In the first month, therefore, the occupiers would face a paradox: the institution best equipped to exercise power as a local government—the U.S. military—would be the one most reluctant to do so.
Territorial integrity. This is where the exercise of power might first be put to a major test.
In ancient times what is now central Iraq was the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia ("Mespot" in Fleet Street shorthand during the British-mandate era). Under the Ottoman Empire today's Iraq was not one province but three, and the divisions still affect current politics. The province of Baghdad, in the center of the country, is the stronghold of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority. Sunnis dominated administrative positions in the Ottoman days and have controlled the army and the government ever since, even though they make up only about 20 percent of the population. The former province of Mosul, in the mountainous north, is the stronghold of Kurdish tribes, which make up 15 to 20 percent of the population. Through the years they have both warred against and sought common cause with other Kurdish tribes across Iraq's borders in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Mosul also has some of the country's richest reserves of oil. The former province of Basra, to the southeast, borders Iran, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf. Its population is mainly Shiite Muslims, who make up the majority in the country as a whole but have little political power.
The result of this patchwork is a country like Indonesia or Soviet-era Yugoslavia. Geographic, ethnic, and religious forces tend to pull it apart; only an offsetting pull from a strong central government keeps it in one piece. Most people think that under the stress of regime change Iraq would be more like Indonesia after Suharto than like Yugoslavia after Tito—troubled but intact. But the strains will be real.
"In my view it is very unlikely—indeed, inconceivable—that Iraq will break up into three relatively cohesive components," Phebe Marr, the Iraq expert, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. But a weakened center could mean all sorts of problems, she said, even if the country were officially whole. The Kurds could seize the northern oil fields, for example. The Turkish government has long made clear that if Iraq cannot control its Kurdish population, Turkey—concerned about separatist movements in its own Kurdish provinces—will step in to do the job. "Turkey could intervene in the north, as it has done before," Marr said. "Iran, through its proxies, could follow suit. There could even be a reverse flow of refugees as many Iraqi Shia exiles in Iran return home, possibly in the thousands, destabilizing areas in the south."
Postwar Iraq, in contrast, would have less-than-certain boundaries, internal tensions with international implications, and highly nervous neighbors. Six countries share borders with Iraq. Clockwise from the Persian Gulf, they are Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. None of them has wanted Saddam to expand Iraq's territory. But they would be oddly threatened by a post-Saddam breakup or implosion. The Turks, as noted, have a particular interest in preventing any country's Kurdish minority from rebelling or forming a separatist state. The monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan fear that riots and chaos in Iraq could provoke similar upheaval among their own peoples.The centrifugal forces acting on postwar Iraq, even if they did not actually break up the country, would present a situation different from those surrounding past U.S. occupations. America's longest experience as an occupier was in the Philippines, which the United States controlled formally or informally for most of a century. Many ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences separated the people of the Philippine archipelago, but because the islands have no land frontier with another country, domestic tensions could be managed with few international complications. And in dealing with Japan and Germany after World War II, the United States wanted, if anything, to dilute each country's sense of distinct national identity. There was also no doubt about the boundaries of those occupied countries.