The historians’ take on… the future of Iraq

Since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, sectarian violence has rocked Iraq, devastating security across much of the country. With ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) now fighting to establish a new caliphate across the region, what does the future hold for this troubled state? Two historians offer their verdicts... This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

01 Jul 2014, Ar Raqqah, Syria --- Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. Picture taken June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) --- Image by © STRINGER/Reuters/Corbis

Charles Tripp on the prospects of worsening conflict between Sunnis and Shias:

Religious differences have, of course, long existed in Iraq, including between different sects of Islam and Christians. But it’s been only at certain moments in history that they have underpinned power plays and fuelled murderous ideologies.

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In 20th-century Iraq there was a very strong modernist notion, common also in western countries, that religion was about superstition – a thing of the past. Though private belief systems were fine, the thinking went, the mark of a modern state was that it was not tied to religion or religious authorities.

Three forces encouraged the Iraqi people to think of themselves outside boundaries of religious identity: one represented liberal constitutionalist forms of social democracy; another was the Communist party, which was very strong at certain moments in Iraqi history; and the third was the Ba’ath party, led from 1979 by Saddam Hussein.

Then, in the 1990s, Saddam introduced a so-called ‘piety campaign’, largely as a response to the hardships cause by international sanctions and the bankruptcy of Ba’athism (which was secular, though the government was Sunni-dominated). Saddam reckoned that by turning the people’s attention to their spiritual wellbeing, they would somehow find the privations of everyday life – and repression in the political system – more bearable.

But this paved the way for the rise of what I would call religious or sectarian entrepreneurs, both inside Iraq and in exile. One of the great problems with the way Saddam ruled Iraq was that he devastated most of civil society – and, thus, the potential for ordinary kinds of opposition. The only opposition that survived was underground, through networks of family and community.

In the wake of the American invasion, these exiles – mainly Shia – returned to establish themselves as the dominant elite in Iraqi politics, leading in 2006 to the election of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. Transnational ideas of Shia or Sunni identity began to emerge.

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Saddam Hussein (centre right) in 1970 with Kurd leader Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani, whose dreams of an independent Kurdish state may now be realised. © Getty

The civil war that wracked Iraq during 2006 and 2007, largely based on sectarian or communal lines of antagonism, intensified this sense of identity. The equivalent of ethnic cleansing took place: across whole areas of Baghdad, members of the ‘wrong’ sect were forcibly evicted or killed. So if you were protecting your street, you relied on a militia that identified itself with your community – the only defence you could trust. But militias serve very particular political masters, not any institutions of the Iraqi state, so don’t improve the security of the nation as a whole.

It’s very telling that, since the beginning of June, the massive Iraqi army – there are now technically more men under arms than there were under Saddam – has just melted away. That’s one of the prices the al-Maliki government paid for using the army as a huge employment network, doling out jobs and pensions, and placing units under the command of people who were completely incompetent but were owed some kind of favour.

The great fear now is that the sectarian cleansing and massive population movements that have taken place recently won’t be forgotten but will be embedded in future relations between Iraqis, making interactions between different parts of Iraq highly problematic.

Charles Tripp is professor of politics at SOAS, University of London.

Toby Dodge on the possibility that Iraq may cease to exist:

Islamist radicals often claim that they are challenging the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This was a secret accord made in 1916 by British and French diplomats, with Russian assent, to dismember the Ottoman empire, first revealed when the Bolshevik revolution in Russia opened up the tsarist foreign ministry and published its documents.

The concept remains evocative across the Arab Middle East. It’s seen as a symbol of Anglo-French collusion that aimed to divide the supposedly unified geographical and religious space of the Ottoman empire into smaller units, which cunning imperialists could dominate.

At the end of the First World War, the British Army seized the Mosul vilayet (Ottoman administrative district), which is now in the Iraqi province of Nineveh. The new Turkish state did not recognise the occupation of that territory and its integration into Iraq. But after a League of Nations special investigation in 1925 – which saw intense British lobbying, canny diplomacy and some underhand tactics – Mosul was parcelled up with the new British mandate of Iraq, which is why today it is part of Iraq rather than Turkey.

It’s easy, then, to see why some insist that Iraq is a false state – a creature of empire. However, the borders of modern Iraq are not as defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which drew a nearly straight line dividing lands controlled or influenced by France (Syria and south-eastern Turkey) and Britain (now Iraq and Jordan). And evidence unearthed in the Ottoman empire archives in Istanbul clearly shows that a geographic entity referred to as Iraq was used as an organisational concept long before the British and French started drawing lines around the country.

Have Iraq’s national borders been challenged since then? The doctrine of pan-Arab nationalism, born in the late Ottoman period, questioned these boundaries. And after the formation of new states in the Middle East in the 1920s, there was a mobilisation of an urban intellectual class, damning the borders as imperialist impositions and trying to move towards a unitary state built around notions of an Arab nation – one that would largely mirror the Ottoman empire, but on a secular, nationalist basis. There have also been temporary unions, such as that between Syria and the Egypt of President Nasser.

However, ruling elites quickly realised that they would benefit more from the territorial states left behind by the European colonials than in greater unification. Crucially, since the 1940s, the vast majority of Iraqis, Syrians and Jordanians have identified with the state in which they live, giving their loyalty to their capital city: Baghdad, Damascus or Amman.

Now, of course, radical Islamists have called for a revival of the caliphate – an Islamic state spanning the region – claiming that sweeping away these modern states would result in a more culturally authentic organisation. That idea is as unsustainable as pan-Arab nationalist plans – if not more so – but, when the states of the region have failed their populations so miserably, it does have some resonance.

Is it possible to envisage the break-up of Iraq? Possibly, particularly in the Kurdish areas. You could argue that the Kurds were the great losers in the redrawing of borders when modern Turkey was created. Since then, Kurds have pushed for a separate state led by a Kurdish regional government, with its capital in Erbil. They are trying to distance themselves from the unitary state of Iraq – and may well succeed in achieving independence.

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Professor Toby Dodge is director of the London School of Economics Middle East Centre.