| Pro-Saddam demonstration in Yatta, Palestine
As the invaders tighten their stranglehold on Iraq, it is instructive to consider their promises and purposes, and the extent to which the world can expect fulfilment.
The battle for Kirkuk recalls the West’s repeated betrayal of the Kurds. Alan Clark, a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, was supposed to be a great champion of their cause. But mystery surrounded the money he raised for them. There was no mystery about the two young Kurds who were his links with the independence movement in Iraq. He called them Bean Kurd and Lemon Kurd, and they served food and drinks at his parties.
Another image comes to mind as Western commentators trumpet that with Saddam Hussein vanquished, a just settlement of the Palestine problem is at hand. This one is of a fictional Menachem Begin in The Fifth Horseman by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. When the American president tells him that Israel has no right to the West Bank which the United Nations gave to the Arabs in 1947 just as it gave the Jews land for their state, Begin interrupts, “I’m sorry, the United Nations did not give those lands, or any other lands, to the Jewish people. Those lands were given to the Jewish people by the God of our forefathers, once and forever.”
The president’s surprise that the Israeli should cling to an ancient religious legend in the thermonuclear age provokes another outburst. “That legend, as you call it, has sustained us, nourished, preserved us, united as a distinct people for 4,000 years. However difficult it may be for you to comprehend, Mr President, for a Jew to have the right to settle on this land, on any part of it, is as indispensable an attribute of his nation’s sovereignty as an American’s right to travel from New York to California.”
Fiction or not, that is Israel’s faith and conviction. It bears recalling at a time when America’s triumph is supposed to usher in a new chapter of democratic peace and economic reconstruction in west Asia. The Kurds are said to have won their spurs by wresting control of the northern no-fly zone. The Shias dutifully cheered the invader and kicked at fallen statues of Saddam. American propaganda implies that reward is at hand, and that all the demographic complexities that have harried Baghdad for more than eight decades will suddenly be wished away.
Let us suppose that the United States of America is inspired by the best of intentions for Iraqis, now that it has removed its bête-noire from power, devastated his cities, ravaged his country and slaughtered some of the best and finest of his people without finding even one of the weapons of mass destruction that was the ostensible cause of invasion. Let us suppose that minority groups like the Assyrians, whose ancestors came down like the wolf on the fold, and Turcomans with cousins in Anatolia are not numerous enough to obstruct a settlement. But what of the Shias, who comprise 55 per cent of the population, and control the area around Basra in the south' Or the Sunnis who are only 20 per cent but have held the levers of power ever since Britain created modern Iraq out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire'
A Shia state would be at odds with the surrounding Arab world. It might also reinforce Iran to the east, which already sits firmly astride George W. Bush’s axis of evil. An Iraqi Shia ayatollah has been waiting for years in Iran for a chance to cross the border in triumph and sweep away what remains of Saddam’s secular state in a tide of obscurantist passion, as Ruholla Khomeini did in Iran after the Shah. Like the taliban in Afghanistan, his followers could fill another vacuum created by the US. Iraq would really retreat then into the dark ages of fundamentalist absolutism.
Betrayed by one power after another ever since the treaty of Sevres promised them a sovereign homeland, the Kurds present an equally intractable problem. If idealism shaped statecraft, they would have become independent long ago. But the discovery of oil in Kurdish land changed everything. It was in Britain’s interest then to renege on Sevres and lump the Kurds with Iraq, then under a League of Nations mandate and a foreign monarch who owed everything to his masters in London. The US might have liked in more recent years to punish Baghdad (and Damascus) by prising a Kurdistan out of northern Iraq and parts of Syria. But Turkey’s military hackles rose ominously this week at the merest suggestion that by controlling Kirkuk, the Kurds might secure oil revenues and move a step closer to emancipation.
There is no way the US will jeopardize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern ramparts. Turkey may not be white enough for Europe — but it can be allowed to lord it over the likes of Bean Kurd and Lemon Kurd. The West resorts to a Panama or a Katanga only when the parent state is uncooperative. There is no reason now to encourage anyone to secede from a defeated Iraq.
As Henry Kissinger demonstrated, the real “perhaps only” usefulness of the Kurds to the US lies in being a thorn in the side of countries that the Americans want to punish. The Nixon administration paid them through Iran’s Shah to revolt against Saddam so as to tie down his armies which might otherwise have been deployed against Israel. When that danger passed, the Americans stopped their subsidy. The Clinton administration incited a Kurdish uprising and then backed out. That enabled Saddam to kill thousands of Kurds with the gas, chemicals and weapons the US had sold him during his war with Iran.
What then of Iraq' We are told it will be a democracy. Ahmed Chalabi, the only visible candidate, has not lived in the country since 1957. A Jordanian court convicted him of financial misappropriation. He emerged from exile to act as Washington’s contact man in leading the Kurds to a disastrous rebellion and death, and then melted away again. A Hashemite prince also lurks in the wings but even his family contests his right to a non-existent throne.
A real democracy would be the greatest surprise of all. Not a single west Asian ruler can claim a genuine electoral mandate. Some do have powerful populist support, and they are the ones America fears and resents most. Political reform in Baghdad would send shivers through Amman, Riyadh, Cairo and all those Gulf principalities where Washington’s allies and protégés hold court.
With so much real and potential contention, the US will probably go ahead with what it would have done anyway — install its own trusted lieutenant as pro-consul. The point of objection about that imperial fling is the likely incumbent. Jay Garner, a retired general and protégé of Donald Rumsfeld, is by all accounts fanatically supportive of Israel. It was Israel that whispered to the Americans that Syria was sending military supplies to Iraq. It was Israel that suggested that Saddam, his sons and high command were Bashar al Assad’s guests in Damascus.
Israel’s role in the war can only be guessed at. What needs no guessing is that with Saddam gone, Israel need not any longer even pretend to support the Oslo process. Bush’s so-called road map for a Palestinian settlement was bound to fall far short of the original vision. After Ariel Sharon has chopped and changed it, the road map will make the old apartheid South Africa’s cramped and crippled little Bantustans look like powerful sovereign empires. No wonder the Israelis, with full American backing, were so anxious to foist on Yasser Arafat a prime minister who would curtail his authority. The Palestine Authority will now have to be grateful for whatever crumbs the Israelis throw it.
Indeed, after the dereliction of Iraq, the Palestinians are the real losers in this war. Israel is the principal victor.