The future of Iraq is in double vision

Posted in Iraq | 17-Jan-04 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - During the next six months, the world is going to be treated to two remarkable trials in Baghdad. It is going to be the mother of all split screens. On one side, you're going to see the trial of Saddam Hussein. On the other side, you're going to see the trial of the Iraqi people. That's right, the Iraqi people will also be on trial - for whether they can really live together without the iron fist of the man on the other side of the screen.

This may be apocryphal, but Saddam is supposed to have once remarked something like: Be careful, if you get rid of me, you will need seven presidents to rule Iraq. Which is why this split-screen trial is going to be so important. Either Saddam is going to be laughing at us and at Iraqis, saying "I told you so," as Iraqis are squabbling and murdering each other on the other side of the screen.

Or, America and the Iraqi people will be laughing at him by proving that it is possible to produce something the Arab world has rarely seen: a self-governing, multiethnic, representative Arab government that accepts minority rights and peaceful transfers of power - without a military dictator, monarch or mullah standing overhead with a stick.

You don't want to miss this show. This is pay-per-view history. If, somehow, Iraqi Kurds, Sunnis, Turkmen, Christians, Assyrians and Shiites find a way to embrace pluralism, it will be a huge boost to moderates in the war of ideas all across the Muslim world. Those who scoff at the idea of a democratic domino theory in the Arab world don't know what they're talking about. But those who think this is a done deal don't know Iraq.

If Iraq is going to be made to work as a decent, pluralistic, self-governing entity, noted Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the United States Institute of Peace, all the key factions there will have to accept being "reasonably unhappy." All will have to settle for their second-best dream in order to avoid their first-class nightmare: chaos or a return to tyranny.

Islamists will have to accept being unhappy that the system does not mandate Shariah law as the constitution, but only "reasonably" unhappy, because Islam will be the official religion of the state and respected as an important basis for legislation and governance. Secularists will have to accept being unhappy that Iraq's new basic law gives Islam an important symbolic place in governance, but only "reasonably" unhappy, because this secular law and judges will still provide the basis for a new rule of law. Kurds will have to accept being very unhappy not to achieve their dream of an independent Kurdistan, but only "reasonably" unhappy, because the special autonomous status of the Kurdish region will be concretized in Iraqi law.

The Sunnis will have to accept being unhappy that they are no longer controlling Iraq and its oil wealth, but only "reasonably" unhappy, because they will discover that they still have a significant role in the Parliament, and a share of the nation's oil wealth in their own provinces, thanks to the new Iraqi federalism. The Shiites will be unhappy that, now when their majority political status will finally be realized, power and resources are going to be diffused throughout a federal system and constraints are going to be placed on the power of the majority. But they will only have to be "reasonably" unhappy, because there will eventually be a Shiite head of government, and the very federalism that disperses power and resources will also enable Shiite provinces that wish to adopt a more Islamist form of government to do so.

"Let us put aside the literary phrase 'We are brothers but others are dividing us,'" the thoughtful Arab columnist Hazem Saghieh wrote in the newspaper Al Hayat. "We in Iraq and elsewhere are not brothers - there are problems we inherited from our own history and social makeup, which were not helped by oppressive modern regimes. ... Let's be frank: The Shiites today scare the Sunnis; the Sunnis and the Shiites together scare the Kurds; and the Kurds scare the other minorities. ... All the ethnic groups of Iraq have the responsibility of putting nation-building above their selfish and conflicting calculations."

In short, America's most serious long-term enemy in Iraq may not be the Iraqi insurgents, but the Iraqi people. Can they live together reasonably unhappy at first, and then grow reasonably happy? If they can, America will be Iraq's temporary midwife, helping give birth to its democracy. If they can't, America will be Iraq's new, always unhappy, baby sitter, and the old one, Saddam Hussein, will be laughing at us all the way to the gallows.