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Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence
Select Committee Report (17 December 2002)
Memorandum from Charles Tripp, Reader in the Politics of the Middle East, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
REPORT ON THE FUTURE OF IRAQ
1. Current speculation about US-led military action to overthrow Saddam Husain, suggests that regime change in Baghdad is more likely to be brought about in the near future by external intervention than by internal conspiracy. What might follow from such a military action is the subject of this report. Obviously, there is much that may occur that cannot be predicted. However, the occupying power would still have to work through the existing forces of Iraqi political society, some openly opposed to the current regime, some closely allied to it and others deeply ambivalent about the kind of regime Saddam Husain has constructed in Iraq.
2. The idea that the current regime in Baghdad can only be overthrown by a US-led military invasion is a testimony to the weakness of those Iraqi forces opposed to the current regime. The failed popular uprisings of 1991, the failed assassination attempts and military conspiracies during the 1990s and the parochial concerns of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north have shown the limits of opposition within Iraq.
3. In the event of a full-scale US-led invasion of Iraq, could one expect things to be very different? An invasion could act as a catalyst for disaffected officers in Iraq's security forces to turn on the regime of Saddam Husain. Given their history and their situation within the present regime, successful action is most likely to come from within the elite forces of the Republican Guard. Recruited largely from the tribal groupings of the Sunni Arab northwest and officered in large part by men drawn from allied clans of the al-Bu Nasir (Saddam Husain's tribe) from the region of Tikrit, these formations are very much part of the regime they are expected to overthrow.
4. However, they are also riven by the factionalism, personal and clannish rivalries and jostling for advantage that have been so characteristic of this regime's patronage system. They are also aware that they are better placed than others to bring about change. A US-led invasion—or possibly even the threat of such an invasion—promising an outcome as devastating for the Iraqi armed forces as that which they endured in Kuwait, could lead senior officers to act.
5. They might act to prevent the regime from unleashing weapons of mass destruction, as it would certainly be tempted to do if the heart of power was in danger. However, they would also be acting to ensure that they and their kind—officers and the networks of the Sunni Arab elite—would continue to have a decisive role in Iraqi politics. Their action would therefore be pre-emptive, underlining their utility to the new occupying power and preventing the dominance of those Iraqis whom successive US administrations have been courting for the past few years: the Kurds, some of the Shi'a, self-declared liberals, democrats and communists, exiled military officers with their own agendas and networks.
6. Whether such a last minute revolt does take place or whether US-led forces occupy Baghdad unaided, the occupying power would face similar problems. In essence, these would come down to two related questions:
(1) how far could the US and its allies, or indeed the United Nations, go in refounding the Iraqi state and its politics ?
(2) on which existing Iraqi actors could outside forces rely in seeking to implement its project ?
7. Actual outcomes will depend upon any number of factors which cannot sensibly be predicted at this point. However, it is worth considering the dilemmas that will face an occupying force as it vacillates between two positions best characterised as "micro-management" and "laissez-faire", respectively.
8. "Micro-management" would entail a sustained effort on the part of the occupying power to refound Iraqi politics. This would have to involve not simply the public state institutions, but also the notorious "shadow state" of Iraq—that is, the networks of power, patronage, and expectation which lie behind and operate through the public institutions. It would mean bringing new values into Iraqi public life and backing these with power sufficient to ensure that they were seen to work at all levels over a period of some five to ten years.
9. Two immediate problems become apparent in such a scenario. First, there is the absence of Iraqi allies with sufficient social clout and determination to carry such a project through. None of the present Iraqi opposition forces is suited for this role. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) can command considerable numbers, but only in Kurdistan where their rivalry and their political methods stand in stark contrast to their declarations in support of open government. The Shi'i Islamist parties al-Da'wa and those grouped around Sayyid Bakr al-Hakim in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) enjoy a certain following within Iraq, but their advocacy of political leadership by clerics has alienated many among the majority Shi'a. The other smaller parties associated with the opposition, both within the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and outside it—leftists, constitutional monarchists, liberals and others—have little or no following in Iraq and some have shown a weak attachment to the idea of democratic accountability.
10. Adherence to the rules of a distinctively Iraqi political game by virtually all players provides the second major challenge to the occupying power. The hostility of those threatened by the abandonment of the old rules could lead to formidable resistance. This would come not simply from the residual elites of the state over which Saddam Husain had presided, but also from those who feared that a new order would turn their worlds upside down. For some, the fear would be domination by the majority Shi'a of Iraq. Ironically, for many of the most organised amongst the Shi'a—the Islamist parties—the danger would be the introduction of a secular politics in which they would have little say. For others, transparency, accountability and the idea of truly public service would carry the threat that accumulated privileges would be stripped from them and their patrons.
11. Resistance would not necessarily be violent, at least not initially. It is more likely to take the form of subversion of the "democratising project", if that is what the occupying power truly seeks to create. This could be subverted in any number of ways. Opening out the political space in Iraq after decades of oppression will lead to the paying off of old scores and to a revival of sharply opposed views of Iraq's future. The risk of open conflict in such a heavily armed society will tend to privilege the role of the security forces.
12. The US and its allies will need to train and arm security forces to maintain order, almost certainly building on the existing overdeveloped structures of the Iraqi state. This will reinforce the informal networks which already bind many of these individuals to each other, making them representative of a certain sector of society—generally the Sunni Arab northwesterners—and a certain authoritarian disposition. It will underline, once again, the indispensable nature of the security forces in the governance of Iraq.
13. In addition, there are also the corrosive effects of Iraq's political economy on forms of democratic accountability. Here, the role of Iraq's oil income will be decisive. It constitutes the prize for those competing for power, under American protection or otherwise. It also reinforces the centralising, authoritarian aspects of the economy, as well as the development of forms of patronage which grant to those disbursing the oil revenues enormous political power.
14. In the face of this reassertion of many characteristic features of Iraqi political society—clannishness, patron-clientelism, coercive intimidation—the occupying power may find itself with allies in Baghdad who are no more than clients. Ironically, the occupying power would have been manoeuvred into playing a role which would be functionally not far removed from that of the present regime in Iraq. It would be the patron, armed with overwhelming coercive force and financial resources, which would be relying upon its subordinates to `deliver' social order in Iraq.
15. This could invite two kinds of response. Domestically, there will be a temptation either to eliminate or intimidate the chief clients of the occupying power. Competition for the favour of the centre would be no less fierce than it has always been, with rival factions—for the most part bearing little resemblance to the organisations formed in exile during the past decades—jostling for position and for a chance to exercise power. Violence would be part of the game, directed both at the occupying power and its clients.
16. Regionally, such a situation would invite intervention by various regional states. Some, such as Iran, would be concerned about the very presence of the US in Iraq. Others, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Syria would be concerned about the influence exercised by regional rivals or, in the case of Turkey in particular, by developments in Kurdistan. This is unlikely to lead to conventional intervention (except perhaps in the case of Turkey) nor to the break up of the state of Iraq. More probable is the development of proxy conflicts and the sponorship of individuals and parties in the Iraqi political game to ensure that regional states' interests would be protected and that the ambitions of their regional rivals, or indeed of the US could be held in check. For Iraqis already weakly attached to the idea of a national politics, the temptation to look to regional powers for such sponsorship would be great, in part to counter the influence of the occupying power and its clients. The `spoiler' role played by such proxy conflicts could be harmful to any idea of reconstruction.
17. In such circumstances, it is more than likely that the occupying power will veer towards a `laissez-faire' role in which it will accept de facto the power structures of Iraqi political society, many of which would be recognisable from Iraq's recent past. Thus, the armed forces and security services which can guarantee order would be recognised. With this would come recognition of much of the informal politics of Iraq—communal, tribal and ethnic—which has exercised such power over Iraqi society and which might be able to find more open expression under the relaxed rules of an initially tolerant military oligarchy. A number of the political organisations which have given expression to such politics—Kurdish, Turcoman, Assyrian, Shi'i—would play prominent roles, competing with each other for communal representation, rather than seeking to dominate the state.
18. As in previous eras, the state would become the arena for uneasy competition between newly founded coalitions combining both civilian interests and factions operating within the armed forces. Proclaiming the ideals of an Arab and an Iraqi nationalism, the struggle would be, as ever, for control of the state and its massive resources. How the competition develops will depend upon a number of unknowable factors.
19. However, the advantage will tend to lie with those who can command the military. Apart from having the means of coercion in their hands, they could also claim to bring a certain order to Iraq out of the potentially fractious scrum of communal politics—a communal politics that could lend itself, as ever, to regional interference by Iran and Turkey in particular. They would also have the advantage that they too might be able to rely on social networks of solidarity particular to the tribal identities so heavily represented within the Iraqi security forces. As ever, they could present a plausible fac"ade of stability, at least in the short-term, and appear to guarantee the independence of the state from regional intervention.
20. For the occupying power, losing patience with the turmoil and unpredictability of Iraqi politics and uneasy about the scale of resistance it might encounter in trying to refound the state, recognition of such a government could be a welcome relief. The fact that it would look remarkably like one of the precursors to the regime which produced Saddam Husain—and would emerge out of similar circumstances—might only cause a momentary twinge of concern.
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
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