Hypotheticals December 2005

If America Left Iraq

The case for cutting and running
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But what about the foreign jihadi element of the resistance? Wouldn't it be empowered by a U.S. withdrawal?

The foreign jihadi element—commanded by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—is numerically insignificant; the bulk of the resistance has no connection to al-Qaeda or its offshoots. (Zarqawi and his followers have benefited greatly from U.S. propaganda blaming him for all attacks in Iraq, because he is now seen by Arabs around the world as more powerful than he is; we have been his best recruiting tool.) It is true that the Sunni resistance welcomed the foreign fighters (and to some extent still do), because they were far more willing to die than indigenous Iraqis were. But what Zarqawi wants fundamentally conflicts with what Iraqi Sunnis want: Zarqawi seeks re-establishment of the Muslim caliphate and a Manichean confrontation with infidels around the world, to last until Judgment Day; the mainstream Iraqi resistance just wants the Americans out. If U.S. forces were to leave, the foreigners in Zarqawi's movement would find little support—and perhaps significant animosity—among Iraqi Sunnis, who want wealth and power, not jihad until death. They have already lost much of their support: many Iraqis have begun turning on them. In the heavily Shia Sadr City foreign jihadis had burning tires placed around their necks. The foreigners have not managed to establish themselves decisively in any large cities. Even at the height of their power in Fallujah they could control only one neighborhood, the Julan, and they were hated by the city's resistance council. Today foreign fighters hide in small villages and are used opportunistically by the nationalist resistance.

When the Americans depart and Sunnis join the Iraqi government, some of the foreign jihadis in Iraq may try to continue the struggle—but they will have committed enemies in both Baghdad and the Shiite south, and the entire Sunni triangle will be against them. They will have nowhere to hide. Nor can they merely take their battle to the West. The jihadis need a failed state like Iraq in which to operate. When they leave Iraq, they will be hounded by Arab and Western security agencies.

What about the Kurds? Won't they secede if the United States leaves?

Yes, but that's going to happen anyway. All Iraqi Kurds want an independent Kurdistan. They do not feel Iraqi. They've effectively had more than a decade of autonomy, thanks to the UN-imposed no-fly zone; they want nothing to do with the chaos that is Iraq. Kurdish independence is inevitable—and positive. (Few peoples on earth deserve a state more than the Kurds.) For the moment the Kurdish government in the north is officially participating in the federalist plan—but the Kurds are preparing for secession. They have their own troops, the peshmerga, thought to contain 50,000 to 100,000 fighters. They essentially control the oil city of Kirkuk. They also happen to be the most America-loving people I have ever met; their leaders openly seek to become, like Israel, a proxy for American interests. If what the United States wants is long-term bases in the region, the Kurds are its partners.

Would Turkey invade in response to a Kurdish secession?

For the moment Turkey is more concerned with EU membership than with Iraq's Kurds—who in any event have expressed no ambitions to expand into Turkey. Iraq's Kurds speak a dialect different from Turkey's, and, in fact, have a history of animosity toward Turkish Kurds. Besides, Turkey, as a member of NATO, would be reluctant to attack in defiance of the United States. Turkey would be satisfied with guarantees that it would have continued access to Kurdish oil and trade and that Iraqi Kurds would not incite rebellion in Turkey.

Would Iran effectively take over Iraq?

No. Iraqis are fiercely nationalist—even the country's Shiites resent Iranian meddling. (It is true that some Iraqi Shiites view Iran as an ally, because many of their leaders found safe haven there when exiled by Saddam—but thousands of other Iraqi Shiites experienced years of misery as prisoners of war in Iran.) Even in southeastern towns near the border I encountered only hostility toward Iran.

What about the goal of creating a secular democracy in Iraq that respects the rights of women and non-Muslims?

Give it up. It's not going to happen. Apart from the Kurds, who revel in their secularism, Iraqis overwhelmingly seek a Muslim state. Although Iraq may have been officially secular during the 1970s and 1980s, Saddam encouraged Islamism during the 1990s, and the difficulties of the past decades have strengthened the resurgence of Islam. In the absence of any other social institutions, the mosques and the clergy assumed the dominant role in Iraq following the invasion. Even Baathist resistance leaders told me they have returned to Islam to atone for their sins under Saddam. Most Shiites, too, follow one cleric or another. Ayatollah al-Sistani—supposedly a moderate—wants Islam to be the source of law. The invasion of Iraq has led to a theocracy, which can only grow more hostile to America as long as U.S. soldiers are present. Does Iraqi history offer any lessons?

The British occupation of Iraq, in the first half of the twentieth century, may be instructive. The British faced several uprisings and coups. The Iraqi government, then as now, was unable to suppress the rebels on its own and relied on the occupying military. In 1958, when the government the British helped install finally fell, those who had collaborated with them could find no popular support; some, including the former prime minister Nuri Said, were murdered and mutilated. Said had once been a respected figure, but he became tainted by his collaboration with the British. That year, when revolutionary officers overthrew the government, Said disguised himself as a woman and tried to escape. He was discovered, shot in the head, and buried. The next day a mob dug up his corpse and dragged it through the street—an act that would be repeated so often in Iraq that it earned its own word: sahil. With the British-sponsored government gone, both Sunni and Shiite Arabs embraced the Iraqi identity. The Kurds still resent the British perfidy that made them part of Iraq.

What can the United States do to repair Iraq?

There is no panacea. Iraq is a destroyed and fissiparous country. Iranians and Saudis I've spoken to worry that it might be impossible to keep Iraq from disintegrating. But they agree that the best hope of avoiding this scenario is if the United States leaves; perhaps then Iraqi nationalism will keep at least the Arabs united. The sooner America withdraws and allows Iraqis to assume control of their own country, the better the chances that Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari won't face sahil. It may be decades before Iraq recovers from the current maelstrom. By then its borders may be different, its vaunted secularism a distant relic. But a continued U.S. occupation can only get in the way.

Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation, spent sixteen months reporting from Iraq after the American invasion. His book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq will be published in February.
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