Politics & Policy

Can It Happen?

The chances for Iraqi democracy.

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: The fierce rule of Saddam Hussein created enormous suffering in every sector of the Iraqi society and has been chronicled beyond question. Despite the common bond of pain, however, it remains open to question whether professionals, peasants and would-be politicians can work together to build a reasonably democratic and stable society.

As a first order of business, 25 million Iraqis comprising three distinctly different communities, numerous ethnic subsets, and uncounted political interests, must weave a national fabric from the chaos, distrust, and bitterness left by Saddam and his henchmen. Stitched together by the British Colonial Office 85 years ago, the nation managed to avoid serious conflict among its diverse population, until the Baathist revolution in 1968. From the beginning, the new regime sowed distrust, setting group against group, in a classic divide and rule maneuver.

If the quest for peace, unity and a democratic form of government is to succeed, it must happen with minimal foreign direction, but with significant infusions of outside technical guidance and not a little financial capital. Countries in the region and beyond will face multiple tests, among them:

— Can neighboring Turkey, Iran, Syria and Jordan keep their hands off Iraqi territory?

— Can multi-national energy giants repair and develop Iraq’s petroleum reserves justly, leaving the nation’s greatest asset under genuine domestic control?

— Can the United States and other donor nations stay the nation-building course, maintaining the peace, financing the rebuilding of infrastructure and leaving the political solutions to the various contending forces?

— Can “regime change” work, to the benefit of Iraqis and the relief of the world?

Just as the order of battle in war cannot be predicted, it is never precisely clear what postwar conditions will be, until long after battle’s end. Nevertheless, it is possible — and useful — to frame the parameters and outline a practical plan that has a reasonable chance for implementation and success.

This begins a six-part series by two longtime observers of events in Iraq and the Middle East, looks at the people, personalities and political models that are emerging and will likely be at the forefront. Most important, the articles will note the pitfalls and probabilities of failure, and assess the chances for success.


The dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s regime is happening at last. After more than a year of feints and jabs, the dictator’s much-anticipated passing from the scene is upon us. Once completed, millions will wonder how arguably the cruelest regime in its history could have ruled Iraq for 35 years and the unglamorous work of rebuilding will begin.

Building the peace will be a far more lengthy battle, one that will test Iraqi goodwill and foreigners’ commitment to reform and stability in the Middle East.

No one can predict the degree of dislocation and destruction, postwar. The U.S.-led allied coalition occupation of Baghdad, may result in fierce fighting in the capital, home to one quarter of Iraq’s 25 million citizens.

At various times, Saddam and his sons have threatened everything from torching the country’s oilfields, as in Kuwait in 1991, to using chemical and biological weapons against the advancing armies. The first would seriously hurt the Iraqi economy and leave his countrymen with even worse memories of Saddam. The second, although affecting the invaders, would have little consequences for the local population or infrastructure.

Far more dangerous and destructive for the country would be house-to-house armed guerrilla fighting in Baghdad’s streets. This option has been repeatedly threatened, and — fortunately — thoroughly planned for by the U.S. and British forces. Most informed observers discount this possibility because:

— Like destroying the oilfields, it would very negatively affect Saddam’s legacy;

— Saddam cannot trust in his troops’ loyalty — Iraqis remember vividly the sight of some 100,000 troops surrendering at the start of the land war in 1991 — and is therefore unwilling to test their mettle in this most difficult form of warfare;

— The local populace is completely unreliable and could well help the allies more than the Iraqi forces;

— A large number — estimates range from 2,000 to many times more — of U.S. and British special forces are in the country, including Baghdad, gathering critical intelligence, establishing valuable contacts and generally undermining the regime’s stability. Therefore, Baghdad should remain more intact than after the first Gulf War when it sustained six weeks of heavy bombing, prior to the land war.


A greater issue than destruction of physical plants could well be the status of government ministries and services. Will the most sophisticated U.S. weaponry “fry” Iraq’s telecommunications and electrical grids? With layers of Saddam supporters are removed, will ministries continue to function with any degree of efficiency? Will cadres of secret Saddam sympathizers remain in key posts and thus frustrate efforts to provide effective government services?

Once again, the betting is that government services will not be much worse than they have been for years. The United States has been reluctant to use its advanced “zapping” weaponry, not wanting to face the public-relations and financial costs of destroying and then re-instituting telecommunications and electrical services. Seasoned anti-Saddam functionaries have quietly remained in virtually every ministry and are expected to keep services running as well as identify malingerers from the ancien regime. Moreover, Iraq is blessed with large numbers of men with scientific educations, capable of quickly stepping into technical and administrative positions.

Education has been a central element of the Baath regime since taking power and Iraqi parents have urged their children to study the sciences in the country’s 20 universities and, when possible, abroad, as a way to get ahead and avoid becoming cannon fodder. In fact, the strongest professional group in the nation is the scientific community; the weakest, the army. In the critical oil sector, hundreds of dedicated, nationalistic professionals are in place, just below a thin layer of Saddam sycophants.

For a similar period, Saddam has systematically eliminated officers who are not from his home tribal area of Tikrit, filling their posts with incompetent sycophants. Drained of even more talent by the 1980-88 war with Iran, it was no surprise how woefully the Iraqi army fought during the first Gulf War. U.S. war planners believe they will be even less effective this time around.


Iraq is a wealthy country, with the second-greatest oil reserves in the region and, unique among Arab nations, large water supplies. Although it may take two years to upgrade petroleum extraction capacity to the 3.6 million barrels prior to Desert Storm and the Gulf War of 1990-91, current levels of 2.5 to 2.8 million bpd are enough to keep bread on the nation’s table. An interim concern has been the possibility of Saddam ordering widespread oilfield fires, sharply cutting production for 15-18 months. Long-term, industry professionals estimate a huge as yet unproven estimated reserve in excess of 150 barrels. Added to proven reserves of 112 billion barrels (15 evaluated oilfields of 74 are currently producing), Iraq’s petroleum potential rivals the world’s largest producer, Saudi Arabia.

The importance of Iraq’s water resource cannot be exaggerated. The Tigris River runs from the north through the center of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. With the mighty Euphrates, the Tigris creates the rich Fertile Crescent in the southern half of the country. The center of the majority Shiite Muslim community, the regime drained the area’s rich marshlands where the Garden of Eden and Hanging Gardens of Babylon are reputed to have existed, in retaliation for the Shiites’ failed attempt to overthrow Saddam after the first Gulf War. In the process, agricultural capacity as well as the country’s most important tourist attraction were eliminated; Iraq’s agricultural potential is so great it can once again become a net exporter to the region within 3-5 years.


The political arena is where the postwar battle of Baghdad will be waged. With the exception of a brief period in the 1920′s, modern Iraq’s experience with democracy has been nonexistent (2,600 years ago, in Babylonian days, the government that replaced decadent King Nebuchadnezzar bore some resemblance to democracy).

Across the centuries, the land and people comprising present-day Iraq have been conquered by invaders from the North (Turkey and Great Britain), East (Persia), and West (Syria). Foreign-born and domestic despots have been the rule. The current challenge is whether factional leaders can put aside dreams of dictatorial glory and lead their peoples to a solution that is both representative and effective, as well, hopefully, as democratic.

Iraqis have one advantage: the different ethnic and religious groups had a long history of peaceful cohabitation, until Saddam Hussein made overt efforts to set tribe against tribe, religion against religion. It is difficult to assess the degree to which harmony among the communities has been destroyed. Opposition leaders’ harmonious claims notwithstanding, the ability to once again live and work together cannot be accurately predicted. Previous peaceful history plus Iraqis’ remarkably high education level, however, give the country a reasonable chance to achieve a workable political framework.

Another delicate issue is whether the United States and its allies will strike the right balance of guidance but not control during months, and perhaps years, of peacekeeping in Baghdad and the other main population centers — Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul. Delicate but not impossible. The outcome will rest more on perception than on fact, as the prospective victors have neither historic nor evident interest in control or a lengthy occupation.


The next installment of this series will address Iraqi-U.S. relations, plus a look at Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Jacques Chirac.

— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as Editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. From their differing backgrounds and perspectives, the authors assess the enormous risks and opportunities facing those who would set Iraq and by extension, the Middle East on a positive and peaceful course. This is the first in a series written for UPI and reprinted with permission.


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