After the departure of the USA, Iraq could develop into a federation – with the aid of Europe. Volker Perthes assesses the basic factors of Iraqi politics and takes a prognostic look at the various possible developments
Three years after the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq is a freer and more democratic country than ever before. The future of the state, however, is now in question. Basic conflicts continue between the leading groups in the new Iraq on issues such as the structure of a federal state, the distribution of oil incomes, and the status of Islam.
And the USA, the self-appointed engineer of the Iraqi situation, finds itself caught in a dangerous dilemma, which poses difficulties for Europe as well. Should what is effectively an occupation force remain, then resistance and terror will continue. If the Americans and coalition troops decide to leave, then civil war and division would be imminent.
The longer violence and insecurity prevail in central Iraq, the greater the tendency for the Shiites in the south to build up their own structures and the Kurds in the north to push for independence. Separation and civil war will further increase the readiness of neighboring countries to interfere in Iraqi affairs.
The options available for German and European policy action in Iraq depend on developments over which Europe has no control, such as the security situation and options chosen by Washington.
Resolving the conflict "in an Iraqi way"
It can't be ruled out, however, that the US government will soon start to withdraw troops. In this case, it is hoped that the Iraqis can take matters into their own hands and resolve their conflict "in an Iraqi way," namely through a combination of consultation and repression. Although it is by no means certain that this would happen.
The worst case scenario would be that the Iraqi security forces and the remaining coalition troops prove unable to end the resistance and continue to loose control, while no unified leadership coalesces on the side of the insurgents. Central Iraq and parts of the capital would fall into chaos.
The role of the Kurds
Local warlords, terror cells, tribal leaders, as well as the government with its security forces would control separate areas or territories. The Kurdish parties would see no option other than to make a clear break from the rest of the country – with the "inclusion" of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields.
Turkey would react with economic pressure and perhaps with a limited invasion, justifying this as a measure to protect the Turkmen minority and necessary to fight the PPK from certain strategic locations. Without a doubt, one of the aims would also be to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state that might serve as reference point for Turkish Kurds.
The situation would not look very different if a reduced American presence were to be offset by an increased employment of the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Shiite Badr militia to fight the Sunni rebels. These forces could indeed book military successes, but at the same time would be regarded as a Shiite-Kurdish coalition to repress the Sunnis.
Ankara as protector of Iraqi Kurds?
Confessional resentments would grow and sooner or later would erupt into a full-scale ethic-confessional civil war. Under such circumstances, there would be no reason for the Kurdish groups to maintain support for a unified Iraqi state. However, there still remains time for them to make an arrangement with Turkey to assume the role of protector of Iraqi Kurds. In return, Ankara could promise its goodwill and cooperation – also in the fight against the PKK.
Perhaps the most welcome scenario under the present circumstances would be a division of powers within Iraq. The precondition for this would be a clear timetable for American troop withdrawal linked to the fulfillment of certain minimal conditions. Then it would be possible for negotiations between the Iraqi government and those rebels demanding an end to the occupation, who are motivated, to some extent at least, by nationalistic aims, as opposed to the holy warriors.
Part of this spectrum could be integrated into new power structures. The militias of the Kurdish parties in the north and the Shiites in the south could provide a certain measure of security. Under the cover of a "Federal Republic of Iraq," the Shiite parties could establish an Islamic order in the territory under their control on the basis of the Iranian model.
The Kurds could strengthen their virtual autonomy. Contested constitutional issues and the drawing up of borders between the federal entities could be postponed until a later date.
None of this meets democratic standards. A civil war can presumably only be averted if, at the same time, an agreement on the distribution of oil income can be reached, which also takes into consideration the interests of the Sunnis in central Iraq. In this scenario, the Kurds would have no immediate grounds to announce their separation from Iraq.
Proposals for Germany and the EU
Germany and the EU should proceed along two tracks. They should continue their efforts to support the new Iraq towards self-reliance. Simultaneously, Germany and the EU have to prepare for the possible breakup of the country, particularly the separation of the Kurdish region.
There should be no doubt whatsoever that such a separation is not in the interest of Europe, as it would heighten regional tensions and instability. Yet, there is no reason to cling to the illusion of a unitary state when the Iraqis themselves have no such interest.
Germany and the EU have more opportunities, if any at all, to influence events in the Kurdish-Iraqi-Turkish zone of conflict than in either central Iraq or in the south. The EU has to make clear to the neighboring states of Iran, Syria, and, above all, Turkey, that they are expected to play a constructive role.
The EU can also offer the prospect of diplomatic recognition to the Iraqi Kurds if they peacefully solve the border problem and the issue of Kirkuk, as well as guaranteeing the protection of minorities in their territory. Here, the deployment of a European peace keeping force would make sense.
© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by John Bergeron