Next battle in Iraq between different ethnic groups?

As I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition on the way into work this morning it finally occurred to me what’s been bothering me about Iraq and how it’s people have been reacting to their “liberation” from Saddam: It breaks down mostly along ethnic lines.

Most pro and anti-war folks have been talking about the Iraqi people as if they were a single group of like-mind instead of a collection of different ethnic, religious and tribal backgrounds. Pro-war folks have pointed to the cheering and warm welcome the troops received in many towns without acknowledging the fact that most of those people happy to see the troops were those who were most heavily oppressed under the regime. Go to Tikrit and the populace is much less enthused with their “liberators.”

Consider, for example, this BBC report on the Shia:

The Shia comprise 55-60% of Iraq’s population. They have been oppressed by the ruling Baath regime for more than 30 years and excluded from the highest ranks of power.

The Shia heartland is in the south-east of the country. It includes Basra and the sacred cities of Najaf and Karbala – home to shrines revered by millions of Shia across the East.

The Shia also make up a sizeable minority of the population in the capital, where most live in poverty in sprawling slum areas on the outskirts.

Shia both in Iraq and in exile have acknowledged that they have been waiting for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow for decades.

Under his rule, Shia opposition groups have been fiercely oppressed and political and religious leaders murdered.

No wonder they’re celebrating and looting.

By comparison the Kurds, which have been fighting for independence from Iraq since 1961, only make up 15-20% of the population. They at least managed to reach an agreement with Iraq in 1970 that established the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq. Since the first war in 1991 the KAR has all but become a state of it’s own under the protection of the no-fly zones. Also in northern Iraq are the Muslim Turkmen who make up about 2% of the population. Both the Kurds and the Turkmen have been displaced by Saddam in an effort to secure the oil fields:

The Baghdad Government has long tried to change the demography of the areas where Iraq’s vast oil wealth lies by forcing Kurds and Turkmen out to be replaced by Arabs from southern Iraq.

Turkmen leaders say thousands of their community were forced into destitution in northern Iraq, while up to 20,000 made their way illegally to Europe throughout the 1990s.

In a post-Saddam scenario, Kirkuk could become the centre of a struggle between the Turkmen and the Kurds, both of whom have people who will want to return to their homes.

The Turkmen community’s two main parties are divided in their support. One works in co-operation with the Kurdish authorities, the other is backed by Turkey and opposes a Kurdish state in northern Iraq – especially one that would adopt Kirkuk as its capital.

So now we have a potential conflict between Kurds and Turkmen and even perhaps between two different factions of Turkmen with Turkey itself ready to get involved if it appears the Kurds are trying to set up their own country.

Already there are reports of score-settling taking place and there are concerns more could be to come. History has already shown us that post-war countries with a power vacuum often succumb to rampant ethnic and religious violence as people seek to “get even” with real and perceived persecutors. Looting is but one example of the oppressed folks trying to “take back” what they believe to be their’s or what they feel they’ve been denied while under the old regime. They don’t realize how they are hurting themselves in the long run because they’ve never felt they were a part of Iraq in the first place. With a majority of the population being out of favor with the old regime combined with the poverty that comes with that status it’s probably only a matter of time before long-held grudges start to come to the surface en masse. Even among the same ethnic class there may be religious and tribal loyalties that can come into play and cause problems when competing interests come into conflict.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Black and white thinking on this topic (e.g. the Iraqi people are glad/aren’t glad to see us!) is common among many folks on both sides of the debate and, as usual, it’s a dangerous way to look at an issue that is far from black and white. Pointing to cheering crowds of Iraqis dancing on a fallen Saddam statue isn’t a good vindication of all the pro-war people who have been beating the “Saddam is a bad man” justification drum. As I mentioned in an earlier entry even some of the folks dancing on the statues are expressing anti-American sentiments. By the same token the luke-warm reception in Tikrit isn’t necessarily an indication that the decision to go to war was unjustifiable.

The truth is the people you’d expect to be happy about the fall of Saddam generally are and the people you’d expect not to be happy generally aren’t and trying to draw value judgments about the right-or-wrongness of the war based on who’s happy and who isn’t is very short-sighted. If the U.S. miss-handles post-war Iraq, and they’re off to a bad start already, then a lot of those happy people may quickly become unhappy. There is a veritable minefield of ethnic, religious and tribal issues to navigate and poorly handling any of them could cause more problems than the removal of Saddam could ever solve.

I’m going to stop here as I’ve been working on this entry over a period of several hours now in-between taking care of other business and I think I’ve made the point I wanted to make, but can’t be certain anymore. Too many distractions. I’ll look at it more closely later and edit it if need be. Apologies ahead of time if it makes no sense.

3 thoughts on “Next battle in Iraq between different ethnic groups?

  1. Nicely said. I had a piece I never actually finished about pre-war Iraq and its ethnic problems that would bubble up once the shooting started. The north is especially bad, considering there are Iranian sponsored troops up there, too, which may have been bombed by us today (I need to go look at the news stories out there).

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