Monday, December 15, 2003

Who gives a Shiite?

So Saddam has been captured. It's good news for the Iraqis who were persecuted by him and for the Bush family who don't look like such incompetents a second time round. It also is far better than the utter cock up when the Yanks killed Saddam's sons rather than capture them for information. However is it good news for us?

British troops in Iraq are almost all in the south of Iraq around Basra. The majority of the British zone is Shiite. It is also far quieter than the American zone.

Why this is so should be, but isn't, a matter of urgent debate. After all if this situation could be upset then it has the potential to stretch our army to the utmost. When it is addressed at all it is seen to be because our troops are somehow superior to those stupid and insensitive American troops. Now the Yanks do have many stupid and insensitive troops, and compared to our more compact and bijou armed forces it is perhaps not surprising that the stupidity and insensitivity quotients are somewhat higher. The average IQ would decline in ours as well if we had the amount of men under arms that the interventionists imagine that we do.

So is it this intelligence and sensitivity together with our experience in Northern Ireland keeping our sector that much quieter than the Americans? I have my doubts. The American sector is not that much more lively than ours if you take out the Sunni Arab areas. The Kurds and the Shiites in the American zones are just getting on with it. Of course there are some misunderstandings, for example when Kurds want to ethnically cleanse Arabs or when Shiite holy cities get bombed, but we had Fallujah and riots in Basra. The real source of bad things for the Americans has been the Sunni triangle. The very use of the term by the media has been an admission that the real damage on the occupation forces has been imposed almost entirely by a minority of the population. The comfortable official story that the attacks are orchestrated by the largely Sunni Baathists or the entirely Sunni Al Qaeda network is also a recognition of the ethnic imbalance.

Imagine if we had that with the Shia? Would our intelligence and sensitivity manage to keep a lid on things? Perhaps, but I'm not that keen on finding out.

So, what will the capture of Saddam do for the Shia population? Well first off they will be very happy for a couple of weeks. Most observers can agree on that outcome. Most Shia hated Saddam, for good reason. Then, many of the observers believe, they will be grateful to us and keep on co-operating. That's nice. Gratitude is not a well known quality in Middle Eastern politics, in fact it's almost unknown in politics the world over. Although I will be the first to admit that I don't know the intricacies of Arab tribal customs or Shia theology - I simply find it as stupid as the idea that Iraq could be democratic by now, or as stupid as your average neo-conservative public pronouncement on foreign policy.

So let's hope for gratitude but prepare for the Arabs to act like, well, Arabs. What has kept the Shia so relatively co-operative, or at least not fighting to the last cousin as the Sunni do? Perhaps its the fact that they like to be occupied by non-Arabic speaking nominally Christian foreign powers. Or perhaps they, or their leaders, trust us to give them democracy, sovereignty, control over their oil money, the right to bash ten bells out of the Sunnis and other good things. Well do you, dear reader, believe that we will sign up wholeheartedly to the Shia agenda - if we can find out which Shia agenda is the real Shia agenda? Do you think they've forgotten what they regard as our betrayal of the Shia rebellion after the last Gulf War? If you don't think so, why should they?

Perhaps its just not worth the bother. Perhaps we are seen as more ruthless and more desperate and able to pour more armed men in to suppress a rebellion than Saddam was. Perhaps they got fed up after the last rebellion and they think that trusting the authorities, vigorous debate and civil disobedience are now the way to go. Perhaps, but a prudent man wouldn't bank on it.

So what has been there motivation so far? Well let me hazard a guess. Fear. Fear that Saddam may come back like he did last time. Or fear that the Sunnis may come back like they did last time, and every time since the Ottoman Empire first came along. (Parenthetically, do you think that the Shia like hearing all this talk of reconciling the Sunni Arabs with the occupying forces now Saddam has gone? Oh well.) Now arresting Saddam has not removed the fear entirely, after all he could be brought back by the Americans, or his son could come back, or he could escape, or some crazy Western judge could set him free. However this fear, this until now very useful fear, will have been reduced drastically. The man is now in American custody, his supporters have seen him weakened. Even a conspiracist Arab would admit that Saddam is probably (the conditional is deliberate) a spent force. You don't fear a spent force.

That's why I want Saddam kept alive. The very fact that he is alive will give the Shia pause for thought. They know that he would welcome the prospect of returning as a puppet president of Iraq, and although they would be fairly certain that the Americans wouldn't wear it - could they be entirely sure? Of course the fear would be far less than it was last Saturday, but at least we would have some leverage.

But will it be enough fear? I doubt it. Perhaps the Shia will be grateful enough to leave us alone. Perhaps they will see more profit for their agenda of Shia domination of Iraq through co-operating with us. Perhaps they fear their Sunni neighbours enough to prefer us. Perhaps if they do rise, it will be so divided and puny we will not be greatly inconvenienced.

That's an awful lot of perhapses.


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