December 28, 2004

Nightmare Scenarios in Iraq

What are the nightmare scenarios for Iraq? That is, what are some of the worst things we can reasonably expect to happen after the elections? Some kind of full-scale civil war—either between Sunni Arabs and Kurds or between Sunnis and Shiites—would obviously be catastrophic. On the former, Spencer Ackerman notes that towns like Mosul, Hawija, and Kirkuk are quickly turning into flashpoints for ethnic tension between (Sunni) Arabs and Kurds.

I'd add that there have been almost no positive steps towards easing the conflict between the two ethnic groups, which dates back to the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein expulsed the Kurds from Kirkuk and enticed Arabs into emigrating to the province en masse. The Iraqi Property Claims Commission, set up to resolve the disputes here, has only just begun adjudicating a handful of the thousands of outstanding property claims. I have no idea why the Bush administration didn't make this a higher priority sooner, but the results won't be pretty.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias has another, quite valid concern—that "the elections will cause various 'inside the process' elements to start fighting with one another." This too seems increasingly likely, especially since the elections won't have many international monitors present. The possibility of fraud—and, more likely, possible accusations of fraud—could create chaos very quickly.

Long ago I discussed the possibility that, with some 2 million absentee ballots being tallied in Jordan—whose king favors Ayad Allawi—the possibility of election fraud remains ripe. Even though Allawi may be an honorable man and would never think of tampering with ballots in Jordan (right?), the perception that this could happen will still exist. So if Allawi's Iraqi List does better than expected on the strength of absentee voting, expect a lot of protests and anti-Jordanian rhetoric. (Especially from Ahmed Chalabi, who has his own long-running feud with the Hashemite Kingdom.) Conversely, if Allawi's list fares worse than expected, we could see Allawi, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, and other secular ex-Baathists pointing fingers at Syria and Iran for meddling in the election. Either event would cause havoc.

Now what about infighting between religious Shiites? Hannah Allam recently filed an excellent report on the bickering within the Iraqi United Alliance, the top Shiite political list, between theocrats, quietists and secularists. I've talked about this before, and I still think that in a perfectly democratic Iraq, the quietists and secularists would carry the day.

But obviously there may not be a "perfectly democratic Iraq". So here's another nightmare scenario. Let's say the Shiites win a 70 percent majority in the January election. The more militant and fundamentalist Sunni Arabs in Iraq remain marginalized from government, represented only by a handful of secular candidates. So the insurgency continues on. At this point, the new Shiite-dominated National Assembly asks the United States to start drawing down its troops—both because of pressure from people like Moqtada al-Sadr, and because the Shiites think that they can defeat the Sunnis on their own.

The problem is that to defeat the Sunnis, the Shiites will need to give militias like the Badr Corps a prominent role. (In any civil war scenario, I assume the Kurds would take Kirkuk and Mosul, declare autonomy, and leave the Arabs in the South to duke it out on their own.) Now Badr Corps is the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which tends to favor Iran-style theocracy. Meanwhile, in any civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, the Shiites will probably appeal to Iran for help, a state of affairs which again favors those Shiites aligned with radical elements in the Iranian Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) and intelligence services.

The point here is that any prolonged conflict between Shiites and Sunnis—even if it never blossoms into full-scale civil war—inevitably strengthens the more radical and pro-Iranian elements within the Shiite-dominated government. So while the probability of an Iraqi theocracy remains low at the moment, it becomes higher so long as the Shiites have to fight their own war against the Sunnis. The converse, I think, is also true. At the moment, Shiite leaders are preaching restraint. But a smart Shiite theocrat might play up civil war against the Sunnis in order to strengthen his or her own radical hand.
-- Brad Plumer 4:29 PM || ||