Fighting Words

The Real Sunni Triangle

There are only three options in Iraq.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The ructions on the periphery of the Saudi lobby in Washington—over whether Saudi Arabia would or should become the protector of its Sunni brethren in Iraq —obscures the extent to which what might or could happen has actually been happening already. The Sunni insurgents currently enjoy quite a lot of informal and unofficial support from Saudi circles (and are known by the nickname “the Wahabbis” by many Shiites). Saudi Arabia has long thought of Iraq as its buffer against Iran and for this reason opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein and would not allow its soil to be used for the operation. Saudi princes and officials have long been worried by the state of opinion among the Shiite underclass in Saudi Arabia itself, because this underclass—its religion barely recognized by the ultra-orthodox Wahabbi authorities—happens to live and work in and around the oil fields. Since 2003, there have been increasing signs of discontent from them, including demands for more religious and political freedom.

In 1991, which is also the year when the present crisis in Iraq actually began, it was Saudi influence that helped convince President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to leave Saddam Hussein in power and to permit him to crush the Shiite intifada that broke out as his regime reeled from defeat in Kuwait. If, when reading an article about the debate over Iraq, you come across the expression “the realist school” and mentally substitute the phrase “the American friends of the Saudi royal family,” your understanding of the situation will invariably be enhanced.

Many people write as if the sectarian warfare in Iraq was caused by coalition intervention. But it is surely obvious that the struggle for mastery has been going on for some time and was only masked by the apparently iron unity imposed under Baathist rule. That rule was itself the dictatorship of a tribal Tikriti minority of the Sunni minority and constituted a veneer over the divisions beneath, as well as an incitement to their perpetuation. The Kurds had already withdrawn themselves from this divide-and-rule system by the time the coalition forces arrived, while Shiite grievances against the state were decades old and had been hugely intensified by Saddam’s cruelty. Nothing was going to stop their explosion, and if Saddam Hussein’s regime had been permitted to run its course and to devolve (if one can use such a mild expression) into the successorship of Udai and Qusai, the resulting detonation would have been even more vicious.

And into the power vacuum would have stepped not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, each with its preferred confessional faction, but also Turkey, in pursuit of hegemony in Kurdistan. In other words, the alternative was never between a tranquil if despotic Iraq and a destabilizing foreign intervention, but it was, rather, a race to see which kind of intervention there would be. The international community in its wisdom decided to delay the issue until the alternatives were even fewer, but it is idle to pretend that Iraq was going to remain either unified or uninvaded after the destruction of its fabric as a state by three decades of fascism and war, including 12 years of demoralizing sanctions.

The disadvantage of an American-led intervention, it might be argued, was that it meant the arbitration of foreigners. But the advantage was, and is, that these foreigners at least have a stake in the preservation of a power-sharing system. Iraq has only three alternatives before it. The first is dictatorship by one faction or sect over all the others: a solution that has been exhausted by horrific failure. The second is partition, which would certainly involve direct intervention by all its neighbors to secure privileges for their own proxies and would therefore run the permanent risk of civil war. And the third is federalism, where each group would admit that it was not strong enough to dictate terms to the others and would agree to settle differences by democratic means. Quixotic though the third solution may seem, it is the only alternative to the most gruesome mayhem—more gruesome than anything we have seen so far. It is to the credit of the United States that it has at least continued to hold up this outcome as a possibility—a possibility that would not be thinkable if the field were left to the rival influences of Tehran and Riyadh.

I once heard U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad say that he was surprised by how often the different factions in the Iraqi parliament (the very existence of which, by the way, is itself a miracle) would come to him and ask his help as a broker. It was often possible to perform this role to some extent, he went on to say, as long as each group understood that it could not get what it wanted by force. The necessary corollary of this, though, was that nobody believed they could drive the U.S. presence out of the country.

The unspoken corollary of that,however, was that nobody believed that the Americans were going to withdraw suddenly or of their own accord. In that event, each group would immediately start making contingency plans—such as soliciting foreign support—to grab what it could from the impending scramble. The danger now is that all parties in the region are setting their watches and presuming that all they need to do is wait out the moment. This almost automatically dooms any negotiations that are currently being conducted. So the effect of the “realist” doctrine is to heighten the chances of destabilization and extremism. This is surely not what such vaunted elder statesmen as James Baker and Henry Kissinger can possibly have intended?