Patrick Cockburn: War need not figure in Iraq's future

Is this period of continuing emergency and conflict now coming to an end?
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The Independent Online

Iraqis tell a story illustrating the political culture of their rulers.

The American, Russian, British and Iraqi governments supposedly hold a competition as to who can most quickly catch the greatest number of rabbits in a forest. The Americans win by offering money and visas and thousands of rabbits come bounding out of the trees to acquire both. The Russians come second by bombarding the forest with artillery and soon the surviving rabbits totter forward to surrender. The British approach is subtler but slower. British intelligence infiltrates and divides the rabbit community and ultimately the pro-British rabbit faction hands over their opponents to British captors.

The Iraqi contenders disappear into the forest and are not heard from. Eventually the others go to look for them and hear groans of pain. They find the Iraqis in a clearing surrounding a terrified deer tied to a chair whom they are slapping across the muzzle, shouting: "Go on! Admit you're a rabbit!" The point of the story is to underline the violent and authoritarian approach of all Iraqi governments and possibly Iraqi society as a whole.

I was first told the story in Baghdad about 25 years ago when the reputation of American finance, the Russian army and British intelligence were higher than they are today. Only Iraq's reputation as a country beset by extreme violence remains what it was. Historically this is explained by Iraq's position as a frontier zone surrounded by states more powerful than itself. From the time the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 to the coming of the British in the First World War, the Iraqi tribes outside the cities largely ruled themselves. Modern Iraq has always been a violent country where everybody carries a gun, but everything which went before has been dwarfed by the experiences of the past 30 years. Since the start of the Iran-Iraq conflict in 1980, Iraq has known nothing but war, rebellion, sanctions, invasion and civil war.

Is this period of continuing emergency and conflict in Iraq now coming to an end? The government in Baghdad, closely copied by the administration in Washington, puts out figures showing that civilian casualties are lower than at any time since 2003. But there is a stridency about their claims which betrays an inner fear that what we are seeing is an intermission in Iraq's violent history and that the country remains highly unstable.

This fear in Washington has grown swiftly in recent months because of spectacular bombings in Baghdad and the ferocity of the political combat before the Iraqi election which takes place tomorrow. Some of the American misgivings stem from having grossly overstated the achievements of the "surge", the US troop reinforcements sent in 2007, and the belief that the US had won something close to a military victory.

US television practically stopped reporting Iraq and switched to Afghanistan.

Events in the weeks leading up to the Iraqi election have therefore come as a nasty surprise, though they should have been predictable.

Previous Iraqi polls in 2005, when the present parliament was elected, deepened divisions between the three main Iraqi communities – Shia and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds – and opened the gates to the savage sectarian civil war of 2006-7. This time round the impending poll started to exacerbate sectarian hatred between Shia and Sunni when some 500 candidates – later reduced to 145 – were blacklisted at the start of the year as former Baathists. The most important of those banned are Sunni. Since then, the purge of Baathists has spread to the army, the civil administration and even the oil industry. Election posters in Shia areas of Baghdad contain dire warnings of "the Baathist threat". Television and newspapers scarcely mention unemployment, corruption and lack of services.

The Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had promoted himself as a nationalist non-sectarian leader. But his Sunni allies and the US were both shocked to find him jumping on board the anti-Baathist bandwagon and vying with the other Shia parties over the toughness of measures he wants to take against the supposed supporters of the old predominantly Sunni regime.

There is probably less to this than meets the eye. Iraqi politics are very tough. Mr Maliki leads a Shia party and, while he may espouse Iraqi nationalism, it is very much a Shia version of it. He cannot afford to offend the Shia community which, in any case, makes up 60 per cent of Iraqis while the Sunni and Kurds are each 20 per cent.

There is another factor that stabilises Iraqi politics which has nothing to do with "the surge". In 2006-7 the Shia and Sunni fought a savage civil war which was won by the Shia. Baghdad, the political heart of Iraq, is now an overwhelmingly Shia city. The two million refugees who fled the country are mostly Sunni and there is no sign of them coming home.

The outcome of the election may leave no single party with a majority, and there will be intense bargaining between the three main Shia groupings over division of top jobs and power. The Kurdish-Shia coalition, which had ruled Iraq since 2005, will probably be reconstituted with some changes in the way in which the spoils of office are distributed.

What could lead to a resumption of widespread violence? If the Sunni felt wholly marginalised and discriminated against they could, by the sort of bombing campaign we have seen in the past six months, destabilise the country to a degree. This would not be a return to full-scale civil war but it would prevent Iraq from settling down. The Americans do not admit it but Iran played a central role in supporting the Maliki government against the former Iranian allies in the militias. But if the US military withdrawal is halted, or there is a crisis in relations between the US and Iran, then the Iranians have a greater incentive to give the Americans a hard time in Iraq.

The Iraqi government which emerges from the election is as likely to be as corrupt, dysfunctional and authoritarian as the present one. But there is no power vacuum in Iraq and, for the moment, the era of wars which have devastated the country is probably over.