Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

The Breakup of Iraq: A Country No More

Is that what George Bush wanted all along?

By Rabbi Moshe Reiss


What has occurred in the last weeks is not the failure of democracy in Iraq but the failure of Iraq as a nation itself. What has failed in Iraq is not only the attempt to build democracy, but the very attempt to keep the country together. There is no way of putting Humpty-Dumpty together again.


When the Yugoslavia was on the verge of collapse it separated along its ethnic lines. Iraq is now going the way of Yugoslavia, and probably with bloodletting similar to what came with that breakup.


Iraq which in Arabic means ''well-rooted country’ is anything but. It was created by imperial British in the 1920s from three very disparate provinces of the Ottoman Empire; the only way to hold it together was by brutal force. The British vested power in the Baghdad based Sunni Arab minority. The Kurdish minority in the north, as well as the Shi'ite majority in the south, were virtually excluded from power. Consequently, all Iraqi governments were faced with potential and recurring rebellion; by the Kurds and by the Shi'ites.


As a result of this newly created nation ruled by a minority only a brutal regime could survive. Brutal regimes were not, then or now unusual in the Arab world and particularly in the Sunni world. Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime was simply the most brutal of all Sunni Arab regimes.


The end of the Saddam Hussein regime toppled this Sunni Arab minority rule; the current mayhem in Iraq is partly the work of Sunni Arabs trying to abort any alternative government. The sophistication, logistic precision and overall planning of the terrorist attacks, as well as the apparent availability of hundreds of suicide bombers, cars and explosives all point to a well-prepared campaign is partially based on the human and material resources of Saddam's old regime.



The Kurds have desired their own state for more than a century. "Our past is sad. Our present is a catastrophe.  Fortunately, we don't have a future” (quoted by Hineer Saleem from his grandfather). Things have changed from Saleem’s grandfather’s day.


They believed they succeeded after WWI when the Peace Treaty in Paris guaranteed them independence (Article 62), but this was overruled by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. That did not change their objective. 


In the fifteen years following the Treaty of Lausanne over twenty uprisings took place. But by 1938 the uprisings had failed and Kurdish independence remained dormant for forty years. In 1978 Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) whose goal was Kurdish independence. 


The Kurds who call their ‘country’ Kurdistan are not simply in Iraq. More Kurds live Turkey than in any other country perhaps as many as 10-12 million, Northern Iraq has perhaps 4-5 million, Northwestern Iran perhaps 6-8 million and Western Syria perhaps 1.5 million for a total population of perhaps twenty five million.


Saddam Hussein wiped out every Kurdish opposition and resistance in Iraqi Kurdistan killing perhaps as many as 150,000 men, women and children. He created a security zone of 30 Kilometers between the Turkish and Iranian border. He destroyed 2000 villages and 2500 Mosques. The Kurds are Sunni Moslems but of a different Sunni interpretation – the

dissimilar to the rest of the Sunni Iraqi’s and most other traditional Sunni’s. During the Iraqi-Iranian war the Kurds supported different sides at different times. Saddam deported perhaps a million Kurds over two decades.  In 1998 in the village of Halabja 5,000 Kurds were murdered by the use of chemical gas.


It is obvious that the Kurds, who have enjoyed de facto autonomy since the early 1990s, protected by the American and British "No Fly Zone," are not going to accept being subjected to Sunni or Shi’te Arab rule. The Kurdish regional government runs a more or less successful system of political authority. For a decade now schools in the area have taught in Kurdish and not in Arabic; a de-facto arrangement allows the Kurdish authorities to use oil revenues in the area to pay for impressive development projects.


Their two political parties joined hands the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Massud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kuridstan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani. These two groups conflicted during 1994-1998; but in 1998 they reconciled and consolidated their forces. When Talabani was elected the first non-Arab head of state of an Arab country they knew they would achieve their objective.


Given their terrible experience in the past the Kurds will accept only the kind of federal structure that guarantees them effective control over their own affairs, including maintaining their own armed forces.




No Islamic country was run by a Shi’ite government until 1979. Shi’ites were oppressed for over 1,300 years. Iran became the first Shi’ite run country in Islamic history. This created a new phenomenon, Shi’ite emancipation. The Iraqi Shi’ites have their own Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani who may be more democratic that the Iranian Ayatollahs.


When Saddam invaded Najaf he had written on his tanks “NO MORE SHIITES AFTER TODAY” in Arabic. The Sunni regime was attempting to destroy Najaf's 1,000-year tradition as a center of Shiite learning. Mosques, libraries and seminaries were destroyed, ancient treasures were looted and monumental tombs were flattened. Anyone in a turban, the habit of a Shiite cleric, risked being executed (‘Republic of Fear’).


The Marsh Arabs, a Shi’ite group numbering 250,000 were reduced to as few as 40,000. Large-scale government drainage projects have virtually wiped out the Marsh Arab economy and, along with severe repression, forced the displacement of at least 100,000 of the Marsh Arabs inside Iraq. More than 40,000 others fled as refugees to Iran.


While Saddam gassed the Kurds he slaughtered the Shia in open fields. Many leading Shi’ite scholars were killed by Saddam including the Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr and his two sons.


In the recent weeks the Shi’ites raised the question of a Shi’ite autonomous region. The Shi'ites who are a majority in Iraq and a majority in the current assembly are not going to accept Sunni hegemony anymore, and the brutal terrorist attempts of the Sunni insurgents against Shi'ite shrines only strengthen their resolve to insist on a Shi'ite autonomous region in the south, similar to the Kurdish area in the north. There is little doubt that the Ayatollah Sistani made this determination; and it is highly likely he will in fact implement it.




The Sunnis rightly realize that unless they succeed in reimposing their power by brutal force, they are doomed to minority status – something which is alien to the Sunni Arab tradition. Hence the Sunni boycott of the elections and the attempt of Sunni insurgents to frighten any moderate Sunni ready to cooperate in setting up a democratic Iraq. But the insurgency works only in the Sunni triangle. The insurgents operate primarily in the center of the country; the Sunni triangle; and the Sunni’s feel its impact; 77% of Sunnis stated their life has become more dangerous, only 41% of Shi’ites and 17% of Kurds (Mansoon Moaddel, Lebanon Daily Star, May 18).  If the Kurds and Shi’ites essentially secede the insurgency may continue in Sunni triangle but will fail in the Kurd and Shi’ite areas.


Iraq is potentially the second largest oil producer in the world. The Sunni’s have good reason to believe that they will get the short end of that stick.


In addition to the reasons noted above the issue of Sharia law will also separate the Kurds from the Shi’ites. The new constitution states that laws will use Sharai as ‘one’ of its basis, not as ‘the’ basis. That means the legislators will interpret what is consistent and what is not. However since it likely that Shi’ites will have a majority of the legislators will the Clerics have ultimate control?  Women were guaranteed rights in the interim constitution (TAL) and in fact were guaranteed one third of the seats in the new assembly. Women have 31% of the membership. Of the 36 members of the new government (chosen or reserved) six are women. Three are Kurds of their eight members, one Christian, one Sunni and only note only one Shi’a, who have more that 50% of the membership. This may not bode well for women.  President Talabani’s own wife is a major women rights activist.  



The U.S. has openly pressured the Iraqi constitutional assembly to ratify the constitution quickly. The assembly could have postponed it’s decision for six months and thus allowed itself time to potentially ratify a constitution by consensus. The time frame is being stoked by the Americans based on their own needs not the Iraqis. The American fathers took thirteen years to draft their own constitution. The American need is based on midterm elections in November 2006. George Bush is fully aware that his Republican Party is likely to loose seats and perhaps the majority in one if not both legislative bodies unless a significant number of American troops are withdrawn before this election.


The Sunnis have threatened civil war if the current constitution is passed. But who will lose in a civil war if not the Sunnis. Iraq will become three countries. Everyone seems to know that the American Caesar want a unified Iraq. Could we all be wrong?  If three countries emerge can America declare victory and begin serious withdrawal in the new Sunni country by next spring or summer?


The oil which may have been why they came is not in the Sunni triangle. America’s friends the Kurds will certainly sell them oil in exchange for reconstruction as would in all likelihood the Shia country. 



Sunni Arabs have majorities in three provinces, but it seems unlikely that they would be able to generate a two-thirds majority in Nineveh against the constitution, where there is a large Kurdish population. But regardless of whether the new constitution is ratified or not in the referendum the Kurds and the Shi'ites will almost certainly go their separate ways. The onstitution contains a clause that in the case of a contradiction between federal and regional laws "the regional authority has the right to amend the implementation of the federal law (119)." This clearly states regional power over federal power. Both entities have the military capability to do so. There is no Iraqi army capable of maintaining the unity of the country. And, just as in the former Yugoslavia, the separate countries – Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia – the new countries ma y have a better chance of coherency.



This article will be published in my commentary on the Asia Times online.