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Roger Owen

Chaos and unity in a fragmented Iraq

WHAT GENERAL PETREAUS and his master, President Bush, would like us to believe is that recent American policy in Iraq can be seen as a military success but a political failure judged in terms of the inability of the country's sectarian leaders to unite. What they cannot see is that the two are much more closely related than they are willing to admit.

One factor is that by arming and financing the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province as local militias, the American military is both recognizing the lack of central government control and helping to undermine it still further. But there is much more to it than that.

The major reasons why sectarian leaders cannot come together to create a united leadership for a united Iraq is that, rather than being able to control their followers outside the Green Zone, they are now, to a larger extent, controlled by them.

How and why this came about can be summed up under two related reasons. One concerns the long history of the devolution of local power by British and American authorities, first to the Kurds, then to those Iraqi sectarian parties that won a majority in the provincial elections in 2005.

In the case of the British in particular, control over the local administration and the police was simply handed to whichever Shi'ite party, or coalition of parties, gained the most electoral support. The same happened in the northern provinces, for example in the Mosul region, a process that greatly added to sectarian fighting in and around the city itself as a result of the fact that the Sunnis, by boycotting the election, had excluded themselves from the official political process.

The second, increasingly important reason is the fact that, as in the case of Lebanon during its own civil war, there were enough economic resources scattered around the country for local warlords who controlled them to maintain their own loyal militias and civilian constituencies without having to reply on the leadership's financial support.

These included such tangible assets as police stations and armories, as well as economic assets like oil pipelines or refineries, electricity substations able to route local supplies, ports, and vital roads where traffic coming in and out of Kuwait in the south and Jordan and Syria in the east could readily be taxed, used for the smuggling of drugs and weapons or both.

Circumstances of this type provided an impetus to the fragmentation of sectarian cohesion as well. The intensity of the struggle to control local resources often pitted one Shi'ite group against another, a process sometimes further encouraged by politicians at the center as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to use the provincial police forces controlled by its Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council allies against the Mahdi army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr and against those of the Fadhila movement.

A system based increasingly on a struggle for local resources provided huge encouragement for all kinds of criminal mafias to muscle in, further undermining sectarian cohesion in the interests of sheer opportunism and extortion. In many case, these groups, with the identical cross-border connections, had been active in much the same way during the last years of the Saddam Hussein regime.

To make matters worse, it was relatively easy to draw American and British troops into the fight in support of one group against another, the more so if it could be alleged that the later was Al Qaeda or Iranian controlled.

Meanwhile, initial loyalties based on the promise of rewards for electoral support are becoming more tenuous as the likelihood of further elections became less sure. The result: a patchwork of local groups and alliance no longer neatly split, if they ever really were, into different sectarian parties, management of which has mutated far beyond the capacity of the Maliki government, the occupying forces or even the Iranians to understand, let alone direct or control.

The implications are that Anglo-American policy aimed at building a central government consisting of a working arrangement among the leaders of all the larger sectarian parties has failed. Without the power over their constituents that comes from their ability to provide them with resources, these leaders have become largely captive to the more bellicose and outspoken among their followers.

Indeed, this inconvenient fact is often recognized on the ground as, given the chaos in Baghdad itself, American reconstruction teams become forced to hand over new projects to whichever of the factions can be trusted to operate them on a local basis. Such tendencies can only increase in strength once there be appears anything like a reasonable timetable for American military redeployment or withdrawal.

Even more alarming, without any central mechanism for guiding policy and arbitrating disputes, let alone controlling the putative national army, the temptation for one of the sectarian parties to use its military power to try to subdue the others becomes daily more attractive, particularly if this could be done in concert with the US Army or perhaps even the Iranians if they would agree to enter the country in strength.

Given the present tendency for members of one party or militia to assassinate the leaders of another, it may come to seem the only rational means of self-preservation.

If this analysis is correct, then the president is right to believe that the presence of a large American military force is all that now holds the country together. But, by the same token, it cannot succeed in uniting Iraq behind a strong central government because the forces of disintegration unleashed by the occupation are now far too strong.

As a result Iraq faces a situation roughly analogous to Lebanon during its civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s or Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Russian Army in the 1990s; a situation in which warlord militias will increasingly rule the roost until one or other of them, or perhaps a combination, can obtain enough strength to create the beginnings of a new order.

Roger Owen is a professor Middle East history at Harvard University.

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