Talisman Gate

Friday, March 03, 2006

Divorce, Iraqi Style

March 2, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Divorce, Iraqi Style


March 2, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/28418

The unity of Iraq is not sacrosanct. Certainly it is no more hallowed than human life or the symbols of religious faith that vast numbers of people are attached to. National pacts and national identities are supposed to be utilitarian: creating a single unit out of composite groups for the common good. However, when unions result in an uncomfortable embrace, level-headed people should consider dismembering states that do not function well. The idea of keeping Iraq together even though Sunni and Shiite animosities may have crossed the point of no return is even more dangerous and unstable than the prospect of breaking up Iraq - at least as far as the Shiites are concerned.

The magnitude of the terrorist attack on the Samarra shrine last week cannot be explained to the uninitiated. What the world saw was a pile of broken bricks and mangled ironwork. Crumbling mortar and cracked azure tiles littered the scene, as well as gold-plated copper squares that used to adorn an oft-reconstructed dome. Dazed men were clambering over the debris, some holding up relics of some obscure saint. However, the world's Shiites saw the scene differently.

Imagine an international secret society comprising a quarter of a billion souls that sees itself as the eternal underdog and speaks in hushed whispers; hiding a revolutionary frenzy from the watchful spies of the tyrant. These are the myths that Shiites have created for themselves, and it is for these beliefs they have endured 1,300 years of oppression. Their solace found expression in mystical concepts of intercession by their beloved and martyred leaders, whose graves were portals into the sublime and hence onward to the divine. Their anguish and prayers would be vented in one-way communication with their awaited savior, the messiah or Mahdi, who is biding his time to reemerge and avenge his victimized flock.

All these deeply moving symbols were hit in Samarra. What Shiites saw in the heaps of debris was the destruction of this portal; a determined attempt by their enemies to cut them off from their origins. This was an attack at the very heart of a secret faith that has animated generation upon generation.

For now, the leaders of the faith, who are supposed to keep the seat warm until the Mahdi shows up, and who for the most part derive legitimacy as bearers of the legacy of those earlier leaders whose shrine was destroyed, are counseling restraint and reserve, and are being applauded for that by everyone. But if Iraqi Shias are being asked not to be sentimental about a 1,200 year old symbol, then why should they be sentimental about Iraq, a country and a national identity invented by non-Iraqis only 80 years ago?

Anyone who thinks that the storm has passed because the Samarra attack did not prompt an all-out civil war is probably unaware of the skewed logic of such uncivil bloodbaths. In every 20th century example, historians would look back to an event as a "trigger" for a civil war that went unacknowledged as such at the time of its occurrence. There is never a declaration of war, it always sort of meanders into raising the tolerance level for what counts as outrage; the origins are hazy and only in hindsight, after much burns to the ground, can one discern a pattern of a trigger. What is the magic number for casualties that would validate classifying a conflict with the label of "civil war"? How many Shias being killed for the sole reason of being Shias, and Sunnis suffering the same fate, does it take for all of us to realize that the concept of Iraq is no longer salvageable?

Shias would be perfectly justified in putting the dismemberment of Iraq on the negotiating table. They are being ushered by the Americans into a close embrace with a partner that refuses to be reconciled to power-sharing, as the voting patterns for Iraq's Sunnis in the constitutional referendum and the December elections demonstrate. There is every indication that the Sunni platform calls for the dismantling of all the changes that have occurred since April 9, 2003, when Saddam's regime - and many centuries of Sunni rule - collapsed. This is a foolish and unrealistic pipe dream, yet the Sunni leadership and populace in their vast majority seem wedded to this fantasy and are willing to continue fighting until they bring it about.

If the Sunnis are allowed to take a seat at the table and barter with the threat of further terrorism if their demands are not met, then the Shias should be allowed to make threats of their own - threats of separation where they would be assured of victory.

Some say that there are no winners in civil war, but that is just hogwash. The Sunnis are not only holding all the other communities back, but are seemingly taking delight in how the radicals among them are desecrating Shia lives and symbols. If this goes on unabated, there will be a bloody war, but it would be one that is advantageous for Shia: instead of being blown to bits in the marketplace, or picked out for execution from a random checkpoint, their casualties would be paid to establish a new border line from Fallujah to Samarra to Baquba and then east to Khaneqin that envelops the capital of Baghdad, where elections results showed they outnumbered Sunnis four to one, and hence they would inherit all the trappings of the Iraqi state, including its name. The Sunnis will be left with next to nothing and another war-front with the Kurds over Kirkuk and Mosul.

Dark and horrible repercussions like population transfers and massive human rights violations would likely follow, probably disproportionately paid by Sunnis, whereby a million of them would have to clear out of a new Shia Iraq. The train wreck of dealing with mixed households and property claims would be heartbreaking. The regional implications, whether concerning how Sunni regimes would react to Sunni anguish in Iraq, as well as stirring up Shia minorities in the Gulf who maybe interested in a loose confederation with their coreligionists now in power, and Turkish sensitivity to a Kurdistan that become independent by no fault of its own, would be massive. Iran would certainly move in to take over the new state. But all these would be America's problems; the Shias would emerge with the best possible deal.

Since the establishment of the Iraqi state, the Shias can be compared to a battered spouse holding the deeds to the house and the car while trapped in an unhappy marriage, knowing that she should end the union but sticking around for the sake of the kids. If anyone needs to romanced and appeased, they do. The Sunnis have shown bad faith, and are not even remorseful for what came before, whereas they should be promising the sky and the moon in a prenuptial agreement so that the Shias would take them back. Ayatollah Sistani, who is damping down the Shia backlash, is not going to be around forever, and the Americans will need to draw up contingency plans should, in light of continuing provocation from the Sunnis, the Shias decide to opt out of Iraq - an outcome that no one should blame them for. America can then choose between a Sunni state whose main export would be phosphates and desert truffles, or a Shia Iraq sitting on a lake of oil.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

March 2, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >