Image Credit: Illustration: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Iraq was once a proud and powerful Arab country.  With its vast oil resources, its great rivers, and its educated middle class, it was in many ways an Arab success story — before things started to go wrong.  The last 30 years have been terrible.

Among the gruesome landmarks were first, the eight-year-long life-and-death struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1980-88, which Iraq managed to survive, but only with great loss of life and material destruction; second, the Gulf War of 1991, when it was forcibly expelled from Kuwait by America and its allies after Saddam Hussain was rash enough to invade his neighbour; third, the 13 years of punitive international sanctions which followed the Kuwait war and which are said to have cost the lives of half a million Iraqi children; and fourth, America’s devastating invasion of 2003 and its long occupation of the country, which is due, at least in principle, to end on December 31 this year.

In its slow and painful recovery from these decades of devastation, Iraq’s dilemma today is that it may still need help from the United States, the power which, more than any other, has destroyed it. This is the background to the current discussions between Baghdad and Washington about a possible extension of America’s military presence in Iraq beyond 2011 — the date set by the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) for a final US evacuation.

There are still some 46,000 American soldiers in Iraq — down from 140,000 a couple of years ago.  President Barack Obama has pledged to bring them home — but the Americans are as divided as the Iraqis on the issue. In the US, Democrats have long opposed the war. The Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid declared last month that ‘now is the time for our military mission to come to a close.’ Republicans, in contrast, want America to remain in Iraq — to defend its interests and confront Iran. Senator John McCain, for example, has argued that there is a ‘compelling case’ for the US to keep at least 13,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely. Opinion is divided in Iraq also. The Kurds desperately want the Americans to stay as guarantors of their fragile semi-independence from Baghdad, while hardline Shiite factions, notably the Sadrists, who are close to Iran, want to get rid of the Americans altogether, and the sooner the better. In between these two poles are a number of more moderate parties, both Shiite and Sunni, who have no great love for the Americans, and would rather be free of them, but recognise that they may still be needed to stabilise a highly volatile situation — both inside the country and in the surrounding neighbourhood.

Iraq’s new-found ‘democracy’, dominated by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, is characterised by a great number of parties and splinter groups, all jostling for advantage. This produces a lot of heated talk but not much action — to the extent that a leading Iraqi (consulted for this article) described the Iraqi political scene as resembling that of the French Fourth Republic.

There is a vast amount of rebuilding to be done in Iraq. The 2003 war overthrew Saddam Hussain’s brutal regime, but the horrors which followed have been at least as bad as — and probably a good deal worse than — anything he was guilty of.

n The US invasion triggered a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites which killed tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions inside the country and sent millions more fleeing as refugees abroad (including much of the Christian community.).

n It destroyed Iraq as a unitary state by encouraging the emergence of a Kurdish statelet, now linked awkwardly to the rest of the country in a loose federation.

n It smashed Iraq’s infrastructure to the extent that, in this summer’s heat, with temperatures climbing to over 50 degrees Celsius, the country suffers from crippling power cuts. On average in the south, electricity is on for one hour and off for four. The population is clamouring for better services.

Under Saddam, Iraq was ruled by the Sunni minority, accounting for no more than 20 per cent of the population. The war put the Shiite majority in power. Since the 2008 elections, the country has been governed by a coalition of Shiite groups together with secularists and Kurds, but with Al Maliki’s Shiite bloc very much in control. Al Maliki personally controls the defence and security apparatus.

Al Maliki is close to Iran but he is an Iraqi nationalist, not an Iranian puppet. Whereas he is negotiating to extend the US military presence into 2012, Iran would, on the contrary, like to force the US out of Iraq under duress. Suffering from US sanctions, and under constant threat of attack by Israel, Iran is hitting back against the US by encouraging its Iraqi supporters to attack American troops: 14 were killed in June and another five in July. Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to the American and other embassies, has suffered a growing number of rocket attacks.  The internal security situation remains very dangerous.

Iraqis also feel, with some justice, that they are living in a hostile environment. Syria next door is in the throes of a vast popular revolution, savagely repressed by the regime, a highly dangerous situation which could well spill into Iraq. Iraq is also on very poor, even hostile, terms with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s Sunni heavyweight, which has been alarmed and angered by the rise of Shiite power in both Iraq and Iran. The Saudis and some of their Gulf neighbours fear the extension of Shiite influence across the Arab world. In Bahrain, for example, Saudi Arabia recently helped quell a revolt by the Shiite community – a community which has traditionally been close to Iraq. This, too, has damaged Saudi-Iraqi relations.

Iraq is also quarrelling with Kuwait over the latter’s plan to build a megaport on the island of Bubiyan, which could have an impact on the Shatt Al Arab waterway, Iraq’s sole outlet to the sea. Iraq is sending a commission of experts to Kuwait to assess the project. Some Iraqi parliamentarians have also accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling into Iraqi territory. These are highly sensitive issues. They are precisely the ones Saddam Hussain invoked for invading Kuwait in 1990.

For all these reasons, Iraq feels that it needs to beef up its armed services, rebuild its air force and navy, as well as its ground troops, so as to be able to protect its borders and its oil platforms, as well as stabilise the situation in cities like Kirkuk and Mosul where ethnic and sectarian tensions remain high. 

Al things considered, it does not look as if America’s involvement with Iraq — which has proved catastrophic for both countries – will be ended soon. 

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.