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A Nation in Search of a Strongman
Nir Rosen's Reflections on the State of Iraq as 2007 Draws to Close: Part 3 of 3
By NIR ROSEN 12/07/2007 11:53 AM ET
OCTOBER 3: Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki (R) speaks as Defense Minister Abdul Qadir looks on during a press conference on October 3, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Hadi Mizban/Getty
OCTOBER 3: Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki (R) speaks as Defense Minister Abdul Qadir looks on during a press conference on October 3, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Persistent rumors of a coup to replace Prime Minister Maliki circulated through Baghdad and DC throughout the year, but all failed to understand that Maliki had already become irrelevant.

One alternative the Americans hoped to provide was Ayad Allawi, the former Baathist and CIA collaborator appointed interim Prime Minister until the elections of 2005. Allawi reportedly engaged in numerous meetings with former Baathists in Jordan, London and Lebanon, working to rebuild the Baath party with the backing of Iraqi politicians such as Adnan al Dulaimi and Tariq al Hashimi--allegedly even with the support of the KDP’s Masud Barzani.

But no longer is Baghdad the only major city in Iraq, a locus of official power from which one person can rule the entire country. Today’s Iraq represents a collection of city states--Basra, Amarra, Ramadi, Kirkuk, Mosul, Erbil, Suleimaniya and others, each independent of the other.

Maliki may well be the last prime minister of Iraq. When he is run out there may be no new elections. They cannot run elections in Iraq anymore, and then the pretense of an Iraqi state will be over. It has become popular with former and current supporters of the war to blame the Iraqis for US failures. Americans like to say now that the Iraqis did not choose democracy, or Iraqis did not choose freedom, or the Iraqis have to decide to stop killing each other, or Iraqis have to “step up.” But this is dishonest and misplaces the blame.

Iraq is not Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other and America could pretend it had no role; Iraq is not Darfur, where wealthy Americans can feel like they have found a guilt free cause to turn to kitsch. Iraq had no history of civil war or sectarian violence until the Americans arrived. America caused the civil war. The flow of fighters into Iraq, of millions of refugees out of Iraq, the smuggling of weapons and even sheep, and the export of dangerous ideas such as sectarianism and jihadism demonstrate that the Iraqi civil war has become a type of regional conflict formation, which, according to Barnet Rubin and Andrea Armstrong of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, “are sets of transnational conflicts that form mutually reinforcing linkages with each other throughout a region, making for more protracted and obdurate conflicts.” Elements also include “the involvement of neighboring states, to the alliances of armed groups, to the operation of the transnational informal economy.” Rubin and Armstrong warn that “the collapse of some states within a region accelerates the regional spread of conflict.” I met Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, in his NYU office. “Iraq under Saddam created a kind of balance,” he told me, “it existed as a strong Sunni state that controlled its borders and acted as a separator between different regions. It kept Iran away from Shiite populations in the Gulf, it created more security in Turkey because Kurdish guerillas did not have a secure foreign sanctuary and you had a system of Arab states, all Sunni dictatorships based on inheritance. Then we destroyed this state, dismantled the army, destroyed the bureaucracy, then you wonder why people join ethnic militias.” Rubin was reminded of Afghanistan, where the arming of militias prevented the establishment of a government and led to foreign sponsorship of those militias. The surge was merely a way to kick the problem of Iraq down to the next US administration, though in all likelihood American soldiers will never leave Iraq. The large bases in the Anbar province such as al Assad and Taqadum were built for an “an enduring presence,” as one Marine officer told me. Located in the remote desert, impregnable and only occasionally targeted by mortars, these bases will remain for decades, but the Americans may eventually withdraw from the urban areas of Iraq.

Any real withdrawal from Iraq--through the treacherous roads of Anbar west to Jordan, or south past Shiite militias on the way to Kuwait, or even through the so-called Sunni triangle, Samarra, Tikrit or Mosul to Kurdistan or Turkey--would be a withdrawal under fire. Only ignominy for Americans and slaughter for Iraqis would remain.

The American occupation has proven more disastrous than the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the 13th century. Iraq’s human capital has fled--all its intellectuals, professionals, the educated, the moneyed classes, and moderate political elite. They will not return. Instead of creating a neoconservative utopia with a flat tax, a peace agreement with Israel and Ahmed Chalabi as the benign dictator, we have betrayed the hopes of all Iraqis who wanted a new start after Saddam, without Baathists or Americans. Only fools talk of “solutions” now, but there are no solutions, only hope that perhaps Iraq can be contained.

Read Part 1 from Wednesday, "Violence in Iraq Was Never Senseless," and yesterday's Part 2 "Reigns of Terror, Both Shiite and Sunni."

Nir Rosen is a freelance journalist currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. He has spent years reporting from Iraq, writing for a number of publications, including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Magazine, and authored a book on the Iraqi insurgency, Inside the Belly of the Green Bird.

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