Iraq Backgrounder: What Lies Beneath
Iraq Backgrounder: What Lies Beneath
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Middle East Could Still Explode
The Middle East Could Still Explode
Report / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

Iraq Backgrounder: What Lies Beneath

This background report reviews the mechanics of Saddam Hussein’s rule, looks at the political dynamics that govern relations between religious and ethnic entities, and describes the various opposition groups and their potential role.

Executive Summary

This background report reviews the mechanics of Saddam Hussein’s rule, looks at the political dynamics that govern relations between religious and ethnic entities, and describes the various opposition groups and their potential role. It does not seek to predict the course of events in Iraq or to argue for any particular course of action. This is the first in a series of reports and briefing papers that ICG intends to issue on the challenges posed by Iraq,[fn]This report is based on extensive fieldwork in central Iraq in 2001 and on more recent interviews in Iraqi Kurdistan (August 2002), as well as among the Iraqi opposition in exile in Iran (August 2002), London (January and June 2002) and Damascus (February 2002).Hide Footnote  including the state of the country more than a decade after the Gulf War; regional attitudes toward a possible U.S. military offensive; the status of Iraqi Kurdistan; and Iran’s posture toward a U.S.-led war and Iraq after Saddam Hussein.

While much public attention has been focused on the prospects of a war and how it might unfold, far less has been devoted to the question of Iraq’s future – with or without a military confrontation. Yet the challenges of building a new political order may be no less than those of tearing an old one down – particularly in the case of a country emerging from a long period of authoritarian rule. Understanding the nature of the challenges that might emerge in the future requires understanding the nature of the current regime and of the underlying tensions and fault-lines within Iraqi society at large. From commentators and policy-watchers several very different scenarios emerge:

  • One tends to see in the efforts by the Iraqi opposition to unify around a common pluralistic and federalist platform and in the Iraqi people’s aspiration for a different kind of regime the possibility of building a stable and democratic Iraq.
  • Another focuses more on the tensions between Kurds and Arabs, between Shiites and Sunnis and between tribes; on the prospects for bloodletting and score-settling by Iraqis who have suffered long years of dictatorship; and on the risks of meddling by Iran, Turkey or Syria, and paints a far more worrisome picture of civil war and chaos.[fn]Major-General Saad Obeidi, who prior to defecting was in charge of psychological warfare, predicted that “Given Iraq’s 40-year history of repression, it is highly likely that blood will fill the streets”. Quoted in David Isenberg, “The Aftermath”, Asia Times, 3 August 2002.Hide Footnote
  •  A third imagines a continuation of authoritarian rule under a new guise, the result of a coup by Saddam Hussein's inner circle – or what generally is referred to as Saddamism without Saddam.

In many respects, the 1991 Gulf War was far from a finishing chapter in the Iraqi saga. While Iraq’s armed forces were forced to leave neighbouring Kuwait, the Iraqi regime has continued to thwart the will of the international community and to perpetuate its hold on power. Evidence suggests that the regime is deeply unpopular at home, but it has continued to rule through a combination of fear, a sophisticated security network and various measures of political and economic cooptation. It also has either debilitated potential alternative centres of power or ensured that they are constituted along narrow lines to make any alliance among them unlikely. While the internationally imposed sanctions[fn]UN Security Council Resolution 687 of 3 April 1991 formally ended the Gulf War and imposed a multi-faceted sanctions regime.Hide Footnote  undeniably have limited the resources available to it, the regime has been able to establish increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of contraband trade to circumvent them. Paradoxically, the sanctions also have deepened the population’s dependence on the regime that they were designed to weaken.

The regime’s ability to survive derives as well from structural tensions within Iraqi society, some of which pre-date Saddam Hussein’s rule, most of which he has endeavoured to deepen since the 1991 Gulf War, and many of which are likely to outlive his tenure. These include important ethnic and religious fault-lines. Iraqi Kurds have a long history of repression at the hands of the central government and have suffered enormously under the current regime, which has successfully manipulated Arab-Kurdish as well as recurring intra-Kurdish tensions. Any attempt to build a stable Iraq and preserve its territorial integrity will need to address the Kurds’ legitimate grievances. Much of the Kurdish population has come to enjoy considerable political autonomy from Baghdad as a result of the direct flow of revenue from the UN Oil-for-Food Program, and they are not about to accept a rollback of their new status. Fear of losing this status coupled with Washington's historically inconsistent record of support for the Kurds explains why many of them, though deeply hostile to the regime, also are wary of the impact of a U.S.-led regime change. An internationally-backed formula for power-sharing, for example under some kind of federal structure, may go some way to ensuring internal Iraqi stability and minimising third party intervention (e.g., from Turkey or Iran) prompted by the Kurdish question.

Shiites, who constitute a majority of the Iraqi population, are increasingly assertive in rejecting their traditional marginal status within society. Rifts between Shiites and Sunnis, therefore, will need to be mended as part of an effort at national reconciliation that must include an end to any form of discrimination and intensified endeavours to rebuild the predominantly Shiite south. At the same time, there is far less to this division than generally assumed. Shiites are present at all levels of the Iraqi government, including Saddam Hussein’s inner circle and the ruling Baath Party. While they undeniably suffer from social and political discrimination, it is difficult to speak of a strict Sunni or Shiite identity in Iraq. Among Shiites in particular a wide variety of views about politics and religion, contradicts the stereotypical image of a monolithic, radical and pro-Iranian community. Playing up Shiite discontent with the regime and encouraging a separate Shiite identity in the hope of undermining Saddam Hussein runs the risk of exacerbating religious tensions that, so far, have been kept relatively in check.

Other, less visible divisions are of equal importance. Tribalism in particular is a significant but often neglected feature of the political landscape. Even while Saddam Hussein has denounced it, his power structure relies heavily on affiliations to his own clan and on a network of Sunni tribes that constitute the core of the Republican and Special Republican Guards.

Religious, ethnic, tribal but also class-based and ideological splits will complicate attempts to rebuild Iraq. Already, they have seriously complicated attempts to build the Iraqi opposition. Having fled as a result of regime repression, and therefore unable to function inside the country, most opposition groups have had a hard time maintaining close links with the Iraqi people. Moreover, the opposition has been hobbled by divisions along the fault-lines mentioned above. In some instances, opposition groups have served as little more than vehicles for personal ambition. This situation, in turn, has made it easier for the regime to keep dissent at bay.

The debilitated state of Iraq’s political and civil society combined with the ineffectiveness and divisiveness of the opposition have led some to bank on a military coup to oust the regime. Iraq’s military, to be sure, has a history of intrusive intervention in politics and is viewed by many Sunnis as a potential bulwark against future Shiite predominance. But a successful coup remains highly improbable in Saddam Hussein’s tightly controlled regime, particularly absent the impetus of external military action. A concerted U.S. attack aimed at unseating the regime, or a credible threat thereto, may make it more likely that officers in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle will cross the barrier of fear that his police state has carefully constructed over the years and seek to overthrow the regime. Yet even a successful military coup may well lead to a narrowly-based regime governing along tribal lines, with resultant political instability.

The task of building a stable and pluralistic Iraq is enormous. The country does not divide up as neatly as people often assume, with a Shiite south, a Sunni centre and a Kurdish north, and the Iraqi people do not necessarily feel represented by the ethnically or religiously-based organisations that seek to speak on their behalf. Instead, there are tribal, ideological, and class rivalries that – given Iraq’s lack of familiarity with genuine democracy and its surplus of experience with force as a means of effectuating political change – could produce violent confrontations and a continued militarisation of politics. Finding acceptable and representative leaders will in all likelihood be complicated, not a matter simply of importing the exiled opposition. As a result, the distribution of power and resources will be difficult and the risks of chaos, instability, and extra-judicial score-settling high.

The international community is only beginning to come to terms with this task. A future government eventually will have to address critical challenges – attending to the structural problems that have plagued Iraq for decades, establishing a functioning democratic system, redressing and restructuring the economy, addressing the Kurdish question, dealing with the difficult matter of Iraq’s borders,[fn]Successive Iraqi regimes, not just Saddam’s, have attempted to alter the country’s borders through negotiations or by force. In the South, Baghdad has sought wider and more secure access to the Persian or Arab Gulf for commercial and political reasons. This desire underlies the repeated claims that royal, republican and Baath regimes have made on Kuwait, as well as the intermittent crises with Iran over the boundary of the Shatt al-Arab. Governments in Baghdad have focused on one or the other of these issues for practically the entire history of the modern state. To date, none of the problems that drove successive Iraqi governments to state their claims or take action has been solved. Indeed, they arguably have worsened since Saddam Hussein has come to power.Hide Footnote  and promoting national reconciliation. Even in the event of an outside intervention, and whatever regime succeeds Saddam Hussein’s in the short run, ultimately Iraqi political forces, both inside and outside the country, will help answer those questions and shape the character of the regime. It would be far better to think about these issues carefully now than to react hurriedly later, forced by swiftly moving events.

To a degree that knows few precedents in modern history, the future of Iraq is likely to be an interactive process between, on the one hand, Iraq and its citizens and, on the other hand, many outside actors, including its immediate neighbours, the Arab world, Western powers and the United Nations. Giving the great numbers within Iraq who have been effectively disenfranchised by the current regime a say in their own economic and political future will be one of the most fundamental and difficult challenges of all.

Amman/Brussels, 1 October 2002

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