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    Middle East
     Jan 29, 2005
Why insurgents may be the winners
By Ehsan Ahrari

General George W Casey, commander of US forces in Iraq, admitted on Thursday that the American military has underestimated the strength of the insurgency in that country. The admission was hardly surprising. Looking at the evolution of any insurgency from top down, and especially from the perspective of an occupying force, it is considered a safe strategy not only to underestimate it, but also constantly to belittle it for propaganda purposes.

As Iraq edges close to elections on Sunday, the position of the insurgents will receive a major boost from an unlikely source: a potential one-upmanship that is likely to begin in the aftermath of the general elections, involving the Shi'ites and the Kurds. Other parties are also likely to participate in these maneuverings.

When the Iraqi insurgency was in the beginning phase toward the end of 2003, the then commander, General Tommy Frank, and US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were depicting it in unison as consisting of "dead-enders". Apparently that characterization was being used for propaganda reasons: to transmit to the Iraqis that any protest against the occupation of their country was a lost cause. One wondered whether the Shi'ites of Iraq - a section of population that experienced regular brutality and suppression at the hands of Saddam Hussein - were then envisaging the option of revolting against the occupation of their country as a futile endeavor.

It appeared that during that time, the Shi'ites were in the process of making up their minds about how to deal with the occupation forces. They were hoping that the result of the toppling of Saddam and the foreign occupation of their country would lead to the creation of a democratic system that would give them political power based on their sheer numbers. Of course, that perspective was reinforced by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Consequently, the Shi'ites - for the most part - decided to avoid confronting the occupation forces.

The Kurdish population also appeared to go along with the US depiction of the insurgency as composed of "dead-enders", since Kurds were also aspiring to emerge as victors in the post-Saddam political order. On the other hand, Sunni anger toward the United States was expected only to rise, since they found themselves the major losers in the post-Saddam era.

Well, a lot has happened since then. The Iraqi Shi'ites still perceive themselves as potential winners of the elections. So do the Kurds, but they are getting bold in their political demands. This reality has the potential of further complicating things for the US, as it continues to rely on Kurdish support in Iraq and also counts on a sustained Kurdish-Shi'ite cooperation.

According to a dispatch issued by the Kurdish media on Tuesday, Noshirwan Mustafa, an aide to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), stated, "Iraq's Kurds are not actively seeking independence, but will be unable to remain Iraqis if the Baghdad government fails to observe their key demands." He added that there are "three red lines" for the Kurds. If they are crossed, "we will no longer be Iraqis". These include: "if the Arabs do not accept the principle of federalism"; "if they insist on a theocratic regime"; and "if the Kurdish terrorists are not returned to Kurdish officials". Everyone recognizes the theatrical elements of this statement; however, the US may not be able to disregard it completely.

This seemingly voluble rejection of a "theocratic" government by the Kurds may be welcome news to the Americans. At the same time, it is potentially problematic, considering that the Shi'ites might opt for a visible - if not an overwhelming - role of Islam in the government that takes shape after the elections. So there is the potential of a major Shi'ite-Kurdish conflict on the role of Islam alone. If a strongly pro-Iranian government were to come to power as a result of coalition-building, there is little doubt that the Kurds would do everything to sabotage it. There has never been any love lost between the Iraqi Kurds and Iran.

As the Kurds remain wary about the possibility of a Shi'ite-dominated Islamic government, there is also a likelihood that such a government would chisel away at the rights of the Kurds. The latter, in return, would start a campaign for rejecting the provisional constitution of March 2004. The Kurdish advantage stems from the fact that the provisional constitution "stipulates that Iraq's new basic law must be put to a referendum, which could declare it invalid if two-thirds of the electorate votes against it in three of Iraq's 18 provinces". Since three provinces have a Kurdish majority, there is a distinct possibility that the Kurds would trigger a "no" campaign.

At the same time, the Kurds are upset about the future control of Kirkuk, which they want to remain Kurdish. To nullify any Kurdish advantage emanating from their numerical majority, Saddam, as a matter of deliberate policy, flooded Kirkuk with Arab residents. Now, Kurds want to regain control of it. About 100,000 of them returned to Kirkuk and wanted to register to vote, but were denied the right to do so. They blame the US authorities for buckling under the pressure of the Arab Shi'ites, who oppose any special treatment or concessions to Kurds.

In the final analysis, there remains an uneasy truce between the Shi'ites and the Kurds. That truce can be broken within no time after the elections, if or when either party concludes that its advantage stemming from the post-election political arrangement is being jeopardized or nullified by the other. (It should be reminded that the possible strong reaction of Turkey in the seemingly rising demands of the Kurds is also a variable that is weighing heavily on the US side. Turkey has made it known that it will not stand by idly if Kurds are given control of oil sources, or what Ankara would regard as undue power in Iraq that would have a spillover effect across the borders in Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey.)

Precisely because of these intricacies and the uneasy truce, the current advantage of the Iraqi insurgents may increase if there is an outbreak of violence between Shi'ites and Kurds after the elections. The entire Kurdish history has proved that they are tempted to exploit short-term advantages, thereby enabling other parties to exploit their proclivity for risk-taking at the expense of nullifying potential long-term gains.

Today's Iraq has become a place where all the major actors have some advantages, yet those advantages encounter serious limitations and require cooperation from one or more major actors. In the absence of such cooperation, one or more main actors are likely to falter. To be specific, the Shi'ites, the Kurds, the US and the Sunnis enjoy discernible, though limited, advantages. Shi'ites have a numerical majority, yet they must have the US-backed elections in order to become a dominant force. The Kurds have a comparatively lesser advantage, but the US eagerly seeks their support. The Kurds, in turn, are dependent on US support and on the willingness of the Shi'ites not to undermine the Kurdish advantage after the elections. If that were to happen, the Kurds would retaliate by starting a campaign to reject the March 2004 constitution. The Sunnis, seemingly the biggest losers, are on the sidelines, either willing to boycott the elections or afraid to participate because of insurgent threats. Still, they are expected to be given a minority role in the government. After their dominant status of the Saddam era, they don't expect to emerge as a major player, unless the Shi'ites and the Kurds were to become embroiled in a protracted conflict.

The insurgents, on the other hand, are emerging as potentially the most advantaged party, since they have everything to gain if all other parties lose their respective advantages. The bottom-line implications for Iraq from this intriguing one-upmanship appear to be a continued cloudy future and prolonged instability.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

US teeters on explosive line in the sand (Jan 28, '05)

Another Iraqi cul-de-sac (Jan 28, '05)

Vote or no vote, we will kill you
(Jan 27, '05)

A vote for the Kurds (Jan 26, '05)

The Kirkuk tinderbox
(Jan 22, '05)


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