Post-Saddam Iraq: A Growing Threat to the Middle East (ARI)

Post-Saddam Iraq: A Growing Threat to the Middle East (ARI)

Theme: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a threat to peace and security in the Middle East. Now in the throes of a process of decomposition, the country could become a source of new and even more serious threats for the region and for the international system.

Summary: The Middle East is at a critical juncture. The change of regime in Iraq and inadequate planning of the post-war period are having devastating consequences for the country. Ethno-religious clashes and the use of violence to resolve the struggles for political and economic power are alarmingly commonplace in Iraq, but also in the Palestinian Territories and in Lebanon. The break-up of the balances of power, both in Iraq and on a regional level, could produce a general destabilising effect in the Middle East. The US is manifesting its limitations and its incapacity to control the situation. President Bush’s ‘new’ strategy is in fact not new at all, since it remains focused on military and ‘hard security’ aspects, shunning engagement in political processes to address the different regional conflicts. If the neo-conservative temptations to launch another preventive war against Iran become a reality, there could be a regionalisation of the Iraqi chaos. The international powers and regional actors must urgently act to ensure they are not to be dragged into an uncertain situation with a number of unpredictable outcomes.

Analysis: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a threat to peace and security in the Middle East. At the time, the attitude of the Iraqi leaders was expansionist, aggressive and revisionist, both at home and abroad. Only two neighbouring states (Jordan and Turkey) avoided direct or indirect Iraqi attacks. During his 24 years in power, Saddam attacked all the opponents of his regime: he not only repressed the Iraqi population in the north (Kurds) and south (Shias), but also many dissident Sunnis, including members of his own clan and party; he assassinated Sunni and Shia clerics; and attacked his eastern neighbour (Iran), southern neighbours (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) and his neighbour furthest away to the west (Israel). Despite employing terror against the population as a means of government, throughout the 1980s Saddam received Western support to contain Iranian ambitions to export the Islamic Revolution, although in 1991 he was expelled by force from Kuwait after occupying the country. His decisions and political folly brought suffering upon his people and exacerbated the feelings of frustration amongst the Arab populations.

The occupation of the country and the change of regime in 2003 do not seem to have eliminated the danger it represented for the region. Instead of becoming a stable State, an example of democracy and an ally of the US, as the neo-conservatives had predicted, Iraq is today a quasi-failed state, the country with the highest degree of internal instability in the region, a focus for ethno-religious radicalism and fertile ground for the advancement of violent and terrorists groups. The break-up of the balances of power, both internal and regional, has failed to lay the cornerstone of a new, more stable and more constructive order in the Middle East. The international powers and regional players must urgently act to ensure they are not dragged into an uncertain situation with a number of unpredictable outcomes.

Sectarianism and New Regional Disorder
Since the military occupation of Iraq in 2003, the country has been conspicuous as a source of new direct and indirect threats, not only for the Middle East, but also for the international system itself. The invasion of Iraq divided the international powers because of the unilateralist attitude of the war’s sponsors in acting beyond the boundaries of international law. Four years on, in the face of the evident failure of the neo-conservative doctrine, Iraq has become an even more serious cause of division. On the internal front, the country is imploding due to ethnic, sectarian and tribal fractures, which were exacerbated by the power vacuum left by the overthrow of the Baathist regime. Present-day Iraq is no longer a state, at least not in the manner it had been since independence. State institutions have become seriously weakened in the wake of more than a decade of international sanctions, the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime and the collapse caused by the decisions of the occupying forces.

On the regional front, the change of regime in Baghdad has seriously upset the power balances in the Middle East. The strategic position of all the regional actors has been altered. They are now engaged in a struggle to protect their own interests, to avoid potential threats, to dissuade their enemies and to increase their capacity to influence the new configuration of forces that is developing. The most immediate consequence of the break-up of the regional balances caused by the occupation of Iraq has been the increase in Iranian influence in the Middle East, as might have been expected of any scenario other than the ideal one for the US. Given that the mainstay of internal cohesion in Iran is the fact that practically the entire population belongs to the Shia branch of Islam, the rise of Shiism as an ethno-religious force is having repercussions on the rest of the Middle East, which has a majority Sunni population.

In Iraq, the ethno-religious conflicts are first and foremost a reflection of the competition for the sharing out of power, the distribution of oil revenues and the race to wield influence in an increasingly federal country. Many citizens and groups who peacefully co-existed for decades now display mutual distrust and, in the most extreme cases, hate and a desire for revenge. The hundreds of violent deaths per week in Iraq occur within a context of wide-ranging intimidation campaigns, with consequences akin to ethnic cleansing. The Iraqi institutions are proving incapable of protecting the population or guaranteeing essential services. In practice, the new police and Interior Ministry have become an extension of the armed militias and a political class which prioritises short-term personal and sectarian profit at the expense of more lasting national interests. The Sunnis accuse Nuri al-Maliki’s government of being an instrument at the service of the Shia militias, in particular the al-Mahdi army, led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and of Iran. Al-Maliki’s declarations to Il Corriere della Sera on 18 January affirming that Bush seemed to have ‘lost control of the situation’, are indicative of the divide that has appeared between the governments in Washington and Baghdad.

The sectarian and vengeful dramatisation of Saddam Hussein’s execution was confirmation that the new Iraq is not being built on the solid foundations of the rule of law. The time chosen for the execution –the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, in the middle of the pilgrimage to Mecca, and just hours prior to the wedding of Prime Minister al-Maliki’s son– would also seem to show that the government has not set national reconciliation as one of its main objectives. For many people, the sectarian provocations and haranguing of several witnesses to the execution and the subsequent unofficial dissemination of pictures of the hanging were evidence of the sectarian and cruel nature of the new Iraqi governing forces. Alongside Saddam’s defiance on the scaffold, these circumstances have made him into a martyr for many people in the region, especially since Israel and Iran both displayed their happiness at the execution.

Iraq has become the laboratory for a process of disintegration that could be catastrophic if it were to affect the region as a whole. Given the extension of violence and insecurity throughout large swathes of the country, many people find themselves obliged to seek refuge and support by making recourse to their most primordial identities (ethnic, religious, tribal, etc.) as a means of group cohesion and solidarity. The increase in insecurity, instability and uncertainty in different parts of the Middle East means that the ‘identity’ factor is becoming one of the bases for the balance of forces in the new Middle East. As witnessed in Iraq, the ‘identity’ factor can lead to the use of extreme sectarian violence, both for asserting the authority of the majority over minorities and in resistance on the part of the latter against the former. Conflicts acquire their own dynamics due to the combination of both types of sectarian violence, meaning that external intervention is not necessarily required for them to extend.

In view of the divisions and sectarian confrontations, some commentators have referred to the ‘Lebanization’ of Iraq. Against the backdrop of a highly volatile regional climate, and comparisons with the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) notwithstanding, the exporting capacity of current internal destabilisation in Iraq is much greater than it was in Lebanon due to factors including the country’s strategic value, its position as an oil producer and the international dimensions that the conflict has acquired. In Lebanon itself the civil confrontation has been re-lit and in the Palestinian Territories an armed struggle is taking place –fomented from the outside, despite the recent ceasefire– between the factions competing for control of the battered Palestinian Authority. An additional factor to be taken into consideration, which did not exist during the Lebanese Civil War, is the jihadist movement, a global threat which draws strength from situations of crisis and lawlessness.

Violence and Revision of the Status Quo
Given the advance of Shia power in the Middle East, there is a risk that some Sunni countries (in particular Saudi Arabia) will offer unconditional support to insurgents in Iraq who are fellow Sunnis, something which would lead to a new proxy war, this time between Iran and Saudi Arabia, on Iraqi soil. The fact that such a conflict might occur along ethno-religious dividing lines ought to be a cause for concern for countries with significant Shia minorities, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (75% of the population of the oil-rich Eastern Province) and Bahrain, which has a majority Shia population. The repercussions could also extend to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, with religiously diverse societies. Likewise, the ethnic aspirations arising from the increase in Kurdish power in Iraq are feeding the activism of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran; something that might lead to clashes with the central governments.

At the end of 2004, in referring to the formation of a ‘Shia crescent’ in the Middle East, stretching from Tehran to Beirut, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of the threat of sectarian tensions as a result of the invasion of Iraq. The incendiary and populist speeches of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his instrumental use of the Palestinian cause have set the alarm bells ringing in regard to Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony. Recourse to the ethno-religious factor threatens the possible emergence of a Shia ‘Petrolistan’, with Iran at the hub, which would run through Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, Bahrain and southern Iraq.

Facing growing difficulties in the Middle East, the US Administration appears tempted to support its local allies in their use of force in confronting their political opponents (the Palestinian President against the Hamas government, the Lebanese Prime Minister against Hezbollah and, if possible, the Iraqi Prime Minister against the Sadrist Movement), without simultaneously facilitating solutions to the political problems (peace negotiations, agreement on constitutional reforms, etc). This support could propagate civil clashes in which all sides emerge as losers, and also clear the way for other regional players to lend their support to ‘revisionist’ groups. Some Arab observers have gone further in warning of a possible plan to replace the Arab-Israeli conflict with an Arab-Iranian or Sunni-Shia confrontation, as a way of engendering a new regional balance that would be a safeguard against the rise of competitors for Israel.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to explain regional alliances solely in terms of the ‘identity’ factor. Temporary alliances have recently appeared between revisionist sectors belonging to different ethno-religious groups. In Lebanon, General Aoun (Maronite Christian) has forged an alliance with Hezbollah (Shia) to overthrow the government headed by Siniora (Sunni). In the Palestinian Territories, the government of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas (Sunni; born out of the Muslim Brotherhood), can count on the affections of the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Shia), despite the fact that in Jordan and Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has condemned the destabilising Iranian interference in Iraq. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian front, both Israel and Iran have an interest in creating a climate to foment civil confrontation. From Israel’s point of view, the clashes between Palestinians make them even weaker, delaying the recommencement of the peace negotiations. From an Iranian standpoint, the country’s capacity to exert an influence on the conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine elevates it to the category of a regional power essential in negotiating solutions. If one thing is clear about the complex Middle-Eastern panorama, it is that all the conflicts are interconnected and that simplistic explanations are of little help in understanding the region’s dynamics.

As early as September 2002, the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa, warned that the invasion of Iraq ‘would open the gates of hell’ in the Middle East. Events have proved that his forecast was certainly not inaccurate. At the recent Davos World Economic Forum, Moussa again alerted that ‘if there were to be a war [against Iran], other genies would get out of the bottle. You cannot imagine the impact on the Gulf countries, on the Mediterranean’. There is a risk of sectarian violence spreading throughout the Middle East, and of this strengthening the transnational jihadist movements. This would not contribute to ‘draining the swamps of radicalism’.

The Metastasis of Jihadism
Iraq has become a pole of attraction and battlefield for jihadists who want to reshape the Middle East and believe that they have the possibility of inflicting a military, political and moral defeat on the American superpower. With the White House having established Iraq as a central element of the so-called global war on terror, despite the inexistence of links between the Baathist regime and al-Qaeda, this would appear to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to different reports by US federal agencies, such as the National Intelligence Estimate, the Iraq war has created fertile ground for recruitment and training of jihadist terrorists, and has also provided them with the opportunity to perfect their tactics, communication lines and ideological discourse.

Insistence on the ethno-religious nature of the regional conflicts and the imminent Shia threat is mobilising the Sunni jihadists to go to Iraq to fight against the interference of the ‘Safavid apostates’ from Iran and to support the Sunni Arab population. This might allow the US troops to take a breather in the short-term, but it must not be forgotten that al-Qaeda’s objectives include bringing down the Saudi regime, as well as other governments allied to the US. At the end of the day, a very high price might be paid for all initiatives which include reinforcing the role of radical sectors in order for them to combat the enemies of the West. Western and Arab support for the Taliban and for al-Qaeda in their struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and also Israeli support for the creation of Hamas in the 1980s as a counterweight to the PLO, should serve as a lesson on the long-term danger of these practices.

The terrorism being generated in Iraq knows no red lines and, to differing degrees, is affecting the Arab Sunni and Shia populations, and also the Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc. The danger for neighbouring countries, and even for those further afield, such as the European nations, is that fighters who have gained experience in Iraq as members of armed groups and urban guerrilla outfits will eventually transfer their activities outside the country, as occurred with the Arab mujahidin who fought against the USSR in Afghanistan. It is calculated that the sectarian violence and systematic ethnic cleansing taking place within the country have led to over three million internally displaced persons and Iraqi refugees abroad, mainly in Syria and in Jordan. This situation entails risks for neighbouring countries, as it exposes them to possible problems of coexistence, insecurity, crime and, above all, jihadism caused by the arrival of some conflictive refugees.

Neo-conservatives and the Flight Forwards
The neo-conservatives have failed in their project of making Iraq a model pro-Western democracy for all the countries of the so-called Greater Middle East and to transform the region into a less inhospitable environment for their Israeli ally. It is hard to imagine that many Arab citizens would want to be ‘liberated’ from their authoritarian systems following the Iraqi model. It cannot be said that Iraq is today a freer, more democratic country or that it has greater social cohesion than under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. One direct consequence of the neo-conservatives’ failure is that American initiatives to promote democracy have been deeply discredited just a few years after their launch.

With a provisional balance of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, over 3,000 American military deaths and 20,000 casualties, and with the economic cost of the war now standing at over US$350 billion, the superpower is showing signs of weakness and relative impotence in Iraq. At the same time, as surveys such as the Pew Global Attitudes Project indicate, the image of the US has suffered a serious deterioration on an international level, even amongst its closest allies. Other countries with hopes of increasing their power, such as China and Russia, are observing how Iraq has become a trap for the US, whose forces, economy, image and morale are suffering.

The ‘new Iraq strategy’, announced by President Bush on 10 January, essentially consists of increasing US military presence in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops, largely in Baghdad and the surrounding area; reinforcing the naval presence in the Persian Gulf; strengthening the al-Maliki government and counting on its hypothetical support for confronting the insurgents and political forces opposing the occupation; and, lastly, counting on the support of the Arab allies for the Iraqi government. This strategy, which is not as new as its name would suggest, remains focused on military and ‘hard security’ aspects, shunning the use of political processes to solve the different regional conflicts, despite the fact that in his speech Bush spoke of ‘stabilising the region’, of ‘rallying support for Iraq’ and of ‘advancing liberty across a troubled region’. Serious limitations to the central elements of this strategy have already been demonstrated in the past. Even in military terms, the increase in troops is insufficient to turn the situation around. This strategy confirms the one-track vision of the present US Administration, which continues to favour military methods to the detriment of engagement in political processes to achieve change; an approach which goes against the grain of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Report.

Just as the US Administration’s strategy for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on something that was inexistent (weapons of mass destruction), the strategy presented in 2007 is also based on something that does not currently seem to exist: apolitical Iraqi security forces serving the whole of the citizenry. The country is presently bereft of a reliable central authority or state institutions to exercise a monopoly on legitimate violence. The infiltration of members of militias and armed groups, mainly Shias, in the security forces has made it impossible for the latter to play a constructive role in cementing social peace and national reconciliation. Even if political willingness exists, it will be very difficult to purge the police corps of militia members and sectarian elements in the near future.

One of the American Administration’s political objectives with this strategy consists of playing for time in the final quarter of George W. Bush’s presidency. It is hoped that there will be a period of apparent calm, especially in Baghdad, during which the intensity of suicide attacks, bombings and assassinations will diminish. There is nothing to ensure that this strategy, essentially military, will be sustainable over time, that the Iraqi leaders will cooperate with the enthusiasm that Washington wants, or that the hoped-for period of calm will not be used by the armed groups to gather strength.

One significant point in Bush’s speech was that he made no mention of any initiative for solving the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and that he failed to link those conflicts to the Iraqi situation or to the upsurge in terrorism. Given the lack of tangible results, the meeting of the quartet (the US, the UN, Russia and the EU) which took place in Washington on 1 February probably represents no more than a cosmetic gesture on the part of the US Administration at a moment when it needs the support of its Arab allies inside Iraq and against Iran. Countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are facing an unenviable situation. Factors such as the US abandonment of diplomacy for solving Arab-Israeli conflicts, its unconditional support for Israeli military operations in Lebanon and Gaza, and the that fact that it is turning a blind eye to reductions in freedom in the region have generated negative perceptions amongst Arabs and undermined Washington’s credibility, thereby increasing the level of internal opposition which its Arab allies have to confront.

What Can be Done to Halt the Deterioration?
The US has limited options for redirecting the conflict in Iraq and avoiding the rapid deterioration of the regional situation. In order to have any possibility of success, any American policy for Iraq that is genuinely new must address the political origins of internal and regional conflicts, as well as the interconnections between them. Certain of the key points for pacifying Iraq and improving the US position in the Middle East are included in the aforementioned Baker-Hamilton Report. They include revitalising the Arab-Israeli peace process, negotiating with Iran and Syria, rejecting the division of Iraq into three countries, using political negotiations to promote national reconciliation, sealing an agreement on the distribution of oil revenues, providing security and services to citizens, purging the security corps of sectarian elements, stopping corruption, reaching an agreement on Kirkuk, reinserting the Baathists, granting a wide-ranging amnesty and negotiating the orderly withdrawal of US troops.

Both together and individually, Iran and Syria are part of the problem that the US faces in the Middle East. Precisely because of this they also have to form part of the solution, and communication channels must be maintained with them. In principle, all Iraq’s neighbouring countries have two interests in common: preventing the conflict from spreading to them and avoiding the destabilising effects of a possible partition of the country. It is now more necessary than ever to hold an international conference, with the participation of the great powers and the six countries which border Iraq, in order to seek points in common and shared interests, along the lines of the International Support Group proposed in the Baker-Hamilton Report. The absence of political negotiations, the profound distrust and lack of communication, especially between the US and Israel, on the one hand, and Iran and Syria, on the other, means that these countries are preparing for the worst-case scenario, in spite of the fact that at the outset this may not be the most likely outcome. Up to now, conventional and non-conventional deterrence capabilities have prevented open confrontation between these countries. However, the ‘worst case scenario’ could become a new self-fulfilling prophecy, with disastrous consequences affecting not only the direct participants.

Conclusions: Iraq is today a country in the throes of a process of decomposition. Four years on, the balance of the occupation of Iraq could not be more sombre. Large tracts of the country are submerged in chaos, and guerrilla factions and armed groups are operating independently of the State, and even infiltrating its institutions. Worryingly, the sources of instability are spreading throughout the Middle East. Ethno-religious confrontations and the use of violence in the struggles for political and economic power are occurring with alarming frequency in Iraq, but also in the Palestinian Territories and in Lebanon. The regionalisation of the Iraqi conflict is no longer unimaginable.

The Iraq strategy presented by Bush on 10 January remains focused on military and ‘hard security’ aspects, shunning engagement in political processes as a means of addressing the different regional conflicts. Serious limitations to the central elements of this strategy have already been demonstrated in the past. Except for unexpected surprises, the Bush strategy will reiterate the failure of the neo-conservatives’ project to reshape the Middle East, contrasting with their success in generating instability within and beyond the region. As ‘a failed state’, Iraq may be a greater threat to international peace and security than it was under Saddam Hussein.

Haizam Amirah Fernández
Senior Analyst, Mediterranean and the Arab World, Elcano Royal Institute