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Post-war `occupation' of Iraq could result in chaos

IRBIL, Iraq—The actual war, for all its expected blood and sorrow, could prove to be the easy part.

Keeping a post-war Iraq glued together—shaping the country into a federation that can live peacefully within its borders and with its neighbors—might well be the more difficult and costly mission for the United States.

"We feel the Americans will do the job militarily," said a senior leader of one of Iraq's closest Arab neighbors. "They're also talking about preserving the sovereignty, integrity and unity of Iraq. The Arab countries and Iran also want this, but we're all worried that it won't happen.

"We're worried that the outcome will be civil war."

Those worries appear to be well founded. The Bush administration is setting an audacious goal: to remake a country after toppling the government and imposing military occupation. Little in history or common sense suggests that the task will be short, clean, cheap or successful. None of the recent efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan offers much hope that stable, effective government takes root easily in ethnically divided lands that have no history of democratic rule.

Japan and Germany after World War II stand out as successes, yet they were different. Both nations' populations were highly literate and technically skilled, with proficient and cooperative government administrations through which U.S. forces ruled. People in both countries, disgusted by the war, embraced democracy. Even so, military occupation—fully backed by the international community—lasted seven years in Japan, a decade in Germany.

And unlike in Japan and Germany, ethnic, religious and political fault lines run all through Iraq—some of them recent, others long buried, all of them explosive.

In the wake of a war, the Bush administration intends to install a U.S. military government, perhaps for as long as two years. Department heads would be Americans while many senior and mid-level Iraqi bureaucrats would remain—the people who know how the mail gets delivered, the roads get paved and the oil gets pumped.

Administration officials have been opaque about the costs and many other details of their post-war plans for Iraq, let alone their exit strategy. Critics and doubters make references to "another Vietnam" or "America's Yugoslavia."

Arab critics derisively call it occupation.

The possibilities for new bloodshed are rife, and even anti-Saddam factions who welcome U.S. intervention warn that the United States should not try to run the country.

With the common enemy of Saddam removed, rivalries among Kurdish factions in the north could easily descend into renewed fighting, something Turkey likely would encourage. Equally worrisome, the Kurds could put aside decades of bloodletting, take control of the vast northern oilfields around Kirkuk and Mosul, and begin to form an independent Kurdistan, a move that would traumatize neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran.

The Turkish military, which already has moved tanks and troops into northern Iraq, will be tempted to invade the area to protect minority Iraqi Turkomen.

Oppressed Shiite Muslims in the south will delight in Saddam's downfall, but they may resist outside control, with an uprising orchestrated, financed and armed by Iran. Iranian-backed militias, which U.S. intelligence officials fear include some members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, have mustered along the border.

Bloodthirsty reprisals against Saddam's Baath Party loyalists are expected all over Iraq. And hard-core pockets of pro-Saddam resistance may continue to assault U.S. troops. Al-Qaida could step up activities.

"People in tea shops, universities, barber shops, everywhere, we're all talking about just these kinds of scenarios," said Abbas al Bayati, a professor of linguistics at the University of Salahaddin in Irbil. "There are so many possibilities for chaos."

Othman Mufti is a businessman in Irbil whose family owns the mostly ruined but still-majestic Citadel, a hilltop fort that is reputed to be the oldest continuously inhabited building in the world. He and other Kurdish leaders are eager to have the U.S. military depose Saddam, and they're just as intrigued by the forthcoming experiment in democracy.

"If there's too much democracy in Iraq after Saddam, I think there will be lots of disorder," he said recently at his heavily guarded home. "But at least it will be democratic disorder.

"We don't know anything about democracy. We have absolutely no history with it. The Americans can export their democracy and import our oil, but they should not be coming here to occupy Iraq."

There have been major disagreements within the Bush administration—basically, the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office vs. the State Department—about what form a transitional Iraqi government should take and who might lead it.

Most of the six men recently elected to an opposition leadership council personify the overlapping allegiances and questionable histories that will make the choice of a new Iraqi leader nearly impossible.

Masood Barzani, the head of the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party, has alternately aligned himself with Turkey, Syria, Iran, the CIA and, yes, even Saddam Hussein. Not long ago, Barzani's army was officially at war with Jalal Talabani's forces from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Talabani also has one of the six seats on the opposition council.

A third seat belongs to Ahmed Chalabi, the London-based chairman of the Iraqi National Congress, who is deeply distrusted by the State Department and the CIA.

Pick too strong a leader, and the U.S. administration could appear to have replaced one dictator with another. Pick too weak a president, and Americans could be cast as neo-imperialist puppeteers.

It's likely that a new Iraqi leader would have to be an Arab man. Arabs form the majority of the Iraqi population, about 77 percent of the total, while Kurds make up the largest ethnic minority at some 19 percent. In addition, there are smaller communities of Turkomen and Assyrian Christians. An overlay of clan and tribal loyalties further complicates the ethnic map.

Iraq is almost wholly Muslim, although there is a divide between the Shiites (62.5 percent of the population) and the Sunnis (34.5 percent).

Sunnis control the government bureaucracy, most of the top ministerial positions and the military's officer corps. The Shiites, especially in southern Iraq, have been brutally oppressed by Saddam's regime.

Saddam, a Sunni, is from a small village near the northern city of Tikrit, and his Tikriti clansmen occupy the loftiest positions in government, business and society. Similar clan loyalties exist all over Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan.

It's in Kurdistan, home to the oil city of Kirkuk, that the new political cartography will be the most exacting, important and difficult.

A recent Jane's Sentinel report on Iraq says a third of the country's oil lies in Kirkuk. It also cites oil ministry figures that put Iraq's "probable and possible" oil reserves at 214 billion barrels—more than 20 percent of the world's proven reserves.

A city of some 550,000, Kirkuk is still under Saddam's control, just beyond the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. But Kurdish leaders see Kirkuk's oil revenues as the mother of all lodes, the future economic base for the would-be independent nation of Kurdistan. Kurdish politicians refer to Kirkuk as "our Jerusalem."

Other Iraqi groups—not to mention Washington, London, Ankara, Tehran and every major oil company on the planet—also have their eyes on the prize.

"Kirkuk is a city of Turkoman majority. That's not a crime," said San'an Ahmed Agha, the chairman of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, which has a sizeable army of its own.

With so many armed groups with rival agendas competing over these rich spoils, a quick and proud exit by U.S. troops following a successful military campaign may be a faint hope, no matter how grateful the Iraqi people are to be free of Saddam.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030317 USIRAQ ETHNIC