Between 1958 to 1968, Iraq rode a wave of political turbulence. First of all there was the 1958 overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy, this was followed in 1963 by the Ramadan revolution which brought the Ba’ath party to power.
This however was to be short lived as in November of that same year anti-Ba’athist Nasserists took power in a coup. However, the Ba’athists retook power in 1968 and once the violence subsided, Iraq experienced something of a renaissance.
Iraqis unfortunate enough to have a memories of the 1960s and of the 2000s will doubtless look back on the 1970s as something of a golden age in modern Iraqi history. President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was without doubt, the most capable leader Iraq ever had.
Under his rule the country settled into peace and stability. Wealth was accrued, living standards rose significantly, education and literacy flourished, women’s rights were championed, infrastructure became a regional marvel.
In 1979 however, Iraq’s region was shaken by the Iranian revolution and the new President Saddam Hussein, sought to take advantage of this by embarking on a long and bloody war with the Islamic Republic. Whilst deeply flawed compared to his predecessor, Saddam did however understand the importance of fostering Iraqi unity.
Saddam is often blamed for sowing Sunni/Shi’a divisions and he does bear some share of the blame. However, with a radical non-Arab Shi’a theocracy appearing next door to the secular Arab Republic, Saddam was keenly aware that Iran played its part in sowing such divisions.
Saddam’s intellectual solution was to foster a united Iraqi identity based on a combination of Mesopotamian history and modern secular minded moderate Islamic traditions. If the 1990s hadn’t seen Iraq bombed and sanctioned to death by the west, Saddam’s solution may well have held the country together.
Today though, there is a different reality. After years of Civil War, a comparative peace may do more to split Iraq into factions than war ever could do.
Right now ISIS who once ruled vast past of Iraq are fighting a combination of forces in the northern Sunni town of Mosul. What was supposed to be an easy military victory of Turkey and America and a moral victory for Iraqi forces, isn’t exactly going as planned. ISIS have dug in and are fighting more ferociously than anticipated.
If everything went according to plan, the (uneasy) coalition forces would have pushed ISIS out of Mosul and America and Turkey would have covertly escorted the remaining fighters into Syria in order to create the pretext for invading Syria’s east, particularly the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. This would of course be part of the west’s ongoing proxy and sometimes not so proxy war against the government of Syria.
However, rather than a show of unity, the Battle for Mosul has exposed disunity amongst coalition forces in Iraq. Baghdad is furious with Turkey for its illegal invasion of Iraq. The Turks don’t particularly care what Baghdad thinks and are frankly more concerned with containing Kurdish forces than fighting ISIS. Likewise, Kurdish forces are looking to a future where they may have to fight both Turkey and elements of the Iraqi government in their long quest for an independent state in Northern Iraq.
Meanwhile Sunnis in Iraq are fed up equally with ISIS as they are with a weak, often corrupt Shi’a dominated central government. The Shi’as themselves are finding that independent Shi’a militias are some of the best fighters in Iraq and seek their own spoils of presumed victory.
In this sense, there is a parallel between the autonomous Shi’a militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both forces are increasingly looking more organised and influential than those belonging to the central government.
The result is that even if Iraq wins the Battle for Mosul, the country may ultimately split. Contrary to intuition, Iran would prefer a united Iraq, but Tehran is being pragmatic and are generally prepared to dominate an independent Shi’a Arab state whose capital would almost certainly be Basra.
Likewise the Turks are getting ready to rule the Sunni regions of Iraq as s kind of client state, although they will find the local populations far less willing to work with Turkey vis-à-vis the nominally pro-Iranian Shi’a Arabs in the south.
Turkey may yet ignite a protracted war between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turks if they attempt such a move and all of this would take place next door to a would be Kurdistan.
Just before his execution, one of Saddam’s murderers said ‘go to hell’. Saddam calmly replied ‘you mean the hell that is Iraq’? No truer words have been spoken.