- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

The very first Iraqi regime faced a lot of the same headaches plaguing the latest one.
The Akkadians, a Semitic people who succeeded in unifying the Sumerian city-states clustered around the fertile valleys formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 2,400 years before the birth of Christ, could maintain their empire for only two centuries before it collapsed.
The rise and fall of the Akkadian Empire, wrote University of Tennessee scholar Phebe Marr in her survey of Iraq's tumultuous history, "followed a pattern that was to persist in the river valleys right up to modern times."
"Rapid [central] expansion was followed by incomplete assimilation of diverse peoples; internal rebellions and palace revolutions broke out; and wars on the frontiers and invasions by highlanders finally destroyed the regime," Ms. Marr wrote.
Through the rise and fall of various ancient empires, the introduction of Islam in the seventh-century, a golden age when Baghdad was the intellectual and commercial center of one of the world's most advanced civilizations, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, British rule and a post-colonial struggle to forge a nation that culminated in Saddam Hussein's brutal authoritarian rule, certain fundamental patterns endure.
Stable government in Iraq, according to Ms. Marr, "required two conditions to survive."
"The first was cooperation at the center between various ethnic and sociopolitical units; the second was friendly or neutral neighbors.
"Neither situation ever lasted for long."
Such fundamentals have been pushed to the fore as the Bush administration leads an international push to force Saddam's regime to disarm or face war.
How such a war might develop, how regional players will react, and the viability of a post-Saddam regime all depend crucially upon understanding the basic facts about Iraq and the special problems it will face.
"Iraq's history, social makeup and political culture would play a significant role in determining what sort of state emerged following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime," according to Amatzia Baram, director of the Heinemann Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at Israel's University of Haifa and author of a 1998 study of Saddam's rule.
"In particular, years of anti-Western propaganda would likely complicate relations with the West, while a long tradition of internal divisiveness and violence could make it difficult to ensure stability."
Despite artificial borders, suspicious neighbors and pronounced ethnic and religious divisions, most Iraq experts do not foresee a Yugoslavia-like disintegration of the country.
"Iraq will not split apart," Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Washington-based Iraqi Foundation, flatly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during extensive hearings this summer on the prospects for post-Saddam Iraq.
"This myth was spun in 1991 principally to keep Saddam Hussein in power and, indeed, Saddam may be the biggest perpetrator of this falsehood," she said.
Iraq today is the product of a "deep history" of geography, demography and ethnicity; a modern era dating from the end of colonial rule in 1921 to the tumultuous two decades of Saddam's rule.
The land and the people
Before there was oil, there was water.
The Fertile Crescent defined by the Tigris and Euphrates saw some of the first great advances in human civilization, from the practice of settled agriculture to the rise of the first identifiable city-states.
Standing at the crossroads of three continents and boasting a rich lowland area, the central plains of modern Iraq have tempted countless invaders from outside over the centuries. The mountainous north and east have provided a natural safe haven for the Kurds, the largest of Iraq's many ethnic minorities, while the desert south has traditionally been dominated by seminomadic and settled tribal groups who have maintained an uneasy relationship with the central, urbanized authority.
The relative absence of the traditional village system and the pervasive influence of tribalism set Iraq apart even from its Middle Eastern Arab neighbors, according to Ms. Marr.
"Instead of love of the land, loyalty to family and tribe has dominated Iraq's social and political life," she wrote in her history of modern Iraq.
"Intense concern with family, clan, and tribe; devotion to personal honor; factionalism; and above all, intense individualism are among the legacies of tribalism in Iraq."
Indeed, many scholars view the hard core of Saddam's current power base as coming from members of his own tribal clan and its tribal allies from the small town of Tikrit on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.
The influence of tribes in Saddam's Iraq is "paradoxical and double-edged," according to a just-published analysis of Iraq by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
"Even while they were denounced by Saddam Hussein, his power structure remained narrowly based on tribal affiliations to his own clan and on a network of Sunni [Muslim] tribes that constitute the core of the Republican and Special Republican Guards," the ICG authors note.
Despite its substantial land mass, Iraq has just a tiny section of coastline in its southeast at the head of the Persian Gulf, and the struggle for access to ports and reliable shipping lanes for its oil exports was one major factor behind the 1980-88 war with Iran and Saddam's disastrous invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The people
Ethnic and religious differences, which do not neatly overlap, are the defining characteristic of Iraqi society.
Although hard census data are badly out of date, an estimated 75 percent to 80 percent of Iraq's people are ethnic Arabs, another 15 percent to 20 percent are Kurds, while the rest include smaller ethnic groups such as the Turkish-speaking Turkomans, the Assyrians and others.
The overwhelming majority of Iraqis 97 percent are Muslim, with 60 percent to 65 percent belonging to the Shi'ite branch of Islam and the rest, including the non-Arab Kurds, to the rival Sunni branch. Although the geographic divisions are increasingly blurred, the Kurdish heartland is based in the mountainous north, the Sunnis are most prevalent in the country's center, including Baghdad, and the Shi'ites dominate in the south.
The Kurdish-Arab division is the source of the deepest ethnic tension, particularly given the presence of large Kurdish populations across the Iraqi border with Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Kurdish question ranks among the trickiest for U.S. policy-makers to consider as they contemplate a military strike against Iraq, threatening to draw in both U.S. allies such as Turkey and adversaries such as Iran.
Sunni Arabs, including Saddam, have been Iraq's traditional political and economic elite, dating back to their favored status during Iraq's long period as part of the Ottoman Empire.
The majority Shi'ites have long chafed at the imbalance, a situation complicated by the fact that Iran, Iraq's Persian neighbor and longtime rival for pre-eminence in the Gulf, is the Muslim world's leading Shi'ite power.
Iraqi Shi'ite opponents of Saddam's rule have found a safe haven in Iran. Two of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites are located in the Iraqi towns of Najaf and Karbala.
Iraq specialists say that the country's Shi'ites do not have a history of political organization and militant opposition to central Sunni domination, but that Shi'ite identity and resentment have clearly increased as Saddam has centralized power to a degree unprecedented in the country's modern history.
But most scholars also caution that Iraq's religious and ethnic loyalties should not be exaggerated.
The Kurds, even while constantly rebelling against Baghdad's authority, have been plagued as much by internal divisions as they have been united by a common outside threat.
The Sunni-Shi'ite split, in particular, must be kept in perspective, specialists say.
"All in all, tensions between Shi'ites and Sunnis arguably are one of the more overstated of Iraq's fault lines," the ICG authors contend.
"It is difficult to speak of a strict Sunni or Shi'ite identity. Members of both groups subscribe to a broad spectrum of political ideologies and affiliations, many of which have little if anything to do with religion."
Ironically, the ethnic and sectarian divisions can be seen perhaps most clearly in Saddam's enemies the dozens of exile opposition groups that have sprung up to overthrow the current regime. Backed by different regional patrons, organized around religious and ethic leaders, led by religious, military and political figures, these exile groups have found it notoriously hard to make common cause.
Modern history
Modern Iraq was born in the aftermath of World War I, as the great colonial powers dealt with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was carved out of three former Ottoman provinces a Kurdish-dominated region in the north and two Arab regions to the south. Artificial boundaries were drawn to suit the colonial masters' administrative needs, not the logic of the local terrain.
The British installed a monarchy under the Hashemite King Faisal at the Cairo Conference of 1921, "legitimizing" the anointment by presenting Iraqis with a one-question plebiscite that the new king won with a 96 percent favorable vote.
The monarchy endured until 1958. But by Mr. Baram's count, the period from 1921 to 1958 witnessed "eight Kurdish revolts, nine [Shiite] revolts, four major city riots, three coups d'etat, one anti-Assyrian pogrom and two anti-Jewish pogroms."
An army general, Abdul-Karim Qassim, finally overthrew the monarchy, only to be toppled himself five years later in another military coup that cost him his life. Prominent in that coup, although not the first successor to Qassim, was the Iraqi Ba'ath Party and its rising star, Saddam Hussein.
In 1979, Saddam formally became head of state, but he had been the ruling force in Iraq, ruthlessly eliminating potential rivals, years before.
The early years of Saddam's rule, bankrolled by bulging government coffers thanks to soaring oil prices, saw the creation of a large, educated Iraqi middle and professional class that endures to this day.
But Saddam's increasingly authoritarian rule has been most marked by two ill-advised wars the ruinous, inconclusive eight-year struggle with Iran that began in 1980 and the equally disastrous invasion of Kuwait 10 years later.
Saddam's aggression and his use of chemical nerve gas against Iranians and rebellious Kurds has left the regime isolated and laboring under crippling economic sanctions. Baghdad has lost effective control of large part of the country under U.S.-enforced no-fly zones.
Writes Mr. Baram, "It is anyone's guess how 30 years of property confiscation, torture, executions, fear, hate and deep suspicion have affected social relations in Iraq. One can safely assume, however, that, if the heavy, sealing lid of violent repression were lifted following Saddam's ouster, the temptation to settle accounts would be great."

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