Tim Collins: Only a leap of faith will unite Iraq

As US forces withdraw this week, the Shia-dominated ruling party's relationship with Kurds and Sunnis is crucial to its future

Share
Related Topics

Conceived as a stabilising entity in the Middle East, Iraq was created by the British in 1920. The combination of three Ottoman vilayets [regions] of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul brought together three unlikely bedfellows, the Shia of Basra, the Sunna of the Baghdad region and the Kurds of the north. Notwithstanding this, a hugely successful nation was forged. On 30 June, when the US forces withdraw from the cities of Iraq, the US-led coalition will once more watch anxiously to see if the offspring of its nation-building effort will stand or fail.

The big difference this time is that the new Iraq is not a genetically modified entity like the original British Iraq with power placed in the hands of the minority Sunnis. This time the power was taken by the majority Shia through the democratic process and despite their relative inexperience of having power, the signs are that it might work. Might.

Nouri al-Maliki's government has been accused of being an emerging dictatorship by alarmists. There is no doubting its dominance of parliament. But in my view this has more to do with divisions within the Sunni camp, the deep-rooted rivalries within the Kurdish camp and the failure to launch politically by his rival Shias of the Sadrists and Iranian-backed Badr Corp. The real acid test is to see what form of relationship the ruling party can forge with the Kurds and how generous and magnanimous they are towards the Sunni, while still delivering for the Shia, so long-starved of power and status in Arab society.

The British well knew that there could be no Iraq without the Kurds. That stands. Even as I stood in Kirkurk in May one could sense the tension, Peshmerga fighters of the Kurdish region man checkpoints, eyeing suspiciously the men of the 14th Division of the new Iraqi army. The problem is that during the uprising against Saddam in 1991, the Kurds, with, if not the help of the West, at least its connivance, liberated much of the traditional Kurdish territory. They also liberated significant swathes of Arabic territory, which they appear in no hurry to return. And no, it is not just as simple as "give it back".

As for the Sunni Arabs, they are deeply divided. In the wake of the invasion, the insurgency was essentially a Sunni uprising. Yet with the foreign fighters helping themselves to the property, wives and daughters of the Iraqis while abusing the ancient tribes, things quickly changed. It was as much about the generosity of the US side and their adept handling of those tribes that tipped the balance. Put bluntly, the Yanks won the fight, but offered the tribes a hand-up at the end. The "Tribal Awakening" now has organised a political party and represents the majority of the rural Sunni. In the cities the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) hold sway; for now. But the spectre of the Ba'athists calling themselves al-Awdah [The Return] and fear of the Ba'athist and Ibrahim Izza al-Douri in particular is now very real in the Sunni areas. That is what is stalling Sunni politics. It is fear of the past that is holding them back.

So what of the future? I can make a number of predictions, then set out a series of potential outcomes. Following the withdrawal from the cities, there will be a spike in violence. It is the last chance saloon for the subversives of the Sunni and Shia. I am confident that the Iraqi police and army can hold the line. The Iranians, to a great extent a spent force in Iraq, will attempt a last surge to get back in the game through their proxies of the Badr Corps and their allies of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army. But they were so comprehensively beaten by the Iraqi army in Sadr City, Al Amarah (after the British had legged it) and Basra (while the British stood by and watched) that there is little prospect of a cohesive resurgence in my view. I was in Baghdad in February when they were smashed in the polls at the council elections. Sadr claimed that he was forming a new army of better equipped fighters. The reaction was a uniform and rather loud "Yeah, right".

But internally there needs to be a delicate deal done with the Kurds over Kirkuk. Remember this delicate situation was designed by Saddam to explode if tampered with. It can be worked out with patience, courage and generosity on both sides. This is the single greatest threat.

The Sunni north and west needs to be allowed dignity as a minority. Maliki needs to appeal to those who find the nationhood of Iraqis [Shab al Iraqi] an attractive idea. And Maliki, who famously declared he would not seek re-election, needs to stay on. A strong leader is needed, and like our own predicament in the UK, there are few to choose from.

If he played a clever game, this unique Shia-dominated nation could lead the Arab world. Iraq could command the respect of the Sunni Arab world as well as bring coherence to the Shia Arab away from the Iranians.

Or it could go weird. There could be open warfare with the Kurds in the north and a split like Yugoslavia with a Shia nation in the south, 12 million-odd strong with a port in Basra and an ethnically cleansed Baghdad as capital. In that scenario one could see the west and Anbar gravitating to Jordan, balancing their Palestinian population with Sunni Arabs as well as bringing much-needed oil wealth. I think this all unlikely.

Whatever happens, I believe Iraq will stand. I hope that the West is wise enough to allow some latitude to the Iraqi government to do what is needed to stabilise the difficulties of going it alone. I hope the Iraqis can take the leap of faith that is needed together – all Iraqis, Sunni, Shia, Turkomen Kurd and Christian, to be the nation we all need and pray for in the region.

Tim Collins is a former colonel in the British Army and a veteran of Iraq

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford
 

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'