Prospect November, 2002

After Saddam

by Kanan Makiya

What would a post-Saddam Iraq look like? It will require imaginative Iraqi and American leadership to build a successful new state. But the feasibility of the following ideas rests on several further assumptions.

First, that the unseating of Saddam's regime does not take place at the cost of large-scale civilian casualties (Iraqi or Israeli). Second, that these ideas, or some variation on them, are adopted at a large and representative conference of the Iraqi opposition. Third, that the US government, as the partner of the Iraqi people in liberating Iraq, sees its role in Iraq as being for the long term, for democracy and nation-building. (National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told the Financial Times that this time around the US will be "completely devoted" to the reconstruction of Iraq as a unified, democratic state. She said that the values of freedom, democracy and free enterprise do not "stop at the edge of Islam," and she underlined US interest in "democratisation and the march of freedom in the Muslim world." Although comforted by these words, I am not persuaded that Rice was stating her government's position.) Fourth, that the government of the US, further to a treaty with a new duly constituted Iraqi government, agrees to keep a military presence inside Iraq, whose purpose is to guarantee the territorial integrity of Iraq for a period measured in years, not months. This having been said, there is nothing in this proposal that requires the US to police or manage into existence the budding institutions of the country. That is a challenge for the people of Iraq.

The removal of Saddam's regime presents the US with a historic opportunity-as big as anything in the middle east since the fall of the Ottoman empire and the entry of British troops into Iraq in 1917. Iraq is not Afghanistan. It is rich and developed enough and has the human resources to become as great a force for democracy and economic reconstruction in the Arab and Muslim world as it has been a force for autocracy and destruction. But for the world to see the challenge in this way, the terms of the debate over this coming war with Iraq must change.

Unfortunately, much of the debate that has taken place in Europe, in the Arab world and even in the US has been a selfish one: on the one hand, centred on the threats to the west and its friends, on the other, on the issues arising from US hegemony. It has been all about "us" in the west, and not about those who have had to live inside one of the most brutal dictatorships of modern times. The debate has been even more self-centred among non-Iraqi Arabs, almost all of whom look upon war as an unmitigated disaster. The spectrum of what it is possible to talk about in Arab politics these days runs from Palestine at one end to Palestine at the other, with no room for the plight of the people of Iraq, the overwhelming majority of whom believe that military action is the price that has to be paid for the removal of Saddam.

The change that has occurred in US policy towards Iraq is driven, of course, by strategic American considerations post-11th September. This change has been heartily welcomed in Iraqi opposition circles, even as it is feared and criticised in the rest of the Arab world. This is not the time to pay attention to these Arab fears. They will come to nothing in the end, as they came to nothing during the Gulf war and the war in Afghanistan. But how these fears might evolve in years to come depends on how willing the US is to follow through with nation-building, as opposed to mere regime change.

Federalism has become the key issue inside the Iraqi opposition. In the Iraqi circles with which I am involved-and which work closely with various agencies of the US government-federalism is the big idea. The origins of this debate go back to 1992, when the Kurdish parliament voted for federalism. A few months later the Iraqi National Congress (INC) adopted the policy in its conference in Salahuddin, northern Iraq. I attended that conference and spoke out strongly in favour of the idea. The INC later reaffirmed federalism at its 1998 New York conference.

These votes were the first of their kind in the modern history of Iraq and they broke the mould of Iraqi and Arab politics. There is no literature in Arabic on this idea, just as there is no Arab experience of federalism. Yet most Iraqi organisations that oppose the regime in Baghdad now advocate some version of federalism. There are, of course, disagreements over what federalism should mean in practice. But almost everyone accepts that federalism is a necessary condition of democracy and that it means devolving power away from Baghdad to the provinces.

The novelty of federalism is part of the broader novelty of the post-1991 Iraqi opposition, an opposition grounded not in "national liberation," "armed struggle" and the fight against "Zionism" and "imperialism" (the catch-all phrases of Arab politics since 1967), but in opposition to its own dictatorship. Admittedly, this opposition has not always been easy to deal with: it encompasses diverse elements of Iraqi society, it is fractious, and prone to in-fighting. None the less, virtually all of its constituent parts agree on the need for representative democracy, the rule of law, a pluralist system of government and federalism.

Unfortunately, neither the Kurdish parliament nor the INC have yet clarified what they mean by federalism, nor have they worked out its practical implications with regards to the mechanics of power-sharing and resource distribution.

But the driving force behind the federalist idea is the Kurdish experience in Iraq. For Kurds, federalism has become a condition for staying inside a new Iraq. Without a federal system of government, the currently autonomous, predominantly Kurdish north will sooner or later opt for separation, and rightly so. After all that has been done to the Kurds in the name of Arabism, no Iraqi should expect otherwise.

There is thus a purely utilitarian argument for federalism, derived from a pragmatic calculus of the balance of power in the aftermath of Saddam's overthrow. One must concede federalism, the argument goes among some Arabs, in the interest of getting rid of Saddam and because the Kurds are in a position to force it upon us. Similarly, we must accept federalism, some Kurds say, not because we really want it, but because the regional situation does not allow us to have a separate state in northern Iraq.

A project as big as rebuilding Iraq as a federal state should not be undertaken on the basis of such a pragmatic calculus. Federalism, if it is to become the basis of a new start in Iraq, must derive from a position of principle.

Because Saddam's regime was never willing to relinquish power except under duress (for example in 1970 when it negotiated the 11th March Kurdish autonomy accords), none of its past "concessions" to the Kurds could ever be taken seriously. By contrast, a federal system of government is a new system in which power itself is from the outset both separated and divided. Federalism is the first step towards a state resting on the principle that the rights of the minority should not be sacrificed to the will of the majority. A basic principle of human rights is that the rights of the part-defined as a single individual or a collectivity of individuals who speak another language and have their own culture-are inviolable. Federalism is about the rights of those collective parts of the mosaic that is Iraqi society.

How should these different parts of the new Iraqi federation be defined? One approach rests on ethnicity. In some accounts this leads to an Iraq composed of two regions, one Arab, one Kurdish. The Kurds are the driving force behind this definition. But non-Kurdish Iraqis have three problems with this formulation. First, it will cause ethnicity to become the basis for making territorial claims, especially with regards to valuable resources located in one region and not another. The fight over Kirkuk is already proceeding in this direction, with Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman claims competing over this oil-rich city. Second, when a federation is defined as being about two ethnic groups, then clearly all the other ethnic groups, who do not have a share in the federation, are likely to be discriminated against. Why should an Armenian, Chaldean, or Turkoman citizen of Iraq have fewer rights as an individual than an Arab or a Kurd? Third, ethnic groups are not all territorially concentrated. There are Kurds in Baghdad, Arabs in Sulaymaniyya, and Turkomans, Armenians and Chaldeans mixed in with Arabs and Kurds in many areas. Therefore, a federation of many ethnic groups would be no improvement on a federation made up of only two large groups.

The alternative to ethnicity is territoriality, in which each region receives its share of all national resources (including oil money) according to the relative size of its population. That is what is in effect happening in northern Iraq now, through the UN's oil-for-food programme. An argument can be made for extending that formula to the whole of Iraq. The future Iraqi federation should not be one of different ethnicities, but one of geographically-defined territories, within which different ethnicities may form a majority. The point is not to diminish or dilute the Kurdishness of a Kurd, or the Arabness of an Arab; it is to put a premium on equality of citizenship.

Moreover, the logic of territoriality as a basis for federalism is that the new Iraqi state cannot be thought of as an Arab entity. This is a novel idea for the region, but it follows from a territorial as opposed to an ethnic form of federalism.

Israel is today a Jewish state in which over 1m Arab Palestinians have Israeli citizenship but are not, and cannot ever be, fully-fledged citizens of the state. The fact that they live in better conditions than their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, or those in refugee camps in the Arab world, is not an argument for second-class citizenship. Because they live in a religiously or ethnically defined state, they are second-class citizens and one day the two principles upon which the state of Israel was created-ethnicity and democracy-are going to collide.

We should not want such a formula for Iraq. Iraqis deserve a country in which a Kurd, Chaldean, Assyrian or Turkoman can be elected to the highest offices. That means that even though the Arabs form a majority in the country, that should not grant them the right to exclude anyone else from positions of power-as has been the case in the regime led by a party that calls itself the Arab Ba'ath Socialist party. A democratic Iraq has to be an Iraq that exists for all its citizens equally, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. That means a non-Arab Iraq.

This leads on to the third condition for a democratic Iraq: its relationship to religion. The quality of Islamic education, scholarship and spiritual guidance declined dramatically once the nationalist secular regimes of the post-colonial period came into existence and took over these functions. The resurgence of political Islam from the 1970s has not improved matters. The youth of Iran today are turning against the clergy whom their parents had helped bring to power a generation ago. None the less, Iran is a success story in comparison with the atrocities that have been perpetrated in the name of Islam in Algeria and, until recently, in Egypt and the Sudan. The substitution of jihad for worship is the greatest travesty visited upon Islam in modern times; it will take much work by Muslims to undo its pernicious effect. When Saddam hails the "martyrdom" of Palestinian suicide bombers and distributes money to their families, or when he uses the resources of the Iraqi people to build mosques as propaganda during the Iraq-Iran war, he too is degrading Islam by using it for political ends.

To guard against the recurrence of such abuse, Iraqis need a concept of statehood that will give all religions in the country the chance to flourish again. Christianity and Judaism have very deep roots in Iraq. The Babylonian Talmud was written just south of Baghdad, and the many branches of the Eastern Church which flourished in Iraq predate Islam and are among the earliest churches in Christianity.

What, if any, is the relationship which ought to exist between the new Iraqi state and religion, specifically the majority religion, Islam? One way of thinking about this is in the form of a series of questions one might ask the Iraqi people. First, do you want your future state to be involved in your religious beliefs, either by way of compelling or persuading you towards a belief? Second, do you want your future state to define individual citizens as members of different religious groups (as is the case in Lebanon)? Third, do you want your future state to promote, regulate, direct, or otherwise interfere in matters of religion? Fourth, do you trust Iraqi politicians enough to give them influence or control over your religious affairs? Finally, do you think Iraqi clerics, or ulama, have the knowledge and experience required to decide on your political affairs?

If the answer that Iraqis give to all of these questions is "no"-and I believe it would be-then the people of Iraq would choose to keep matters of politics and matters of religion separate.

The fourth precondition for a democratic future in Iraq is demilitarisation. My view on this has not changed since 1991, when along with over 400 Iraqis of every ethnic and religious denomination, I put my name to Charter 1991. The relevant passages from this document read: "The notion that strength resides in weapons of mass destruction has proved bankrupt... Real strength is always internal-in the creative, cultural and wealth-producing capabilities of a people. It is found in civil society, not in the army or in the state. Armies often threaten democracy; the larger they grow the more they weaken civil society. This is what happened in Iraq."

Therefore, conditional upon international and regional guarantees which secure the territorial integrity of Iraq, a new Iraqi constitution should: first, abolish military conscription and reorganise the army into a professional, small and purely defensive force which will never be used for internal repression; second, set an upper limit on expenditure on this new force equal to 2 per cent of Iraqi national income; and third, have as the first article in the constitution a renunciation of the use of force by the new Iraqi state in the settling of international disputes.

If the territorial integrity of the country were to be guaranteed by an outside power, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, certainly its Kurdish and Shi'ite populations, would vote for such a far-reaching programme. Understandably, the Sunni population would worry about the implications of the curtailing of an institution which has been important to their role in the country-the army. Those fears are legitimate and need to be addressed. After all, the country will, like postwar Germany, need powerful internal law-and-order institutions. But like Japan and Germany after the second world war, Iraq's future lies in unshackling itself from the burden of its past and focusing the creative energies of the country on building a federal, non-Arab and demilitarised country.

Kanan Makiya was born in Baghdad. He is a professor of Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in the US.