hardly better than infidels, kafirs.
Although today only one in ten Muslims in the world is a Shiite,
they nevertheless make up an overwhelming majority in Iran and
outnumber the Sunnis in Iraq. Yet, Shiite Muslims have generally
been a discriminated minority in the history of Islam.

Throughout the centuries of Turkish domination, Baghdad rulers
were chosen from among Sunnis, be they Turks or Arabs, since
Sunnism was the prevalent ideology of the Ottoman Empire (which
incorporated Iraq). Sunnis continued to dominate the Iraqi ruling
elite after Iraq gained independence to become first a monarchy and
then a republic. This domination induced in the Shiites an ever
growing feeling of inferiority and oppression by the Sunnis. Such
self-perception fits well with the traditional Shiite mentality and
its idea of self-sacrifice. Worshipped by Shiites on a par with the
Prophet Muhammad, the caliph Ali was stabbed to death by an
assassin, while Ali’s son Hussein fell in battle and was
decapitated. Their tombs in the towns of Najaf and Karabala are
regarded as holy shrines. Subsequently, not a single Shiite
imam died a natural death. Hence, the tradition of Shiite
martyrdom with its highly emotional strain, and the
self-sacrificing nature of Shiite philosophy which borders on
fanaticism. It is no wonder that the Lebanese Shiites were the
first Arab suicide bombers: their explosive-laden trucks rammed the
gates of the American and French barracks in Beirut in 1983 during
the civil war in Lebanon and its occupation by foreign troops.

In Iraq, the al-Da’wa al-Islamiya organization of the Shiite
Muslims suffered a huge loss following the execution of its
spiritual leader, Mohammad Bakr Al-Sadr, in 1980. In 1983,
reprisals hit the family of another leader of the Shiite
opposition, Mohammad Bakr Al-Hakim, in hiding in Iran. Now Mohammad
Bakr Al-Hakim heads the Teheran-based Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq and is preparing for a political comeback once
the present Iraqi regime falls.

The identity of the Shiite Muslims in Iraq is formed from two
ideas. On the one hand, as members of a discriminated religious
community, the Shiites view themselves as a separate sect of the
chosen and, hence, persecuted. In this sense, their position is
similar to that of the Maronites in Lebanon, Bosnian Muslims in the
former Yugoslavia and Catholics in Northern Island. In all of these
cases the members of the discriminated religious communities and
their “infidel” neighbors share one language, which does little,
however, to assuage their mutual animosity and even hatred. The
memory of persecution and sufferings, together with the many myths,
symbols and common spiritual values have a strong cohesive effect
upon the members of these minorities and make them feel like a
separate nation.

On the other hand, Iraqi Shiites have a strong national identity
that is by no means inferior to that of the Sunnis. During the
Iraqi-Iranian war of the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini held out hope
that the Iraqi Shiites would welcome their Persian Shiite brothers
and raise a mutiny against Saddam after Iranian troops repelled an
Iraqi offensive and invaded Iraqi soil. But his expectations were
shattered – most of the Iraqi Shiites bore the full brunt of this
war as the loyal soldiers of Saddam, together with their fellow
Sunni countrymen. Loyalties to the nation took the upper hand over
religious loyalties, while Saddam Hussein spared no effort to
inculcate the feeling of patriotism in his people. To begin with,
he declared himself a descendant of the Shiite imam Ali. Also,
Iraqi historians and archeologists delved into research on
“Mesopotamian Islamic identity” to further strengthen Iraqi
nationalism, or “Iraqism.” Finally, much has been done to improve
the living standards of the Shiite population.

The speculation that the Shiites might separate and form a state
of their own should the present regime collapse carries little
weight. Still less grounded are the allegations that
Shiite-dominated southern Iraq might come under Iran’s
jurisdiction. For Iraqi Shiites Iraq is their home land which
contains the tombs of their saints and the living memory of Ali and
Hussein, as well as the glorious days of the Abbassid caliphs under
whom the country was thriving.

What would be the response of the Arabic states in the region?
The formation of another Shiite state, in addition to Iran, would
be strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf
countries because their own Shiite populations may see in southern
Iraq an attractive alternative to their own situation. Such a
scenario would be anathema to Sunni- and Wahhabi-dominant
governments of the Arabian Peninsula. There is yet another, equally
implausible, scenario – the restoration of a monarchy. This could
be achieved through the empowerment of a king from the Hashemite
dynasty, now ruling Jordan. History can even provide legal grounds
for the return of a monarchy: after World War I the British set two
Hashemite kings on the thrones in Baghdad and Amman. Moreover, the
last Iraqi king, Faisal, killed in a 1958 coup, was the cousin of
King Hussein, father of Jordan’s present king. The idea is rather
obvious: annexed to Jordan, Iraq would cease to exist altogether.
But this scenario would trigger discontent among the Iraqi Shiites,
who would be adamantly opposed to being ruled by a Sunni king
again. Kurds would oppose this plan too, as their influence in a
united Arab-dominated state would decrease dramatically.
Furthermore, the elimination of a major Arab state would be
uncomfortable news to the Arab world as a whole. That is why this
point remains beyond serious discussion.

Kurdistan: Independence Or Autonomy?

The over four million Kurds inhabiting northern Iraq comprise
approximately 20 percent of the Iraqi population. Also, there are
14 million Kurds in Turkey, 7 million in Iran, and 1.5 million in
Syria. They are the world’s largest ethnic group deprived of
statehood. The Turkish and Syrian Kurds, as well as most of the
Iraqi Kurds, are Sunni Muslims.

Before World War I, the Iraqi Kurds, as well as the Arabs, were
under Turkish rule. In 1920, the Sevre peace treaty provided for
the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan following
the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. However, these plans were
blocked by Turkey, Iran and Great Britain and only remained on
paper. The British were intent on keeping their grip on the
oil-rich regions, thus Kirkuk and Mosul became part of the Arab
Kingdom of Iraq which was totally under London’s control. After
centuries of Turkish domination, the Kurds had no desire to live
under an Arab king and rose in rebellion. The regimes in Baghdad
changed, the monarchy was replaced by a republic, yet the reprisals
against the Kurds grew more and more brutal, but they could never
stop the Kurdish peshmarga (suicide fighters) from revolting
against the regime.

Yet, these atrocities pale beside the genocide of 1988 when
Saddam Hussein made an attempt to apply a “final solution” against
the Kurds. Operation Al-Anfaal (The Spoils of War), named after
Sura 8 of the Koran, ravaged 4,000 Kurdish villages and claimed at
least 100,000 human lives. Five thousand inhabitants in the town of
Halabja fell victim to mustard and nerve gas attacks.

Despite the crushing defeat of the Iraqi army by the U.S. during
Operation Desert Storm in 1991, it remained strong enough to
slaughter 30,000 Kurds while smashing yet another Kurdish uprising
that flared up in the wake of the Gulf War. Soon, however, “no-fly”
zones were established in northern and southern Iraq, thus
effectively prohibiting Iraqi aircraft from infiltrating the area.
Unable to use its helicopters, the primary weapon against the
Kurdish guerillas, Baghdad realized it was powerless to control the
Kurds; Saddam withdrew all of his troops from the Kurdish
territories, except Kirkuk. Thus, in 1991 the Iraqi Kurds gained
their independence. Although officially Kurdistan is an Iraqi
autonomous province, it seeks no relationship with Baghdad, and its
border with Iraq is guarded by Kurdish peshmarga. Its
independence is fait accompli.

Iraqi Kurdistan is now divided into two parts: one, with the
capital town of Sulaimania, is under control of the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani. The other part, with the
capital town of Erbil, is ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party
and its leader Massoud Barzani, the son of the legendary Mustafa
Barzani. This split was caused by decades-long differences
centering around tactics, political alliances, etc. In the fall of
2002, a united parliament was convened, which adopted a draft
constitution of the Federal Republic of Iraq, recognizing Iraqi
Kurdistan as one of its regions. The draft declares Kirkuk, now
under Saddam’s control, the regional center. No mention is made of
the separation and formation of an independent state. The draft’s
central theme is this: “The Iraqi Kurds are as much Iraqi citizens
as Arabs. They want to live in a common state but under a new
regime and on the principles of federalism.” Turkey, plagued by
problems with their own Kurdish population, has already gone on
record as flatly dismissing the idea of an independent Kurdish

Although Iraqi Kurdistan can continue in its present quasi-state
condition for quite a while, this situation can hardly be
considered normal. In a post-Saddam Iraq, a strong Kurdistan can
become a full-fledged part of the future federation. But if the
incumbent Baghdad regime stays in power for a long period of time,
the Kurds will inevitably develop separatist sentiments.

When asked whether the ‘Afghan war scenario’ could be repeated
in Iraq if the U.S. begins a military operation in his country,
with the Kurds playing the role of the Afghan Northern Alliance,
Jalal Talabani provided an evasive answer. He stated that the Kurds
“favor changing the regime through comprehensive democratic
reforms, to be carried out by the Iraqi people with international
support… The Kurds will welcome U.S. military presence.” While
“opposing invasion,” the Kurds uphold the “principle of democratic
transformations, albeit with American assistance…”

However, it seems that the Afghan scenario is not replicable in
Iraq anyway. First, the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan were
preceded by a years-long civil war and a full-scale armed conflict
between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban regime. The war
between the Baghdad regime and the Kurds has long ended, therefore,
in order to employ the Afghan scenario it would probably be
necessary to rekindle this war. The Kurds would never agree to this
option since the stronger Iraqi army would crush them before the
American forces would have a chance to intervene on their side.
Second, the role of a match that kindles a huge fire would
undermine the Kurds’ relations with the Iraqi Arabs and the rest of
the Arab world who would view them as accomplices of “the hated
America.” The timing of American air strikes against Iraq with the
onset of military actions between the Kurds and Baghdad would have
a similar effect. If the Kurds agree to this role, they may have to
pay a high price for it in the post-war settlement, which is not
going to be easy to reach anyway.

Who Will Be Able To Govern Iraq?

There are presently many possible contenders from the Arab
oppositional parties to succeed Saddam Hussein: the London-based
Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Coalition, the
Iran-based Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq,
the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, and a group of Saddam’s army
generals who are presently living in exile.

Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, the
most influential ОmigrО organization, has a strong personality, yet
he has a slim chance of getting enough support inside Iraq. Even if
there is internal opposition in Iraq, he is unlikely to be endorsed
since he is considered to be one of those who “sit out bad times

For the former Iraqi generals now living in European and Mideast
countries the door to negotiations is closed because all of them
were involved in the operations against the Iraqi Kurds.

The Shiite leaders, led by Al-Hakim, enjoy enough support within
the Shiite community in Iraq, but their presence in the government
may provoke clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The history of relations between Iraq’s diverse ethnic and
religious groups has been dramatic enough. In Shiites’ eyes, as we
have said, the Sunni interpretation of Islam is heretical. In
addition, Sunnis are viewed as “usurpers” who took over power in
Baghdad from the Turks and imposed themselves upon the Shiite
majority. The temptation may be too great for some Shiites who have
many scores to settle with the Sunni officials who were appointed
by Baghdad to govern their territories.

The relationship between the Kurds and the Arabs has not been an
easy one. The Arab-populated territories of Iraq, with which the
Kurds have a common border, are predominantly Sunni. Although they
share one faith, the “pro-democratic” Sunni Arabs, should they turn
up, would be reluctant to return Kirkuk to the Kurds. Incidentally,
Kurds seem to have lost their predominance in the Kirkuk area due
to Saddam’s policy of transplanting Arabs from the south. They must
also take into consideration the growing and ever more vocal
population of Turkomans, an ethnicity of Turkic origin.

Today’s potential allies in the fight against Baghdad – the
Kurds and the Shiite Arabs – may cease to remain united if the
Shiites win a fair representation in a new government. They may
subsequently buy into Arab nationalism, together with its strong
anti-Kurdish sentiments. There is a strong possibility that the
Kurds, with their self-confidence and successful record of
opposition, could make the strongest appearance in any hypothetical
coalition government that will replace the Baath regime. By stark
contrast, Iraq’s Arab population, demoralized, intimidated and
confused, presents a desolate picture. Viable political forces with
a sound agenda, mature ambitions and broad public support do not
emerge overnight. There remains the high possibility that any
political vacuum will be filled by Islamists. (The looming danger
of “political Islam,” fundamentalist extremism and terrorism rising
in Iraq should not be disregarded.) In any case, the dominating
position of the Kurds in a would-be coalition is sure to meet with
resistance on the part of Arab society. The history of mankind has
demonstrated that any coalition, once its mission is complete,
often turns sour and degenerates into rivalry, especially when
ethnic ambitions are high on the agenda.

It is no accident that the international media have lately
spread news that the United States is planning to establish an
international protectorate over Iraq, including the deployment of a
multinational force, to prevent chaos and bloodshed. Some reports
allege that there are plans to make Iraq a “showcase of Arab
democracy.” Analogies are drawn with post-World War II Germany and
Japan where the presence of foreign troops helped to stamp out Nazi
and militaristic ideas and further democratization and the renewal
of society.

However, the Iraqis are perhaps not as rational and
self-disciplined as the Germans, who came to terms with the lost
war in 1945, renounced their Nazi past, and closed that particular
chapter in their history. Nor are the Iraqis noted for an
unquestioning loyalty inherent in the traditional Japanese
mentality. This unique quality allowed for an immediate and easy
about-face in Japanese history – from their readiness to die for
the Emperor to surrender and submission, by his order, to the
victors. But most importantly, the Iraqis would never view their
defeat as retribution for the sins and crimes they have committed.
They would blame the ensuing havoc, feuds and bloodshed on the
Americans, just as now they blame America, rather than Saddam, for
their poverty and suffering. As demonstrated by similar
developments in other countries, any dramatic period of change for
the people of a given region, which brings an end to their
accustomed stability and confidence, prompts them to forget the
transgressions of the overthrown dictatorship and induce feelings
of nostalgia for the old stability.

The current situation in Afghanistan clearly shows that military
intervention and change of regime are not enough to do away with a
totalitarian and terrorist past. The mentality and traditions of a
people, so tenacious in Muslim society, remain largely unaffected
by military and political changes.


Whichever scenario for settling the situation in Iraq is
discussed, Russia is usually assigned a minor role in it. Indeed,
the amount of levers at Moscow’s disposal to affect the situation
is rather limited. Any attempts to dissuade George Bush from
launching this war or exert pressure on him seem to be hopeless.
While Bush’s decision to use or not to use force against Iraq may
be subject to many factors, Russia’s position in this debate is not
really being taken into consideration. Yet, the outcome of this
conflict is of concern to Moscow, since it will have a direct
impact on Russia’s economy and politics, as well as on domestic and
foreign affairs issues.

In any case, every possible step should be taken to prevent a
military operation against the Baghdad regime that would not be
authorized by the UN Security Council. It should be noted in this
context that the Russian delegation to the Security Council, who
opposed an Anglo-American draft resolution on Iraq and who finally
agreed to have it ratified with numerous amendments, took the most
reasonable stand.

This resolution averted the war – at least for now – and
commissioned international inspectors to ascertain whether or not
Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, one should be prepared for a negative scenario,
that is, the onset of military actions by Washington and London
without a legal UN mandate.

In the event of war, Russia must face the situation with
equanimity and, on the other hand, it must not yield to the
temptation to step aside and wash its hands off Iraq. Russia, as a
great power, has vital political and economic interests in the
Middle East and it cannot afford to be excluded from the future
system of government in Iraq. The need for Russia’s involvement is
all the more pressing as it is also dictated by the interests of
the Iraqi people, whose future seems to be in a precarious state at
the moment.

Naturally, Moscow’s long record of support for Saddam Hussein
weighs heavily on the minds of those who are likely to replace the
incumbent regime in Iraq. Both the Kurds and dissident Arabs are
convinced that Russia went out its way to help Saddam with the
lifting of the UN sanctions against Iraq. But this factor in no way
affects the warm and friendly attitudes of the Iraqis toward Russia
and Russians. (Incidentally, many Iraqi Kurds, although
disappointed with Moscow’s pro-Saddam policy, still remember with
gratitude those Soviet specialists who provided assistance to the
Kurdish regions in the 1970s and the early 1980s.)

Economically, the Iraqis see in Russia an old, experienced and
time-proven partner, conversant (much better than America) with the
local customs, problems and needs of their people. Technologically
speaking, Russia stands somewhere in the middle, which makes it an
ideal fit for cooperation with the third world countries. Moreover,
there is no reason to suppose that it is only Saddam’s regime which
is able to accommodate Russia’s economic presence in the country –
especially after the Saddam Hussein government canceled a major
contract with the Russian LUKoil company in late 2002 for the
development of the giant West Kurna oil field.

In conclusion, it should not be forgotten that Moscow is
traditionally viewed as a counterbalance to Washington’s excessive
influence in the region. Total submission to the U.S. will not be
much of a temptation to any new Iraqi government. A new government
will require some latitude and an ability to pursue a future course
more befitting to the stature of a nation with a long and proud
history and a great potential. Implementing this course requires
trusting partners who would help Iraq pursue a balanced policy on
the international stage. This is exactly where Russia can be of
tremendous assistance. Iraq’s continued cooperation with Russia can
only be beneficial for both nations, even if the present situation
is not resolved in a manner agreeable to the international