A Weak Iraq Could Be As Dangerous As a Strong Iraq


IN HIS ADDRESS to the American people on the first day of the war with Iraq, President Bush said "when the troops we sent in finish their work, I'm determined to bring them home as soon as possible."

This may be little more than a fond dream. United States troops may find themselves occupying the region on a permanent basis. This would be a guaranteed way for America to win the war and lose the peace.

The U.S. and its allies are in the process of destroying Iraq's military capacity -- not only its offensive capacity but its defensive capacity as well. Saddam Hussein may survive the war, but his nation may not survive in the aftermath of the war.

A militarily strong Iraq was a threat to the region, but a militarily weak Iraq may prove to be equally dangerous. A weak Iraq would invite internal civil war and encourage Iraq's neighbors to dismember the country. Either scenario would touch off regional conflict which could last for decades.

The solution to this problem is likely to be the same solution used throughout this century: the stationing of a permanent foreign occupation force in the region. The U.S. is the nation most likely to provide such a force.

The problem of a post-war Iraq is complicated by its history and demography. Iraq is a country held together with spit and baling wire. It was cobbled together by Great Britain at the end of World War I from three disparate regions of the Ottoman Empire: a Kurdish northern region, a central region dominated by Shiite Muslims with cultural and historic ties to Iran, and a Sunni Muslim southern region. None of these populations has an absolute majority, but since 1958 the government has been dominated by Sunni Muslims from the the southern city of Takrit.

This amalgam of dissimilar peoples was held together first by a British-supported monarchy and then through a series of military dictatorships. These governments were repressive, but they served as a stabilizing force for the country. A sudden destruction of the military could easily cause the country to fly apart.

The most likely rebels would be the Kurds. Constituting between 30 and 40 percent of the Iraqi population, they have suffered mightily at the hands of the central government. They have been attacked and gassed by Saddam Hussein and have no love for the Arabs who have oppressed them. Added to this, they sit on Iraq's principal oil fields and resent the fact that the social benefits they receive do not reflect the contribution of their region to the national economy.

The Shiites are the largest community in Iraq. The major holshrines of Shiite Islam lie in their territory. They, too, have been oppressed by Saddam Hussein's government. More than 200,000 of them were shoved across the border into Iran in the waning years of the shah's regime. During the Iran-Iraq war, Shiite leaders were murdered by the Hussein regime to avoid possible collaboration with Shiite Iran, and the entire community was threatened with destruction if anyone aided the Iranians. A civil war could well place them in control of Baghdad and other central urban areas.

A civil war would be extraordinarily vicious. Retribution for centuries of regional conflict mixed with the bitterness arising from conquest by an outside enemy would assure

long-smoldering violence.

But a greater danger still may arise from Iraq's neighbors, all of whom would like a piece of the country.

Turkey and Syria may both hope to annex the northern oil region. Turkey, in fact, has a long-standing claim to the region from the time of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Syria has been an enemy of Iraq since the 1960s due to a split in philosophy in the Baath Party, which is the dominant party in both countries.

Iran, still bitter over its war with Iraq, has designs on the central and southern Shiite regions. If Iran did not try to annex parts of Iraq, it might try to establish in Baghdad a Shiite government which would be friendly to the Islamic regime in Tehran.

All three powers have strong armies, and the elimination of Iraq's military capacity will leave it unable to withstand attacks on its borders. Indeed, Turkey and Syria may even harbor expectations that they will be allowed to annex parts of Iraqi territory as part of the spoils of war.

There was a remarkably similar situation at the end of World War II. Germany and Japan, weak and debilitated, faced both internal and external threats. At that time the threats were from the Soviet Union and regional Communist movements. The solution was the permanent stationing of allied troops in both countries -- to prevent resurgence of Fascist sentiments and to protect the then-vulnerable nations from dismemberment.

Korea was later added to the roster of protected nations. That stationing of troops has lasted now for 45 years and is not likely to end soon.

Prevention of chaos in the Middle East following a military defeat of Iraq may require the same kind of military occupation. A civil fTC war in Iraq, aside from the death and destruction it would cause, would nearly be as disruptive of the world economic order as Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait. Any gains in territory or economic benefits to Syria or Iran would be as alarming to the West as a victory for Mr. Hussein might have been.

The U.S. occupying armies at the end of World War II received a notably warm welcome from the occupied peoples sick of war. In sharp contrast, an occupation of the Mideast would be bitter and hostile.

For Middle Eastern people, such a military presence would be all too reminiscent of the first half of this century, when British and French armies supported puppet governments throughout the region. The native population was bitterly opposed to this foreign presence. The end result of these occupations was a series of revolutions in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.

The problem with occupation does not reside only in the Middle East. Americans are already sharply divided on the reasonableness of the war. It is unlikely they will agree on a costly, permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Middle Easterners could eventually grow to despise the occupiers, as they did the British and the French before. Such an occupation will end when we, too, are unceremoniously expelled in a series of bloody conflicts.

The difficulties of the post-war period may be lessened if the U.S. will trust the Islamic world itself to be the keystone to the solution. A stabilizing occupying army should be international with a large contingent -- perhaps a majority -- from the Islamic world and a very small U.S. contingent. The Arab League should also be asked to participate in overseeing this post-war period. This will return control of regional problems to regional forces.

In the end, the people of the Middle East do not want control of their destiny -- even in defeat -- to lie in the hands of Westerners. If the U.S. hopes to remain effective and active in the region in the future, we must understand this basic truth.

William O. Beeman, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, specializes in the Mideast.

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