Patrick Cockburn: Iraq: the beginning of the end

The state created by Britain after the First World war may be passing away

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Iraq is disintegrating as a united state. The election for the National Assembly this week may mark the point of no return. "A Bosnian solution to the Iraq crisis is now on the agenda," says Ghassan Attiyah, a veteran Iraqi commentator. The election is decisive because the Shia and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds - the three main Iraqi communities - show every sign of voting along ethnic and religious lines. Secular and nationalist groups looking for support beyond their own community have their backs to the wall.

The US and Britain have presented so many events in Iraq over the past two-and-a-half years as spurious turning points for the better that the critical importance of the election for the 275-member national assembly on Thursday is being underestimated outside Iraq. The old unitary Iraqi state created by Britain after the First World War may be passing away.

The verdict is not quite in. There are forces for unity as well as for disintegration. But since the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is the latter forces which have proved to be the stronger. Iraqis are beginning to talk about partition as a likely outcome of the crisis. This has already happened in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a fifth of Iraq's 26 million population, already have quasi-independence, with their own government and armed forces. An Iraqi Arab has difficulty getting a hotel room in Arbil, the Kurdish capital.

Iraqi Arab leaders largely accept what has happened in Kurdistan, if only because there is nothing they can do about it. Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and nationalist, said: "Everybody recognises that the Kurds can have their separate state. There is no difference of opinion on that."

Mr Pachachi says the real threat to Iraq is that the Shia in southern Iraq may create their own super-canton. Iraqi Shia and Kurds voted for this overwhelmingly when they approved the new federal constitution in a referendum on 15 October. Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the most powerful Shia party - the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) - is intent on creating a Shia super-region, with most of the powers of an independent state, in the nine Shia provinces. This is half of Iraq's 18 provinces. A further four provinces are effectively controlled by the Kurds, leaving only a rump of five provinces patchily under the control of the government in Baghdad.

"Central government could end up being a few buildings in the Green Zone," said an Iraqi minister. "The US and Britain are working desperately to stop it." He pointed out that the Kurdish government had recently signed a contract with a Norwegian oil company to drill for oil. Under the new constitution the Kurdish and Shia super-regions will own new oil reserves when they are discovered. This will give them economic independence.

Iraq is ruled by a coalition of the Kurds and the Shia parties, which triumphed in the January election. The Sunni Arabs boycotted the poll then, but are likely to vote next Thursday. The US and Britain would like to see a leader like Iyad Allawi, the prime minister in the interim government in 2004-05, and deemed to have nationalist credentials, do well. Mr Allawi is a Shia who was once Baathist before he became an opponent of Saddam. His slick advertising on television promotes his appeal as a tough leader with something to offer Iraqis from all three communities.

But he is also the prime minister who assented to US troops assaulting the Sunni city of Fallujah and the Shia holy city of Najaf last year. Last weekend he was chased from the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf by worshippers pelting him with shoes. He said they were trying to assassinate him. He has tried to cultivate Sunni voters. They may like his nationalist opinions, but they will probably vote for the Iraqi Accord Front, the alliance representing the three biggest Sunni groups.

Ahmed Chalabi, deputy prime minister in the government, is also being squeezed. He fought the last election as part of United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shia parties backed by Shia clergy. This time he will fight it on his own. His greatest appeal will be to voters who have a sense of their Shia identity but are secular and dislike clerical rule.

The winners of the election are likely to be the Shia United Iraqi Alliance, the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front and the Kurdistan Coalition List. The US and Britain would like to see a coalition government created. But this is also a recipe for inactivity because ministers and officials hold their jobs as representatives of their communities. It is almost impossible to fire them for incompetence or corruption.

All the institutions of the state are becoming fiefdoms of one community or another. When Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister, took power all previous employees of his office were fired. Bayan Jabr, the interior minister from Sciri, has been turning his ministry, which has 110,000 men under arms, into a Shia stronghold. Sunni military units have been dissolved. The Badr Organisation, the militia of Sciri, has infiltrated the paramilitary police commandos whom the Sunni see as licensed death squads.

Badr is not the only militia growing in strength. If they control the police commandos then the Mehdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr has much of the police force in Baghdad. The US has tried to keep control over the defence ministry but army battalions are Shia, Sunni or Kurdish. Out of 115 battalions reportedly only one is mixed.

The ability of the US and Britain to determine the fate of Iraq is growing less by the month. The US is trying to reach out to countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which it was ignoring two years ago. There is no more talk of changing the Middle East. British troops have largely withdrawn to their bases around Basra. The Sunni will take part in the election but will continue to try to end the occupation.

Iraq will still remain a name on the map. Baghdad will be difficult to divide, though it is largely a Shia city. Most Iraqi Arabs say they would like to be part of a single country. But the most likely future is for Iraq to become a loose confederation.

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