The expected death of a nation

Iraq has always been an artificial country, an entity created and beset by outside influences. However, Iraq is not currently being threatened by outside influences alone; discord is now flourishing within the country itself – with devastating consequences. A commentary by Rudolph Chimelli

By Rudolph Chimelli

Iraq is suffering for the sins of its founding fathers. Its borders are artificial, drawn by the victors of the First World War to suit their own interests, their greed for oil proving stronger than the original agreements made regarding the carving up of the Ottoman Empire.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement between London and Paris gave Mosul to the French, but after just one year of peace, the British managed to have Mosul and its crude oil handed over to them. In return, France was given "free rein" in Syria and Lebanon. Winston Churchill once called petroleum "a prize from fairyland, beyond our wildest dreams". He was talking about Iranian oil, but the close connection between oil and power transcended borders and applied equally to Iraq and the Gulf as well.

From the outset, the centrifugal forces were strong in this new state, which was cobbled together by the British. In the 1920s, the Kurdish tribes in the north had a sense of loyalty bombed into them by the Royal Air Force. Churchill wondered why poison gas had not been used. That was the first time that fighter planes had been deployed against the population of modern Iraq. For decades, the Kurds repeatedly rebelled against the central government in Baghdad. The dictator Saddam Hussein was the first to combat them with poison gas.

US Army soldier parachute riggers palletise water for a humanitarian air drop, 6 August 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
In early August, US President Barak Obama authorised two humanitarian aid drops of bottled water and food for citizens trapped in the mountains in the vicinity of Sinjar, Iraq, who were displaced by advances made by the Islamic State (IS). Pictured here: US soldiers prepare pallets of water for an air drop

The threat to Iraq's borders

Many people in the military doubt that the well-equipped terrorist groups of the Islamic State can be vanquished by air strikes alone. Their self-proclaimed caliph, Ibrahim, has declared that the borders between Islamic countries have been abolished. But his regime puts the vast majority of the faithful off the idea of unity among all believers in the true faith and the extermination of heretics.

Ibrahim himself may turn his attention to other targets if he fails to take Baghdad and Erbil. Such targets could include Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria as well as Lebanon and a push towards the Sunni city of Tripoli.

In the extreme south of Iraq's Kurdish region, his fighters are a mere 20 kilometres away from Khanakin, the border-crossing on the main route from Baghdad to Tehran. But since the false caliph seems to grasp the realities of the situation, he is hardly likely to turn his attention on Iran and Turkey.

The destabilisation of Iraq began in 1990 when Saddam attempted to annex Kuwait. This led to catastrophe. Nevertheless, the first President Bush seemd to believe that Iraq could only be governed by Saddam or someone like him. Unlike his son, he didn't send troops marching into Baghdad.

The wounds inflicted on the country by the American war of aggression under the second President Bush in 2003 and the eight years of occupation that followed, are enduring. At least 300,000 Iraqis were killed in this phase of the civil war. The country's infrastructure was destroyed, and oil revenues were wasted. The USA's current humanitarian campaign of dropping food and water bottles from the air will not repair the damage caused to body and soul.

Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi (photo: picture alliance/AP)
Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. "It is uncertain whether the new government can save the state of Iraq in its present form by avoiding the mistakes of the former prime minister," writes Rudolph Chimelli

Enduring wounds

Iraq's future looks dismal. It is uncertain whether the new government can save the state of Iraq in its present form by avoiding the mistakes of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The wounds that the bullying rule of the Shia al-Maliki inflicted on the self-esteem of the Sunnis are difficult to heal.

The sectarian civil war and the terror have forced at least four million Iraqis to flee their ancestral homeland. While 45 per cent of Baghdad's population was once Sunni, today it is perhaps as little as five per cent. This sort of demographic revolution is impossible to reverse.

Neighbouring Iran, which once fought an eight-year war with Iraq, supported al-Maliki to the very end. But the government in Tehran has also given its seal of approval to the new prime minister in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi. Above all, Iran wants to avoid chaos in Iraq and to stop Kurdistan attaining independence. After decades of expressing reservations, the only country so far willing  to accept such a prospect is Turkey.

Historically, Iraq has always been a region. For oriental geographers and travellers, "Iraq ajami", the mountainous region of western Persia, and "Iraq arabi", Arabian Mesopotamia, have existed since time immemorial. The country of Iraq never existed until its Western midwives brought it into the world. Today, it is not neighbouring countries or world powers that threaten the borders of Iraq; discord is flourishing within the country itself.

Rudolph Chimelli

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/ 2014

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/