The ground realities

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

At a rally organised by the ruling Baath Party in Baghdad on March 18. - KARIM SAHIB/AFP

At a rally organised by the ruling Baath Party in Baghdad on March 18. - KARIM SAHIB/AFP

The U.S. may be in for a rude shock in Iraq, which has a long history of people resisting attempts to conquer and rule them.

MEDIEVAL Crusaders suffered a decisive military defeat in A.D. 1187 because they neglected a crucial fact about West Asia. That defeat, in the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, marked the beginning of the end of one Western attempt to rule the land of the Arabs. Today, as the United States tries to shape West Asia according to its desires, another important fact about the people of this region is being forgotten - they do not sit easy under an overlord.

Not even the naive would believe Washington's pronouncements that its illegal aggression against Iraq is being waged for the liberation of the people of that country from the ministrations of a repressive regime. High-flown rhetoric and the coining of labels such as `Enduring Freedom' cannot hide the fact that this brutal assault is being carried out in order to end a defiant opposition to the long-standing efforts of the U.S. to secure dominance over a major portion of the world's energy reserves. Apologists might argue that the replacement of an authoritarian Iraqi regime by a more benevolent one would be a consequence that would, post facto, justify the war. Such a justification, which is being trotted out as cover for naked high-handedness, will crumble when it dashes against the realities of West Asia, and the long-term effects of this war could turn out to be, in some ways, just as deleterious as the colossal damage that will be caused in the conduct of it.

It is no one's case that the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is anything but an authoritarian one and it is possible to argue that his methods of control are even more repressive than that of the despotic regimes - such as those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt - which the U.S. is closely allied with. But it requires a rare degree of patronising superciliousness for anyone to assert that the democratic spirit will not arise in the Arab world without the aid of an external agency. A combination of an upsurge of the masses and accession to power of a more enlightened ruler has led to the creation of considerably better democratic conditions in sheikhdoms such as Bahrain and Qatar, with Saudi Arabia showing signs of following in their footsteps.

Neither can it be said that the Arab regimes, which draw their strength from a grid composed of a rigid party and the military, are more resilient against the demand for democracy than are the monarchies of the region. If Syria - where Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad - is taken as an example, it would appear that sons who replace their fathers in regimes of this sort do not have the mastery of detail and the skill to exercise control to the same degree. Strong-arm methods, or the ability to inspire, are not all that it takes to hold onto power in regimes of this sort. What is required, perhaps to a greater degree, is an ability to weigh the relative importance of tribes, clans and families and the skill to keep them all in fine balance. If Qusay Hussein (Saddam Hussein's other son, Uday, is from most accounts another type of personality) had been left free to succeed his father he might have discovered, as Bashar al-Assad has had occasion to, that he has to foster forces of liberalism in his country as allies to ward off challenges from his predecessor's associates.

Washington's apologists would argue that by shredding swiftly all elements of the authoritarian regime they are indeed speeding up the process of creating more space for democratic forces in Iraq. But that would make sense only if there were in Iraq sufficiently well-developed democratic forces that could take over swiftly and enforce the order that the non-democratic regime had maintained until now. Instead, all that Washington has to offer by way of a so-called liberal leadership for the Iraqi people are the discredited elements of the Iraqi National Congress or National Accord, many of whom held important positions in Saddam Hussein's regime until they fled into exile for personal reasons. The only properly organised political force, which derives strength from a mass base, is the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. While this party is the leading formation of the Shias, who form the largest slice of the Iraqi population, it is not likely that it would win quickly the allegiance of the Sunnis even if the U.S. (with its phobia of the Ayatollahs) were to allow it to gain power.

From what Washington has let out thus far, it has not much more than a nebulous plan to install a regime of so-called liberals whose main task would be to hold elections in the not-too-distant future so that a popularly elected government can be formed. There is also talk of a U.S.-led or multinational force staying on in Iraq until the democratic dispensation can be stabilised. All this smacks of a facile attempt to replicate the Afghan model in an Iraqi situation where the fundamentals are altogether different. In Afghanistan, after more than two decades of war, what the people desired most was a restitution of order. The Afghans could therefore have decided to take whatever form of order was on offer even as they prepared to make their own arrangements within an over-arching framework. In Iraq, an existing order is to be torn down and immediately replaced by a government constituted of people who have always been held in low regard and who will now present themselves as quislings of the occupying power.

Unlike many of the other countries, which were enriched after oil was discovered on their territories, Iraq has a substantial and well-educated middle class that does have reason to be proud of its contribution to national development. After a decade of coping with the deprivations wrought by crippling economic sanctions, this class also has a bitter and defiant pride at their country having stood up to U.S. bullying. It is unlikely that such a middle class, which has to be won over if a democratic dispensation is to be stabilised, will take kindly to a regime foisted by the U.S. or be prepared to accept whatever programme such a regime brings with it. The possibility exists that this, the most aware and articulate section of the Iraqi people, might turn against not just the personalities but also the system that is sought to be thrust upon them.

A bitter complaint of all those who have been struggling to foster democracy in the Arab world is that their efforts have inevitably been discredited once the U.S. got associated with it. The reason is not difficult to ascertain. Throughout history - from the days of Alexander to that of the British Empire - the people of West Asia have almost never had reason to believe that they have benefited from being associated with the West when the relationship was set on Western terms. They cannot believe that a West that has been the guardian angel of the despotic regimes that have held sway in their region until now, has suddenly realised that it must provide the Arabs with the benefits of democracy. With the idea firmly entrenched in the Arab mind that the West seeks only an exploitative relationship, any medium for association with the West - whether it is the monarchies of the present day or a democracy being foisted - will be seen as a mechanism for exploitation.

As it is, there are forces in the Arab world that try to channel the anti-Western sentiment of the masses into a course of anti-modernism. With their access to the religious pulpit they have the means to articulate their views before captive audiences. These forces are also far better organised than the nascent democratic ones. If a fundamentalist wave, as represented by Al Qaeda, could gather so much strength from the marshalling of sentiment against the presence of Western forces in the Arab heartland of Saudi Arabia, one can imagine how much stronger it would be after those same armies have invaded Baghdad. This city formed the centre of the first Arab empire and was for long the symbol of its culture. A people who have not yet forgiven the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes in the 13th century A.D. will not remain untroubled by the sight of Western forces marching into it today.

On July 4, 1187, the combined forces of the Crusader kingdoms of the Levant took the field against Salahuddin Ayubi, the Iraqi general. When they advanced into a plateau ringed by a rocky promontory - the Horns of Hattin - the Crusaders overlooked the fact that they were moving away from their sources of water. As the battle wore on under a hot summer sky, the Crusaders and their horses wilted in the heat. Their thirst defeated them and all that Salahuddin's troops had to do was mop up the remainder. West Asia, then or now, is not a place to venture into, overlooking the details.

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