Lessons from Iraq after Saddam’s guilty verdict



So many books have been published so far to highlight basically what went wrong in Iraq and  it is now a foregone conclusion as Prime Minister Blair, said or implied,  that it is a disaster.

If you go to any bookshop there are so many titles. State of Denial is the latest. I am  going through it now. But amongst so many titles that we have most of them are focused on what went wrong in America in its planning, thinking, decision making and  implementing its plan. It is done from an American perspective  by American writers, mainly, and of course the reason being America went into Iraq and has now burdened itself with what could be a thousand billion dollars by the time all this ends. The human cost is some 3,000 and a few thousand permanently disabled. There is no question that America has lost a great deal in Iraq and this is not the desired outcome it had in mind.

The cost to its credibility  will take decades to mend or repair. There is the Baker Commission which is looking at how to get out of this disaster. There will be many commissions in congress that are going to investigate what went wrong. In the words of many this is comparable, if not exceeding, in its impact on America to the Vietnam war.

Having talked a little about an American perspective, I now want to talk a little bit about an Iraqi perspective and about an Islamic perspective to this war. While America has lost much and the war did not serve its interests to Iraq it was detrimental in a  negative way, so far. In Iraq the level of suffering and  death has exceeded many expectations. The latest, what I think was a conservative figure by the Iraqi government, was 150,000. I think the numbers are much higher. If you  want to divide the rate of death, destruction, waste of public wealth per year to the rates of death, destruction and waste of wealth and even deportation or displacement compared to the Saddam years the average is tending to be higher. That does not make Saddam look good but it does make the situation in Iraq dire.

To Iraqis the story is still unfolding. We are still not sure whether we will have a united Iraq. There is no question that what we are having in Iraq today has exceeded any worst expectation we had earlier. I guess that makes Iraq a very expensive lesson or experiment so to speak. So unless we draw all the important lessons from that experiment we would have wasted all the effort and opportunity in a very big wa.=y.

Many of you are either academics or keen observers of politics and you tend to ask the question what went wrong, in a particular how come a regime that was so bad is now followed up by conditions that are worse. What are the main factors? Is that really a failure of the country Iraq or its people as a nation or was is simply an indication of the failure of Saddam and his regime and the extent of destruction that they inflicted on Iraq? Or is it a sign of the failure of America and its grand ideas about spreading democracy? Or is it even a sign of a failure of maybe something bigger that was unveiled to the region? All these are questions and I think it is important we focus our minds on the right questions before we try to draw any conclusions. I am not going to answer many of these questions but I will describe some of the things that struck me and I do want to bring them as key lessons out of the Iraq experience.

The first one is what I call Islamism. We cannot separate the context of what is happening in Iraq from the context of the revival and  spread of Islamism, so to speak,  throughout the region.

Back in 1979 when the world was taken by surprise by the Islamic Revolution in Iran the   Iraq-Iran war started. It lasted eight and a half years to the cost of maybe a million people, huge destruction and everyone knew the war was to keep Iran’s revolution in check because it was a force unleashed and there was a threat to destabilize the region.

Iran as a revolution  and as a country was contained but the Islamic movement that came out of it that inspired  many other movements throughout the globe continued.  A much distorted version of it started to emerge in other countries. The worst version of it was what happened in Afghanistan by the Taliban. But even what happened in Afghanistan by the Taliban and then Al Qaeda and  Bin Laden could not take the steam of the drive towards the  “Islamic aspirations” of millions of Muslims who are living in dysfunctional states where conditions are dire, who are looking for something to hold on to. And here come different modalities and leaders who say we have the answers for you.

Nothing would stop that drive effectively other than a strife within. And it is with regret   that what we see in Iraq today is a parliament with elected leaders predominately Islamic – Shias and Sunnis –  which  is more or less in charge and responsible for the dire situation in the country.

Islam is supposed to give a message that it is supposed to inspire unity and  strengthen bonds  between Muslims. In Iraq it has effectively become a  a reason to divide the nation, tribes and even families. What  was supposed to be a call for development, growth and protection of life has become a license to kill in the name of religion. A very bad example and a very bad experience.

Lessons have not been drawn yet but the younger generation is going to be on a cross roads: either they totally abandon Islam  based on that experience and maybe go  for a total separation of religion and politics. That is a possibility. Or I assume the second more likely possibility is going to be a more radical revision of not Islam itself. I think the Muslims can easily recognize that this is not a failure in Islam,  but it is certainly a failure of those movements that are adopting Islam.  And it is not a failure out of lack of experience in politics or government, it is not a failure out of human weakness in handling power. It is a failure in developing programmes that can run very tough situations.

One very important lesson that will emerge, it hasn’t materialized yet, is  that there will be a more radical revision of Islam and its role in politics. In what way it  is yet to emerge but the Iraq experience is not going to be limited to Iraq.  The Shia-Sunni issue  is not going to be limited to Iraq. It has the capacity and the potential to go further in the region. If it is not contained now it can be very much a cause of destruction  of the Islamic discourse itself that  was initially unleashed in 1979 with the Islamic revolution. Or it is going to become a key turning point in its reformation.

 And one last point here. If you would have asked Iraqi Arabs Shias and Sunni three or four years ago do you want to divide your country along Shia-Sunni lines you would hardly find one person who would argue that position. You would find  the majority of Kurds  would argue why they want a separate Kurdistan in various forms and ways. But you would hardly find one person who would advocate an agenda that would call for dividing the country along Shia-Sunni lines.

When Saddam fell in April 2003 there were no sectarian killings or backlash. No such killings were taking place. In fact for a  year or two there were no sectarian killings in Iraq. All opinion polls that were taken in Iraq, many of them  very serious and credible, indicated generally (over 90 percent) were looking for a unity government and a revived role for the state without Saddam. They liked Iraq, they liked the state of Iraq, they liked everything about it, they just didn’t like Saddam and his regime.

What happened in the last three years that transformed not only public opinion but reality in every district, every street, every corner in Iraq to this ugly reality? Iraqis prided themselves in the past that there have never been sectarian killings in their 1,000 year history. The shrine of Samarra was in a predominantly Sunni area but that was not an issue. The Iraqi tribes switch from partially becoming  Shias to partially becoming Sunnis naturally. There is a very high level of intermarriage and it is not an issue. To them it was just not possible to anticipate or to extract that there were going to be sectarian killings.

But it is a reality today. My argument is that it did not happen by accident. It does not simply indicate it was   all caused by an ill will from outsiders but there is an element of ill will. It indicates most importantly that there has been a weakness in Iraq amongst Iraqi politicians and amongst Iraqi religious institutions to have withheld or withstood that new virus that was released on them. That killer virus that is not only eating away the fabric of Iraqi society but more likely if it is unchecked or unaddressed will spread to other countries in the region. That is a key theme we need to look at.

A second key issue is how grossly many have over-estimated Americas intelligence and have  under-estimated how dangerous Americas exposure to influence might be. America is a super power and with it comes a lot of responsibilities and assumptions. I was in Washington DC on 9/11, I have seen the impact 9/11 had on America’s think tank policy makers and I have seen how a paralysis struck not only the American administration but all the establishment in Washington.

A very small pressure group lobby managed to push an agenda that could have never been left unchecked under normal conditions. But it was that state of paralysis and I think up until now if there is one major lesson to be  learned out of this it is that it is so important to have a voice and presence in America itself. America is so much open to lobbying and to influence that simply to keep a distance and to assume that America will take responsibility without effective input and effective influence and interaction is basically surrendering your own interests and your own fate in the hand of the rival or of the other.

I have seen and heard many who argue with conspiracy theories about  America’s deliberate design to destroy Iraq and to have the conditions  that are currently in Iraq. I think that one can talk emotionally to endorse such assumptions but they do not bear much truth. If you want to look at it objectively, America has lost a great deal in the Iraq venture and America is drawing its own lessons out of what happened in Iraq.

If we were to adopt a more objective language rather than a  subjective or moral language and  look at who are the winners and losers out of the Iraq episode I think that on the side of losers definitely  Iraq is a loser:  although Iraqis  have their freedom they have lost a lot in the process. America has lost a great deal of credibility. This will emerge on the losers side. The Islamic movements throughout the region have lost a great deal. Whether they are aware of it is a different issue but what I call the noble cause of advocating an Islamic message has suffered a great deal because of the mess we have  in Iraq.

Again putting aside conspiracy theories and looking purely objectively on who are the beneficiaries of the mess in Iraq, on the one hand comes Israel. It has weakened one major Arab state that has been problematic for a while. It is questionable whether Iraq today is an Arab state because there has been a big resistance to adding that line in its constitution. The Kurds are major beneficiaries from the situation in Iraq because basically today Iraq is two: there is Kurdistan that is flourishing, attracting foreign investment, high rise buildings, consolidated institutions, imported labour from the Far  East – all indicators of development. And you have the rest of Iraq which is basically on fire.  If the rest of Iraq were to regain its strength as one big region than this would weaken the Kurdish region. Kurdish leaders know that.

The third beneficiary is Iran.  America has demolished the Baath regime and put Saddam on trial. Looking purely from an objective point of view Iraq represented a counter weight to Iran. When Saddam played the Arab card on Iran he did not play it out of a void. He played it because there was a role for Iraq to play and that role has been totally undermined and gone. Iran’s regional position has become  much stronger because of the situation in Iraq. Again I state these as objective facts not  implicating or passing judgments on any of these players.

There is another main theme which I think is important to bring to light. Until April 2003, myself, my colleagues all or us in the opposition have argued rightly that Saddam was responsible  for all the ills in Iraq. He was the sole decision maker, he had full constitutional powers, effective power, he took all these big decisions, he was responsible for the death and destruction that happened in Iraq.

After April 2003 the responsibility started to shift and a great deal of it went on America. America undertook the responsibility of the invasion and with it assumed responsibility for post war planning. And whatever Bremmer or Rumsfeld did the bottom line is they took responsibility for what happened in  Iraq. 

After two national elections in Iraq where the Iraqi people have elected their deputies after a process where institutions, especially religious institutions played a role, Iraqis now take responsibility for the mess in their country. One can argue quite rightly  it is an unfair way of taking responsibility  because they were not given a  clean slate to work with. They were handed conditions that were difficult to start with, their hands were tied, state institutions were dismantled, borders were left open all sorts of measures took place and they were simply handed that mess: you take it now. That is not fair it is true but the bottom line is it is their responsibility and today they either mend their country, ask for the troops to leave. Or they can continue the conditions as they are and simply prove they are not  up to taking responsibility for that country and there will be a great deal of suffering.

As I state facts it might sound pessimistic. I must add a few notes on the positive side. Iraq is a country or a land that has a lot of promise. A few years ago when I was asked how do  you see Iraq after Saddam Hussein I really saw Iraq as the turning point for the whole region not simply because it is going to offer democracy or be the first country in the Middle East that would hold free elections as such but because Iraq has the diversity of Shias and Sunnis.  To Shias it is the land of Shiism: the six imams are buried in Iraq. For a  thousand years the Shia seminary, the Hausa is in Iraq itself. All the faces of the  evolution of the Shias are in Iraq.

Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid era for a long time. More importantly Abu Hanifa is in Baghdad only across the river from the shrines of Imam Khadim and Jawad.  Across the street is the shrine of Gailani, a Sufi, whose followers go deep into central Asia.

So with all this promise if the Iraqis can put a system, a regime that is successful it has the potential to become the centre of gravity for the region. It has a lot of promise. What happened in Iraq should not be underestimated: we have lost a generation or two. The impact on women and children will take a generation of two to recover. But knowing what I know about Iraq and its people I remain strong in my faith and I remain optimistic.

Iraqis are extremely resilient. Nothing inspired me more when I was in Baghdad then to see some of the staff who worked in the office. They would come late sometimes by an hour or half and hour and they would apologise because on their way to work there was a car bomb or there was a clash and they had to take shelter for half an hour. That spirit  that basically defies pessimism and death is very deep among Iraqis. It is sad what happened, it is tough and it can break anybody’s soul or morale but having felt and seen the experience in Iraq I remain optimistic.

There is one last remark I will make purely from a Shia point of view. I think when speaking on a forum like this I am not sure  what type of audience I will get and what angle I need to emphasise. I  have a variety of points. For those who know Shi’ism as a school that emerged in mainstream Islam throughout history the Shias who followed the imams took a line of not compromising their principles. If  it came to an issue of taking a moral stand, a principled stand or going for power or material gains they always opted for taking the principled stand. This has been very much a painful experience throughout history and there have been many voices among the Shias who questioned why do you take that line.

What’s happening in Iraq today is changing, at least partially, the face of Shiism. Shiism has never been equated to sectarianism. Let me just give you to solid examples. The famous words of Imam Ali when he was asked about the argument that took place immediately after the death of the Prophet. They said ‘We have to refer to Quraish’. His famous words were: ‘They held to the tree but they let go of the fruit’. It is a saying that sometimes may be warning Shias  not simply to hold on to power and let go of the main issue which is the principles behind these powers.

And the second story is  told every year during the month of Ramadan about the death of Imam Ali, the martyrdom. He was hit by his killer. He survived for three days before his death. He asked his guards not to kill or harm the man who tried to kill him but  to keep him in custody and to treat him like they treat all other prisoners of war.  And if the Imam died they simply have to implement  the Islamic code a life for a life and he has to be executed. And if he is executed nothing is to be done with his body except to be given a burial as a Muslim. If the Imam stayed alive of course he would not have killed the man who attempted to kill him. These were the instructions of Imam Ali.

Today what we are seeing in Iraq,  especially after what was unleashed after the attack on the two shrines in Samarra,  is a wave of sectarian killings in which the Shias participated. Somebody might criticize me and say why aren’t you highlighting what Al Qaeda is doing, why aren’t you highlighting what Saddam was doing? That goes without saying. We have been highlighting this. Why don’t you highlight what the Americans are doing? Again that goes without saying. I am highlighting what the Shias are doing who for 1,400 years held to principles  and basically honoured their Imams who absorbed a lot of pain and did not compromise their principles.

At this moment when they came to power I can see a lot of weakness or rushing to power at a cost of  principles. I think those lessons will also hit and cut deep within Shiism in Iraq. That  was a notion that was often referred to in the 70s by an Iranian writer, Ali Shiariti. He always talked about two types of Shiism, a Safawi Shiism and an Allawi Shiism.  The world has changed a lot in the past 30 years and those words are regrettably  equated with two different meanings.

But I think the events of Iraq are not only going to force reviews within the Islamic movement but they are going to have  a lasting impact also on the new, emerging face of Shiism in  Iraq.

I think what I wanted to do in the time given was to touch on enough topics hopefully to provoke some feedback and interesting discussions so I will stop there.

* Dr Laith Kubba is the author of Common Ground on Iraq-Kuwait Reconciliation. Born and educated in Baghdad, he graduated from Baghdad University and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wales. Over the past two decades, he has served on the executive committees of a number of Arab and Muslim organizations including the Arab Organization for Human Rights in London. He was also a member of the Joint Action Committee of the Iraqi opposition and a founding member of both the Iraqi National Congress and The Iraq Foundation. Since 1991, Kubba has been contributing to international conferences on both Iraqi and Islamic issues. He had been the Director of International Relations at the al-Khoei Foundation in London, and currently works with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington

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