Is There an Exit Strategy in Iraq?

Strategic Insider – 7 December 2006 

Is there an exit strategy in Iraq?

About 60 per cent of Iraqis are Arab Shia Muslims.  Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party had their power base in the Arab Sunni community, who account for another 20 per cent of the population.  The remaining 20 per cent are largely Kurdish, with some other minority ethnic groups such as the Turkoman.  This division of the population into ethnic and religious groups led to the regional governments of the area in the period of the Ottoman Empire.

It is surprising that the United States, in its obviously deficient post-war planning, paid so little attention to the possibility of a federal Iraq, with Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions.  In fact the Kurds have been able to maintain virtual independence in the post-war period.  Iraq would probably have become a federation, but for two problems.  Baghdad is a multi-ethnic city; whether or not one regards Iraq as being in a state of civil war, Baghdad certainly is.  There is no effective government outside the Green Zone, and the rate of casualties is very high.

The second problem is oil.  It would be possible to design a federation in which there was very little oil revenue for the Sunni areas, but plenty of oil money for Shia and Kurdish provinces.  That would be unacceptable to the Sunni and unworkable in Baghdad.

In one of his farewell messages, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has said that the ordinary Iraqi might well feel that things were better under Saddam Hussein himself than they are under a democratic government unable to control anarchy and terrorism.  Whenever the possibility of splitting Iraq into a federal system is suggested, the United States rejects it.  But there is an obvious temptation to look for a strong man.  This was one of the phases of the Vietnam War, when Washington hoped that General Diem could lead South Vietnam to victory against the North.  That project failed, and the Americans eventually had to lead a coup against their own strong man, in which Diem was killed.

Obviously, a strong man for Iraq would need to have some democratic credentials;  he would have to come from the Shia majority;  he would have to have some military force of his own, and some influence on the Iraqi army, which has been established under the elected Government.  No-one wants a strong man who is a loser.

On December 4th, President Bush held talks in the White House with Abdul Aziz-al-Hakim, a Shia leader who has many of these qualifications.  He is the leader of the supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, which has the largest group of Members of the Iraq Parliament.  He has ties to Iran, which has considerably influence on the Shia community of South Iraq.  He controls a militia of 25,000 members.  Above all he is not Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia militia who has caused such trouble to the United States.  For twenty years of the Saddam Hussein tyranny al-Hakim actually lived in Iran.

We do not know what the two men actually discussed, but there may, for the first time, be the outlines of a deal.  If al-Hakim can put together the support of the Shia, Iran, the United States and the elected government, he can be the strong man who can see off Moqtada al-Sadr, do a deal with the Kurds, take over the Iraq army, and restore some element of order.  That is a big shopping list, and it requires a rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.  But it might look very attractive to President Bush.

William Rees-Mogg

Strategic Insider – 7 December 2006

William Rees-Mogg

Leading political editor William Rees-Mogg is former editor-in-chief for The Times and a member of the House of Lords. He has been credited with accurately forecasting glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall – as well as the 1987 crash. His political commentary appears in The Times every Monday. His financial insights can only be found in the Fleet Street Letter, the UK's longest-running investment newsletter.

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