For the first time, a real blueprint for peace in Iraq

The Iraqi state that was formed in the aftermath of the First World War has come to an end. Its successor state is struggling to be born in an environment of crises and chaos. The collapse of the entire order in the Middle East now threatens as the Iraq imbroglio unleashes forces in the area that have been gathering in virulence over the past decades.

It took the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the mismanagement of the country by both the Coalition Provisional Administration and subsequent Iraqi governments, to bring matters to this dire situation.

What was supposed to be a straightforward process of overthrowing a dictatorship and replacing it with a liberal-leaning and secular democracy under the benign tutelage of the United States, has instead turned into an existential battle for identity, power and legitimacy that is affecting not only Iraq, but the entire tottering state system in the Middle East.

The Iraq war is a global predicament of the first order and its resolution will influence the course of events in the Middle East and beyond for a considerable time. What we are witnessing in Iraq is the beginning of the unravelling of the unjust and unstable system that was carved out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. It had held for nearly 100 years by a mixture of foreign occupation,outside meddling, brutal dictatorships and minority rule.

At the same time, it signally failed in providing a permanent sense of legitimacy to its power, engaged its citizens in their governance, or provided a modicum of well-being and a decent standard of existence for its people.

The Key Challenges

The nature and scope of the Iraq crisis can be encapsulated in the emergence of four vital issues that have challenged the entire project for remaking the Iraq state. In one form or another, these forces also affect the countries of the Arab Middle East, as well as Turkey and Iran, and the relationships between all of them.

Firstly, the invasion of Iraq tipped the scales in favour of the Shia, who are now determined to emerge as the governing majority after decades, if not centuries, of perceived disempowerment and oppression. The consequences of this historic shift inside Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are incalculable.

Secondly, the invasion of Iraq legitimised the semi-independent region that Iraq's Kurds had forged over the past decade. The Kurds whose rights to self-determination were acknowledged in the 1920 Sevres Treaty, and then subsequently ignored by the states of the post-Ottoman Middle East, have received an enormous fillip in their march towards recognition of their unique status.

What is still left to be decided is the geographic extent of the Kurdish region in Iraq, and whether it would have proprietary access to the resources of that area. This may prove a way station to the beginnings of the formation of a Kurdish state. The challenges that will pose to the integrity and self-definition of Turkey, Iran and Syria now or in the future is another formidable side effect of the overthrow of the old Baathist state.

Thirdly, the uneven, poorly prepared and messy introduction in Iraq of democratic norms for elections, constitution-writing and governance structures is a stark break with the authoritarian and dictatorial systems that have prevailed in the Middle East. While the Iraqi experiment has so far been marred by violence, irregularities and manipulation, it is quite likely to survive as the mechanism through which governments will be chosen in the future.

Lastly, the overthrow of Saddam coincided with the attempts by Iran to assert its influence and to gain entry into regional counsels. That has exercised a number of countries in the area no end, giving rise to alarmist warnings of Iranian hegemonistic designs and "Shia crescents". The responses that are being planned for the perceived threat are terrifying in their implications, with scant attention paid to their consequences to the peace and stability of the area.

Iraq was used as a foil to revolutionary Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, with devastating consequences for both. We are witnessing a possible reprise, the consequence of which, if the new warmongers get their way, will be catastrophic for it will go to the heart of the fragile societies of the Middle East. Shia will be pitted against Sunni not only in Iraq but in Lebanon, and the Gulf countries.

Dangers of Sunni Insurgency

In the sterile world of zero-sum politics, the loss of power of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq was soon translated into a raging insurgency that challenged not only the US occupation but also the new political dispensation.

The insurgency fed on the deep resentment Sunni Arabs felt to their loss of power and prestige. It has been aggravated by the fact it was a totally unexpected force that achieved the impossible- the dethronement of the community from centuries of power in favour of, as they saw it, a rabble led by Persianate clerics. The Sunni Arabs' refusal to countenance any serious engagement with the new political order had effectively pushed them into a cul-de-sac and has played into the hands of their most determined enemies.

The state is now moving inexorably under the control of the Shia Islamists, albeit with a supporting role for the Kurds. The boundaries of Shia-controlled Baghdad are moving ever westwards so that the capital itself may fall entirely under the sway of the Shia militias.

The only thing stopping that is the deployment of American troops to block the entry of the Shia militias in force into these mixed or Sunni neighbourhoods. The geographic space outside Baghdad in which the insurgency can flourish will persist but the country will be inevitably divided. Under such circumstances, the power of the Shia's demographic advantage can only be counter-balanced by the Sunni Arabs' recourse to support from the neighbouring Arab states. It is inconceivable that such an outcome can possibly lead to a stable Iraqi state unless one side or another vanquishes its opponent or if the country is divided into separate states.

Impact of Shia Ascendancy

The response to these existential challenges emanating from the invasion of Iraq, both inside Iraq and in the Arab world has been panic-stricken or fearful, and potentially disastrous to the stability in the area and the prospects for its inhabitants.

The Arab countries of the Middle East have been unable to adjust to events in Iraq, not so much because of the contagion effect of the changes that have taken place there. This had virtually disappeared as Iraq cannot be seen as model for anything worth emulating. It has less to do with the instability that might spill over from the violence in the country. It is more to do with accommodating an unknown quantity into a system that can barely acknowledge pluralism and democracy, let alone a Shia ascendancy in Iraq.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, linchpins of the American security order in the Arab world, cannot accept the principle of a Shia-dominated Iraq, each for its own reasons. They will do their utmost to thwart such a possibility, and failing that, will probably try to isolate such an entity from regional counsels

Implications for Middle East

It is this with this backdrop that solutions are being proffered to resolve the Iraqi crisis. However, rather than treat the problem in a much wider context, each party is determined to stake out its narrow position irrespective of its effects on other communities, groups and countries.

The seeds of another 100 years of crisis are being sown, with the Middle East consigned to decades of turbulence and the persistence of unmitigated hatreds and grudges. The most serious issue that is emerging is the exacerbation of sectarian differences between Shia and Sunni. That is a profoundly dangerous issue for it affects not only Iraq but also Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf countries.

It is plausible that the cost of a Shia ascendancy in Iraq, if it is marked as such, will be further pressure on the vulnerable Shia communities in the Gulf countries. There is already the rekindling of anti-Shia rhetoric in a remarkably similar rerun to the pattern that accompanied the Saudi-led campaign to contain the Iranian revolution in the 1980s. The effect of that was the rise of the jihadi culture that was the harbinger of mass terrorism and suicide bombings.

This may drag the entire area into war or even the forced movement of people as fearful countries seek to "quarantine" or expel their Shia population.

The Solution

It requires genuine vision and statesmanship to pull the Middle East from its death spiral. The elements of a possible solution are there if the will exists to postulate an alternative to the politics of fear, bigotry and hatred.

The first step must be the recognition that the solution to the Iraq crisis must be generated first internally, and then, importantly, at the regional level. The two are linked and the successful resolution of one would lead to the other.

No foreign power, no matter how benevolent, should be allowed to dictate the terms of a possible historic and stable settlement in the Middle East. No other region of the world would tolerate such a wanton interference in its affairs.

That is not to say that due consideration should not be given to the legitimate interests of the great powers in the area, but the future of the area should not be held hostage to their designs and exclusive interests.

Secondly, the basis of a settlement must take into account the fact that the forces that have been unleashed by the invasion of Iraq must be acknowledged and accommodated. These forces, in turn, must accept limits to their demands and claims. That would apply, in particular, to the Shias and the Kurds, the two communities who have been seen to have gained from the invasion of Iraq.

Thirdly, the Sunni Arab community must become convinced that its loss of undivided power will not lead to marginalisation and discrimination. A mechanism must be found to allow the Sunni Arabs to monitor and regulate and, if need be, correct, any signs of discrimination that may emerge in the new Iraqi state.

Fourthly, the existing states surrounding Iraq feel deeply threatened by the changes there. That needs to be recognised and treated in any lasting deal for Iraq and the area.

A way has to be found for introducing Iran and Turkey into a new security structure for the Middle East that would take into account their legitimate concerns, fears and interests. It is far better that these countries are seen to be part of a stable order for the area rather than as outsiders who need to be confronted and challenged.

The Iraqi government that has arisen as a result of the admittedly flawed political process must be accepted as a sovereign and responsible government. No settlement can possibly succeed if its starting point is the illegitimacy of the Iraqi government or one that considers it expendable.

A Brighter Future

The end state of this process would be three interlinked outcomes. The first would be a decentralised Iraqi state with new regional governing authorities with wide powers and resources.

Devolution of power must be fair, well planned, and executed with equitable revenue-distribution. Federal institutions would have to act as adjudicators between regions. Security must be decentralised until such time as confidence between the communities is re-established.

The second essential outcome would be a treaty that would establish a confederation or constellation of states of the Middle East, initially including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The main aim of the confederation would be to establish a number of conventions and supra-regional bodies that would have the effect of acting as guarantors of civil, minority and community rights.

The existence of such institutions can go a long way towards removing the anxiety disadvantaged groups feel when confronted with the radical changes sweeping the area. The gradual build up of such supra-national institutions in the proposed confederation may also expand to cover an increased degree of economic integration and harmonisation.

That may include a regional development body which would help establish and fund common energy and infrastructure policies. Lastly, an indispensable end outcome is a regional security pact that would group the countries of the Arab Middle East with Iran and Turkey, at first in some form of anti-terrorism pact, but later a broader framework for discussing and resolving major security issues that impinge on the area as a whole.

That would also provide the forum for combating the spread of virulent ideologies and sectarian hatreds and provide the basis for peacefully containing and resolving the alarm that some countries feel from the apparent expansion of Iranian influence in the area.

The Importance of the US

It was the US that launched this phase of the interminable Middle East crisis, by invading Iraq and assuming direct authority over it. Whatever project it had for Iraq has vanished, a victim of inappropriate or incoherent policies, and the violent upending of Iraq's power structures.

Nevertheless, the US is still the most powerful actor in the Iraq crisis, and its decisions can sway the direction and the manner in which events could unfold.

In other areas of the world, the US has used its immense influence and power to cement regional security and economic associations. There is no reason why the regional associations being mooted in conjunction with a decentralised Iraqi state, could not play an equally important part in resolving the Iraqi crisis and dispersing the dangerous clouds threatening the region.

The Iraqi proposals

1 Iraq government calls for regional security conference including Iraq's neighbours to produce an agreement/treaty on non-intervention and combating terrorism. Signatory states will be responsible to set of markers for commitments.

Purpose: To reduce/eliminate neighbouring countries' support for insurgents, terrorists and militias.

2 Iraq government calls for preparatory conference on a Middle-Eastern Confederation of States that will examine proposals on economic, trade and investment union. Proposals will be presented for a convention on civil, human and minority rights in the Near East, with a supreme court/tribunal with enforcement powers.

Purpose: To increase regional economic integration and provide minorities in signatory countries with supra-national protection.

3 Iraq government calls for an international conference on Iraq that would include Iraq, its regional neighbours, Egypt, the UAE, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that would aim to produce a treaty guaranteeing:

a. Iraq's frontiers.
b. The broad principles of Iraq's constitutional arrangements.
c. Establishing international force to replace the multi-national force over 12 to 18 months. Appointing international co-ordinator to oversee treaty implementation.

Purpose: To arrange for the gradual and orderly withdrawal of American troops, ensure that Iraq develops along constitutional lines, confirm Iraq and its neighbours' common frontiers.

4 Iraq government will introduce changes to government by creating two statuary bodies with autonomous financing and independent boards:

a. A reconstruction and development council run by Iraqi professionals and technocrats with World Bank/UN support.
b. A security council which will oversee professional ministries of defence, interior, intelligence and national security.

Purpose: To remove the reconstruction and development programme from incompetent hands and transfer them to an apolitical, professional and independent body. Also to remove the oversight, command and control over the security ministries from politicised party control to an independent, professional and accountable body.

5 The entire peace plan, its preamble and its details must be put before the Iraqi parliament for its approval.

Ali A Allawi was Minister of Trade and Minister of Defence in the Iraqi Governing Council Cabinet (2003-2004). He was in the Transitional National Assembly, and Minister of Finance, Transitional National Government of Iraq (2005-2006). His book, 'The Occupation of Iraq Winning the War, Losing the Peace' will be published in March

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