Dangerous territory

Intervention is already tearing Iraq apart.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

You’ve heard of national liberation, women’s liberation and even animal liberation – but what about accidental liberation?

This is a theory doing the rounds among some liberal commentators feeling guilty about their support for war with Iraq. It holds that, however bloody, barbaric and American the war will be, at least it will have the godsent side-effect of liberating Iraqis from oppression.

According to Johann Hari of the UK Independent, ‘This war is going to be terrible – but leaving Saddam in place would be even more terrible…. The difference is the deaths at the hands of Saddam will shore up Ba’athist national socialism, while deaths in war would at least clear the way for a free and democratic Iraq’ (1).

Guardian loudmouth Julie Burchill puts it more bluntly: ‘If you really think it’s better for more people to die over decades under a tyrannical regime than for fewer people to die during a brief attack by an outside power, [then] you’re really weird….’ (2)

The idea that the coming war will accidentally liberate Iraqis betrays a breathtaking naivety about the consequences of Western intervention. Outside interference in Iraq has already exacerbated local tensions, and military intervention can only further unravel the fragile Iraqi state. The internationalisation of Iraq’s local conflicts threatens to divide Iraqis further and store up conflict for the future, rather than herald anything like a new era of freedom.

By turning Iraq into an international issue, America and Britain have paved the way for a carve-up. Local players like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all want a piece of postwar Iraq, while the big powers – including the supposedly anti-war French and Germans – have their own plans for postwar occupation. And if you think such intervention will bring democracy to Iraq, then you’re really weird.

On the ground, the divvying up of Iraq between different powers has already started. As part of its deal to allow US forces to use Turkish territory to launch attacks on Iraq, Turkey has been given the green light to double the number of its troops in northern Iraq from 6000 to 12,000 in recent weeks (3). Northern Iraq is territory that the United Nations designated as a ‘safe haven’ for Kurds following the first Gulf War in 1991, taking the area out of Baghdad’s control and granting limited self-government to Kurdish groups.

Turkish forces are fortifying a 25-mile buffer zone between Turkey and northern Iraq – though according to Newsweek magazine, Turkish forces are keen to go even further into Iraqi territory. ‘Turkey is demanding that it send 60,000 to 80,000 of its own troops into northern Iraq to establish “strategic positions” across a “security arc” as much as 140 to 170 miles deep in Iraq’, reports Newsweek. ‘That would take Turkish troops almost halfway to Baghdad.’ (4)

The Bush administration claims that it is allowing Turkish forces into northern Iraq for ‘humanitarian reasons only’ (5), to assist with the flood of refugees that the war in Iraq will no doubt create. In truth, with America’s blessing, Turkey is pursuing nobody’s interests but its own in northern Iraq.

Turkey is demanding free rein in northern Iraq. It wants to be in charge of ‘supervising the armament and disarmament of Kurdish groups’ and of ‘restricting the movement’ of Kurdish forces where necessary (6). Under the guise of a humanitarian effort, Turkey’s intervention in northern Iraq is about keeping a check on Kurdish demands for independence, to ensure that such demands do not impact on Turkey’s own volatile Kurdish population.

Since 1984, Turkey has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which fought for Kurdish independence within Turkish territory. Turkey refuses to recognise the ‘ethnicity’ of its Kurdish population and continues to ban the Kurdish language. Now, Turkey sees intervention in northern Iraq as the latest front in its war against the Kurds. As Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis said when asked about postwar Iraq: ‘A Kurdistan should not be set up.’ (7)

The opening up of northern Iraq to Turkish forces as part of the planned attack on Iraq lays the ground for renewed conflict between Turks and Kurds. According to Hoshyar Zebari, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which administers the western portion of northern Iraq: ‘Any Turkish intervention under whatever pretext will lead to clashes.’ (8) ‘People in northern Iraqi Kurdistan are more scared of the Turkish military than of Saddam’, says Nasreen Sideek, a KDP minister (9).

For Independent columnist Johann Hari and other Western commentators, northern Iraq epitomises the kind of democracy that ought to be extended throughout Iraq. According to Hari, ‘under US and British protection, a democracy with freedom of speech and protection of human rights has flourished for the past decade’ in northern Iraq (10). Yet, according to a Kurdish newspaper poll taken on 22 February 2003, 83 percent of the residents of northern Iraq are opposed to ‘any Turkish intrusion’ (11). In what kind of ‘flourishing democracy’ can you have foreign intervention against the will of the majority?

Western intervention in Iraq has turned northern Iraq’s local problems – muted conflict between different Kurdish groups, the existence of Islamic terrorist groups – into an international issue. Whatever stability existed in northern Iraq as a ‘safe haven’ is likely to be undermined by Turkey’s US-backed intervention to pursue its own interests.

Elsewhere in northern Iraq, Iran has sent in 5000 Shia troops, complete with ‘heavy equipment’ (12), in an attempt to protect its borders with Iraq during and after the war. The Iraqi Shia troops were originally an Iraq-based Islamic opposition to Saddam’s regime, though they have been granted safe haven and training by Iraq’s longstanding enemy Iran for the past 20 years.

Iran claims to have sent the troops into northern Iraq as a defensive measure, to protect against a potential attack on Iran by the People’s Mujahideen Organisation, an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq that allegedly receives support and funding from Saddam’s regime (13). But Iran’s real interests seem to be in fortifying its borders by pre-emptively crossing over into Iraqi territory, and staking its interest in any set-up in postwar Iraq.

According to the Financial Times, ‘Through inserting a proxy force, Iran is underlining that it cannot be ignored in future discussions over Iraq’s make-up’ (14). One expert on Iraqi/Iranian relations claims that Iran is pursuing ‘nothing but an Iranian agenda’, to ensure its future stability. Some Iranian officials are floating the possibility of extending their influence among Iraq’s Shia Muslim population, by encouraging them to stand up to the Sunni Muslims that dominate Saddam’s regime – a move that could only cause further fragmentation and division inside Iraq.

It might seem odd that Iran – one of America’s ‘axis of evil’ states, remember – can send 5000 heavily armed troops into Iraq without incurring much international condemnation (though the Bush administration is apparently ‘concerned’). Perhaps Tehran officials have been buoyed to intervene in Iraq by their meetings with UK prime minister Tony Blair earlier this year, who promised that Iran’s interests would be ‘taken into consideration’ during and after war with Iraq.

With Turkish troops on one side of northern Iraq and Iranian-backed troops on the other, US officials are said to be ever-more concerned about ‘the increasingly complicated patchwork of forces in northern Iraq’, and the potential for instability that this brings about (15). But who was it, if not Western forces, that made northern Iraq into such free-for-all territory in the first place?

The north was taken out of Baghdad’s control after the first Gulf War by Western forces. It was one of the UN ‘safe havens’ that was being demanded by many of those now opposed to military intervention. As a consequence, Iraq’s sovereignty and borders were seriously undermined, making northern Iraq a less governed (and generally less governable) place than the rest of Iraq. It was the West’s undermining of Iraqi state control over northern Iraq that made it such a borderless and intervention-friendly place.

As Muzaffer Baca, vice-president of a Turkish humanitarian relief organisation, argues: ‘There [has been] no effective control of the central authorities or international institutions. Northern Iraq is a haven for drug and arms smugglers….The instability creates an atmosphere in which terror and terrorist organisations can flourish.’ (16)

Far from being an example for the rest of Iraq, northern Iraq shows the dangers of Western intervention, and how undermining a state’s sovereignty heightens the potential for instability and conflict. Besides, the ‘patchwork’ of Turkish and Iranian-backed forces in northern Iraq that so concerns Bush and co appears to have come about as a result of at least American and British agreement, if not their full-blown support.

Perhaps in response to the potential for what one newspaper calls ‘the permanent disintegration of Iraq’, the Bush administration unveiled its latest plans for postwar Iraq in late February 2003. The White House plans a total occupation of Iraq following the war, to oversee the ‘reconstruction of the country’s shattered infrastructure’ (the infrastructure that US forces will just have shattered?) (17).

According to one report: ‘The White House will outline plans…for taking complete control of post-Saddam Iraq “for an indefinite period” and overseeing the reconstruction of the country. General Tommy Franks, the Texan commander of the allied invasion forces, will be named as interim governor until all weapons of mass destruction are found and disabled and wanted members of the regime tracked down and arrested.’ (18)

And what will happen once the military occupation has disarmed Iraq and destroyed any opposition to its presence? Then the reins will be handed over to an American civilian, or an ‘American of stature’ as one report puts it, who will, again, control Iraq for an ‘indefinite period’ (19).

The French and German alternative to America’s occupation plans isn’t much better. France and Germany may be heralded by the anti-war movement as forces for peace in the Iraqi crisis, but they too propose that Iraq be occupied – only by UN rather than American forces. In France and Germany’s preferred option for Iraq, the UN Security Council would take control of Iraqi airspace and soil, and Iraq would effectively become a protectorate, like Kosovo. Liberation, accidental or otherwise, would be notable by its absence.

There is something missing in the American, British, French and German proposals for postwar Iraq – the Iraqis themselves. The people of Iraq may have a starring role in Bush and Blair’s rhetoric, but in the plans for postwar Iraq they don’t even get a look in. Bush and Blair talk up the need to ‘free Iraqis’ from ‘Saddam’s grip’, but they push ahead with a plan that will divide Iraq up and put American generals in charge.

This is the ‘free and democratic’ Iraq we can expect following further Western intervention – an Iraq where Iraqis are more divided than ever; where local conflicts are internationalised and exacerbated; where neighbouring powers Turkey and Iran vie for territory and influence; and where the country is occupied by American or UN forces.

The liberals’ idea of accidental liberation is a con. It depicts the people of Iraq as hapless saps who should only expect freedom as the by-product of a Western war. And it displays a wilful ignorance of the big power interests that are currently carving up and destabilising Iraq, even before the war has started. I prefer the idea of human liberation for the people of Iraq. And that is something that only the Iraqis themselves – free from outside interference – have a vested interest in fighting for.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The case for war: we must fight to end the Iraqis’ suffering, Johann Hari, Independent, 15 February 2003

(2) Why we should go to war, Julie Burchill, Guardian, 1 February 2003

(3) Turkey weighs economic, political costs of a Gulf War, Ilene R Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, 10 January 2003

(4) Risking a civil war, Owen Matthews, Sami Kohen and John Barry, Newsweek, 24 February 2003

(5) US to station thousands of troops in self-rule area, Michael Howard, Guardian, 24 February 2003

(6) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003

(7) Turkey, US rebound from stalemate over aid package, Ilene R Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003

(8) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003

(9) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003

(10) The case for war: we must fight to end the Iraqis’ suffering, Johann Hari, Independent, 15 February 2003

(11) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003

(12) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003

(13) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003

(14) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003

(15) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003

(16) War would threaten Iraq’s Kurds and Shias, Muzaffer Baca, AlertNet, 29 November 2002

(17) General Franks ‘to run Iraq after war’, Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003

(18) General Franks ‘to run Iraq after war’, Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003

(19) General Franks ‘to run Iraq after war’, Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003

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