Op-Ed

Whose Iraq is It?

Shibley Telhami

As the June 30 date for the hand-over of Iraqi sovereignty approaches, it’s a worrisome sign that even in one of this relatively moderate Muslim country’s most cosmopolitan cities, posters demonizing President Bush plaster buildings and walls. Some drip with fake blood.

The posters, the bombing that killed four on Thursday, and the violent demonstrations against the NATO summit starting here Monday are just some of the latest signs of a loss of faith in the Middle East over U.S. intentions. Another is that, in a survey I conducted with Zogby International earlier this month, majorities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates said the transfer of sovereignty will be nothing but a superficial act to camouflage continued American occupation.

For the transfer of power to ultimately succeed in Iraq, the United States will need to win the game of perception. And it’s already clear that game has been lost, at least for the moment, in much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Certainly, there is always a chance to change perceptions, and what happens in Iraq itself over the next several months will in the end have the most impact. Will its government gain enough legitimacy, despite continued American presence and influence? Will it succeed in holding free elections in the coming months that move Iraq closer to real sovereignty? And above all, will it succeed in increasing internal security to begin a process of healing and economic rebuilding?

All of that depends, in good part, on internal Iraqi politics, including the emerging struggle about the degree of Kurdish autonomy, the divisions among and even within each of Iraq’s large communities—Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurd—and the extent of militant opposition. But in the end two things are clear: Even the optimistic scenarios about Iraq’s future envision a difficult path in the short term—and Iraq’s future will remain dependent on outside powers, especially the United States.

American forces can’t leave without endangering the “sovereign Iraqi” government they helped put in place. In the absence of American protection and support, it is unlikely that the government could survive, or that its members could afford to take the great personal risk of trying to lead the country. Beyond that, to get Iraq on its feet economically, to create jobs for some of the youth and to project a degree of hope, enormous amounts of U.S. and other outside aid will remain necessary.

Global perception

But such American involvement in Iraq means limited sovereignty and, even more important, the continued local, regional and global perception that the United States and Britain want to be occupiers and have no real intentions of leaving.

There inevitably will be numerous tests of the degree of American control. One test will be how the United States plays the tensions between the Kurds—who have national aspirations—and other Iraqis, especially Shiites, who worry about too much Kurdish autonomy. Another will be the space allowed for a truly free election campaign in which Iraqi politicians may feel their legitimacy depends on distancing themselves from, or even opposing, the United States.

Then there is the question of American military responses to new attacks, especially ones like that in Al-Fallujah, where Americans were mutilated. Will an American president waging a tough election-year campaign allow such actions to go unanswered in order to give the Iraqi government more political legitimacy, or will he order a full-out assault, like the one launched in retaliation for the earlier attack?

Further complicating matters for Iraqi leaders—and for America—is that countries besides the United States have a deep interest in Iraq’s future, and some already have real influence there.

Iran is one of the countries most intent on influencing Iraq’s future. Besides Kuwait, Iran has been by far the greatest beneficiary of the demise of Saddam Hussein’s government. Saddam sent his forces into war with Iran in 1980 in a campaign that brought nothing but ruin for both nations for eight years.

The war with the United States not only deposed Saddam, it made Iraq far less of a military threat to its neighbors for the foreseeable future, even if it can be maintained as a unified state. In addition, it opened up new possibilities for Iranian influence in Iraq, and for Iranian aspirations for dominance in the Persian Gulf region.

Iranian influence

For one thing, if American forces withdraw, Iran will emerge as the region’s dominant military power. For another, the war has empowered Iraq’s Shiite majority, which had been repressed by Saddam’s government. Iran has a substantial Shiite majority, and Shiites from the two countries share cultural, religious and political ties.

Certainly, Iraq’s Shiites have strong Iraqi and Arab identities that could keep them from accepting too much Iranian influence, and many don’t share Iran’s view that clergy should run the country.

Nonetheless, Iran has far more potential influence in Iraq than at any point in recent history. Iran had provided refuge for many opponents of Saddam’s government, and many of them are now back in Iraq. The border between the two countries has become porous, making it possible to transfer arms. And, undoubtedly, Iran now has significant intelligence assets in Iraq. Iran also shares with Iraq’s Shiites the goal of preventing the emergence of a Kurdish state, in part for fear its own Kurdish population will grow restive.

So far, Iran has been happy to reap the benefits of Saddam’s demise and to quietly watch the pressure grow for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. But in coming months, the temptation to influence the process of the Iraqi elections and the shape of the future government will be great. That temptation could grow if Iranian-U.S. relations become more strained, a real possibility given Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hezbollah organization and the recent international scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program.

Arab states also have significant stakes in Iraq, and at least some have favorite candidates for power whom they have pushed in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have always been concerned about the possible disintegration of Iraq, not only because they worry about a spillover effect, but also because they worry it will empower Iran, whose regional ambitions they fear.

Lack of trust

And because both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are mostly Sunni, they also worry about the reduced influence of Iraq’s Sunni minority, which dominated the country under Saddam.

To some extent, regional power plays are not uncommon when a leader falls. But Iraq’s neighbors might also feel a push to get involved because their populations are deeply suspicious about U.S. foreign policy and its true aims in the region. Unless it can regain the popular trust, the United States’ efforts to influence the region are likely to be much more difficult.

Consider Istanbul, a city that literally bridges Asia and Europe, east and west. Because it is located in a non-Arab Muslim country of strong secular traditions and pro-Western ties, it should not be a hard place for the United States to find friends. Yet the city is a reflection of the challenges America faces in winning the hearts and minds in the Muslim world. While there still appear to be strong pro-Western feelings here, there is also an increasingly robust anti-American (or possibly anti-Bush) mood.

To begin with, Turks across the political spectrum worry greatly about the possible disintegration of Iraq, especially the emergence of an independent Kurdish state and the possible encouragement of Turkey’s Kurds to seek independence. Despite assurance from the United States, and from Israel, which has been accused of encouraging Kurdish independence, the Turks are visibly nervous, even as they prepare for the NATO summit. Those concerns have already pushed the government into more cooperative relationships with Syria and Iran, both of whom share similar worries about their large Kurdish populations.

Motives questioned

The worry over the Kurds was always a central factor in the Turkish opposition to the Iraq war, which has now translated into considerable resentment and mistrust of American foreign policy.

But the second reason for the reluctance to cooperate with American policy in Iraq is a basic mistrust of American aims and intentions that Turks increasingly share with others in the Middle East. In my recent public-opinion survey, most Arabs said they believe that one of the main goals of the United States’ war on Iraq was “weakening” the Muslim world. A similar survey in Turkey before the Iraq war showed this belief was a major reason many Turks had opposed that war.

Nothing brings the point home more clearly than this troubling picture: The U.S. Consulate used to be housed in a grand old building on a narrow city street; it was a vibrant place accessible to a friendly population. Security fears, a symptom of the changed U.S.-Turkish relationship, were the primary reason the building was later abandoned.

The new consulate is miles away, on a commanding hill on the city’s outskirts, surrounded by walls and much security; it is a lonely, fortress-like structure.

Standing in a tower on the edge of the structure, looking far down into a middle-class Turkish neighborhood, one gets the chilling sense that the Turks below are seeing a Crusader castle. From such heights and distance, it may be hard for the United States to find allies willing to cooperate with its aims in Iraq and the Middle East.