The True Story of the Iraqi Civil War

News Abroad

Ms. Satia is assistant professor of modern British history at Stanford University and the author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2008).

The fundamental fallacy at the heart of our current (and dangerously dwindling) conversation about Iraq is that we are policing a civil war. This is the premise of Democratic calls for withdrawal as much as Republican demands for further entrenchment. The term “civil war” distorts the reality of ongoing resistance to American occupation. It proclaims that the problem is not us—not our consistent failure or, God forbid, our desire to stay in Iraq—but that untamable beast of a country, which continually invents new ways to prevent us from leaving. But, as Iraq’s own past shows, this is a treacherous semantic path to nowhere.

With the vocabulary of the five-year-old war shifting almost as often as our reason for having launched it, promoting the impression that things have “progressed,” it is easy enough to mistake today’s “ethnosectarian” civil war for a new development, different from what we called the “insurgency” before the elections that brought al-Maliki to power. But the American presence remains central in the suffering and death of Iraqi civilians. For instance, last week’s news of Iranian criticism of the “indiscriminate bombardment of Iraqi residential areas by the U.S. occupying forces” was headlined in the New York Times as a complaint about “Strikes on Shiites”—despite the fact that Sunnis from Anbar joined the fight in Sadr City. The real story here is that Iraqis are in conflict with the American-backed Iraqi state. The primary dynamic in Iraq is not the sectarian one but garden variety resistance to occupation—albeit prosecuted by groups drawing on various linguistic, religious, and, indeed, “ethnosectarian” allegiances. After all, what else can they do?  In countries of great diversity, like Iraq no less than the United States, the state more or less constitutes national public space. If the state fails, individuals must cobble together makeshift “publics” from fragments—even reinvented fragments—of their identity. Iraq is suffering from a failure of the state not the nation.

This is not the first time that Iraqi resistance has been self-servingly misunderstood by an occupying force. After World War I, when the British “liberated” the region from Turkish rule, they similarly dismissed insurrection as proof of the failure of Iraqi national solidarity, its susceptibility to outside manipulation and ethno-religious sentiment. Such a reading, then as now, denies the insurgency any political content, reconfiguring it as chaos and thus the very justification of the occupation that it protests. (Iran’s blandishments are certainly not conducive to peace, but nor would their cessation end the basic problem of Iraqi mistrust of a government that fires on Iraqis.) British officials of the 1920s failed, as we have, to grasp the often tightly intertwined social, religious, and political origins and expressions of anti-colonial rebellion. And they, too, used euphemism and spurious declarations of success to avert scrutiny of the militaristic and corruptly developmentalist security state they fathered in Iraq.

Central to that state was the world’s first aerial counterinsurgency regime (in which bombardment was the equivalent of a police truncheon, critics noted); yet, for all their ingenuity, the British proved no more able to crush Iraqi rebellion (or deliver on the promise of “development”) than we have—not because they didn’t apply enough force, but because the state’s violence and fundamentally colonial nature begat continual resistance. In 1921, power was ceremoniously passed to an Iraqi government under the Hashemite prince Faisal. But even this gesture—and it was, in truth, merely a gesture—failed to win over Iraqi opinion, despite Faisal’s vain efforts to twist out of the collaborationist posture in which his British masters held him. The monarchy’s British backing severely compromised its legitimacy and authority even after formal independence in 1932—rightly, since the British themselves intended the change to be “more apparent than real.”

The 1958 revolution finally brought down the monarchy, and the Royal Air Force scurried home. But Iraqis were condemned ever to wonder about the true extent of their independence; a mere two years later, the CIA made its first attempt to assassinate the new republic’spresident (in 1963, they and the British assisted the Baathist coup that would bring Saddam Hussein to power). Besides grasping the dynamic of resistance to covert empire on display in Iraq’s earlier history, we must heed how such all-too-recent memories inevitably shape reception to our latest effort to remake Iraq; Iraqis, no more than any other formerly colonized people, can simply no longer swallow that much presumption or unfairness—or that much paternalism (unless perhaps under UN or regional auspices).

The wrong-headed logic behind the “surge” and Senator McCain’s Iraq plan is that political and economic development will follow “security” (i.e. the absence of resistance or desperation), but the regime’s unpopularity and illegitimacy are the cause of the violence. Any solution must first foster faith in the regime, strip it of its colonial origins, remove the provocation. The past shows that a merely more discreet foreign presence will only further compromise local authority. The Republican position protests rather too much about wanting to leave (while proposing permanent bases, no less), but then it is perhaps too much to expect an open confession of imperial ambition in an allegedly post-imperial era. Indeed, as long as we claim major national interests in the region, our promise to develop truly independent Iraqi security forces will prove as disingenuous as the analogous British promise of 1932.

The lesson from the past is that the local spawn of covert empire is doomed: today’s blinkered conversation about why the Iraqi government is failing to step up so that we can stand down is founded on the fallacy that an only nominally independent government can ever have any legitimacy. As long as Iraqis can fairly claim that we plan to leave only when our own interests have been secured (if ever), they will always have reason to doubt the integrity of their government, to suspect it does America’s bidding rather than theirs, to fear they are, yet again, subjects of indirect imperial rule.

To restore their faith, we will have to leave when it is manifestly not in our apparent interest to do so—in short, now. The surge was supposed to provide enough relief to permit Iraq’s government to resolve the issues at the heart of their “civil war.” Leaving aside the patent absurdity of there being some sort of relatively acceptable level of violence (2-3 bombs per day?), April was one of the deadliest months for Americans and Iraqis since September, and paralysis remains the Iraqi government’s modus operandi. The surge could only have failed: collaborationist regimes are, by their very nature, prone to paralysis and/or oppression. Iraq needs to belong fully and without reservation to the Iraqis; my own hunch is that if we depart, we will be pleasantly surprised by their possession of the at once heroic and ordinary  human capacity to avert the chaos that we claim to fear—and that we have in any case delivered to them.

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R.R. Hamilton - 6/2/2008

In the West Bank and Gaza the voters were confronted with a choice of voting for either -- to put it in American terms -- the Ku Klux Klan party or the Mafia party. So there is no comparison to Iraq where there were something like 100 parties in the last election.

My challenge to the Stanford professor remains unanswered: Given her notion that there is this "widespread" desire for an IMMEDIATE withdrawal of American troops, will she name the political parties in Iraq who will be running on that platform in the upcoming elections?

As an aside, I find this site to be drenched with anti-democratic elitism. Go see http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/50668.html and the comments there to. And actually, I wouldn't mind it so much if the elitists showed that they were any more intelligent than the "unwashed masses" they disparage so often.

oskar methwold - 6/2/2008

First, I think that you do a terrible disservice to the notion of
reasoned argument with your adhominem attacks. belonging to an elite
institution does not automatically make one an elitist.

Your central point seems to be that the US accepted that the secular
party it backed lost the election. It does not follw that this means
that the current government is therefore one that is one the US cannot
do business with or even that the government is not seen as an ally of
US interests by the average Iraqi unlike say the hamas administration
which I'm willing to bet (without the benefit of a poll) is not seen as a US stooge by most Iraqis. neither you or I can infer what the average Iraqi thinks of the current government, but occam's razor and the historical record at the least suggest the author is right.

The fact that we cannot have truly representative polling of the Iraqi
population to find out their stated opinions is in and of itself a
fairly bleak statement about the extent of "social freedoms" the
Iraqis enjoy.

R.R. Hamilton - 6/1/2008

What sheer, unadulterated hogwash.

This Stanford professor(!!) tells us that the Iraqis want our immediate withdrawl. It's become a source of amuse to many of us to watch the dissemblers tell us what "the Iraqi people want" rather than to suggest that we ask the Iraqi people what they want. Iraqis can now vote: Why doesn't the Stanford professor identify for us the Iraqi parties that have run (or will run in the next elections) on the "Americans Out Now!" platform?

And by the way, the coalition of Shiite religious parties that governs Iraq today was not backed by the U.S. in the elections. In fact the U.S. gave substantial backing to a coalition of secular parties -- and stood by while the Iraqi people crushed it with their votes. What would the Stanford professor have the U.S. do -- overthrow the democratically-elected Iraqi government? Apparently so. The elitists always think that the "little people" fail to vote for their own best (the elitists know what's best) interest. They think no more of the Iraqi voters than the American ones.

And as for "violence in Iraq", during Saddam's time, far more innocent Iraqis were dying (and without the counter-vailing benefit of increasing social freedom -- it just wasn't on the boob-tube where nimwits need it to be to believe it.

Fahrettin Tahir - 6/1/2008

What is called "Turkish rule" was the political structure developed by 1000 years of history. The ruling class was a polyenthic group which integrated all elements of islamic society. It was replaced by Britsh colonial rule, the only target of which was to steal the oil. This is also the only reason most Muslims see in the us invasion.

David Shillingburg - 5/29/2008

You must be still dreaming like the President.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/26/2008

You are, of course, out of date, and the Baghdad government has taken hold and won the support of nearly every element of the population. The surge worked well, and the old cut-and-run adherents have nowhere to go. They are mostly just changing the subject to avoid confessing they were wrong. Some of the worst prognostications will show up in election ad soundbites later this year, probably with telling effect.