Iraq After Five Years-The Failure of "Sunni Defeat" and the Chance for Building Democracy

The US invaded Iraq, removed the regime of Saddam Hussein, and promised a democracy that would serve as a model for the Arab world.
It is a well-intended but a naïve project since to build democracy you need democrats and a democratic mindset. Undemocratic regimes breed oppositions that are not themselves democratic. The national atmosphere is not conducive to breeding democratic tendencies.
The regime of Saddam Hussein was, until the sanctions period, a staunchly Arab nationalist secular regime. This regime dealt harshly with opponents of the regime especially the Islamists, the Shia and the Sunnis. While Saddam Hussein himself was a Sunni Muslim, it was not a Sunni Muslim regime in any meaningful way. The most wanted from the regime of Saddam were at least 40% Shia officials. Another evidence of the falsity of the “Sunni regime” label is the fact that the Kurds, themselves Sunnis, were also at odds with the regime.
The US promoted the war as a democracy project. Others promoted it, or at least perceived it through their prism of biases and prejudices, as a settlement of scores between Sunnis and Shia on the basis of historical grievances, real and imagined. Those, like Dr Vali Nasr and Dr Fouad Ajami, incidentally both of Iranian Shia extraction, saw and promoted the war as a part of the historical conflict between the Shia and Sunnis and not, as the US promoted , a historic movement toward free markets and free people that seems to have evaded the Arab world for the longest time.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Dr. Fouad Ajami writes in “No Surrender,” again playing on the Sunni Arab-Shia theme (as if the Turkmen, Chaldeans and Kurds in Iraq are footnotes) and not the democracy theme that President Bush repeatedly emphasized. [Dr. Ajami is a cheerleader for the war and has an inability to hide or even tone down his disregard for the Arabs, particularly the majority Sunnis of them. Read anything written by Dr. Ajami and it is written in a well-reasoned scholarly tone- the exception is his writing on Arab issues, there you find a condescending tone and glee over failures and setbacks].
In the Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Ajami writes:
“The [Arab] Sunnis had all, but wrecked their chances in the new order. The American strategy in the year behind us worked to cushion the Sunni defeat. The US now sustains a large force of “volunteers” the sons of Iraq, drawn mainly from the Sunni community. This has not met with the approval of the Shiite –led government, but the attempt to create a balance between the two communities has been both deliberate and wise.”
I have just listened to President Bush make a statement on the fifth anniversary of the war and he did not mention “Sunni Defeat.” In fact he mentioned the defeat of Al Qaeda and the Shia extremists that so conveniently seem to evade Dr. Ajami’s writings on Iraq.
Unfortunately for Iraq and the alliance forces, the Shia pro-Iran Islamists understood the removal of Saddam, just like their cheerleader Dr Ajami did, as a “Sunni defeat”and dealt with the Sunnis as a defeated community. The Iraqi national professional armed forces were dismantled, prominent national secular Sunni officials were removed under the guise of debaathification, and the Sunni community found itself treated as a defeated community and at the mercy of fanatical sectarian militias. the new government was infused by sectarian militias and sectarian mindsets. In this setting, the Al Qaeda presented itself as the defender of the Sunnis.
Only a realization of these unfortunate and unintended developments, seen with the keen eyes of ambassador Khalilzad (the sectarian Shia leaders hated him and alluded to his Sunni faith by calling him Abu Omar al Buluchi), along with the surge, changed the course of events in Iraq. The US had to give a crash course in what democracy and majority rule mean to the pro-Iranian Shia Islamists, a course that until now they have not passed. The US, losing hope in the ability to reform the Shia militia infiltrated Iraqi government forces helped create the Awakening groups to fight both the Shia and the Sunni extremists attacking the Sunni Iraqis.
The Shia dominated government of Iraq refused to meaningfully include the Sunnis or to spend money in the Sunni Majority areas. On the other hand, Sayed al Hakeem, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said Iraq should pay Iran $200 billion in compensation for the 8- year war that Saddam unleashed but the late Ayatollah Khomeini refused to end until eight years of carnage had passed (See Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival for the conversation between the Ayatollah and another Shia religious leader about the war, the massive casulaties and Khomeini’s response).
The Shia-dominated government, instead of rebuilding the country on unifying symbols, chose instead to impose narrow sectarian symbols on state institutions across the board. The national TV station emphasized Shia occasions and broadcast Ashura lamentations, with occasion and no occasion. Huge Shia flags and pictures of Ayatollahs, adorned government ministries with loudspeakers blaring Shia leaders speeches and lamentations. Shia sectarian militias ran government hospitals and Sunnis avoided them to escape abduction and death. I recall watching CNN and seeing an Iraqi army tank with the Shia black flag on it. Even the preamble of the Constitution of Iraq talked about Shia religious leaders, Shia-specific icons.
To build a nation as diverse as Iraq one needs unifying symbols that appeal across communal spectrum. The Baath government was at least able to produce symbols of the Iraq state that could appeal to all- Chaldean, Kurd, Sunni, and Shia. None of its symbols were “Sunni symbols.” Many of its heroes were even pre-Islamic such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

I recall one of the Islamist Shia leader Al Hakeem’s visits to the US to meet with President Bush in order to discuss the more meaningful inclusion of the Sunnis in Iraqi government. Hakeem’s reaction was that Iraq's problem is that the Shia are the new rulers of Iraq and the Sunnis do not seem to understand this. This is the problem. The change in the regime was not intended by the US as a “Sunni defeat.” But Dr Ajami and the Shia Islamiists characterized it as such (unlike the secular Shia Allawi, for example). The US thought of it as a war to remove a dictatorship and spread democracy. Not Ajami and the Shia Islamists.
Dr. Ajami and the Islamists pro-Iran Shia Iraqis thought of it as a Sunni defeat and a historical chance to settle scores with the Sunnis. This mindset, in large part, led to the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq. The surge, alongside US realization of this unintended consequence of the Iraq war, mean that President Bush's war to bring democracy to Iraq and the Arab world might have a fighting chance after all.


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