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The Ruler Of Iraq Tempering Two Fires

The Ruler Of Iraq Tempering Two Fires

Monday, 11 October, 2021 - 09:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

“If you want to understand the Iraqi situation, you must remember that it’s a country that has always been anxious or afraid, and has not savored - especially in the past decades - the taste of a natural rule,” someone once told me.

He added: “Iraq has geographical fears because it is situated between two stronger countries, namely Iran and Turkey, and because its relations with Syria and Jordan have always been one of ebb and flow. Iraq has also historical horrors because neighboring empires have always fought over its land.”

The speech drew my attention, I asked the speaker to explain: “The Iraqi ruler has constantly been anxious. He dreaded his neighbors, the inside, and even the narrow circle around him. In our modern history, Abdel-Karim Qasim was worried about his partner in the revolution, Abdel-Salam Aref, who insisted on executing his former comrade when he gained control. Saddam Hussein was afflicted with double anxiety, both from the outside and the inside.”

He continued: “Saddam was afraid of Khomeini’s Iran, and on the day he took over power it seemed as if he would reverse two burning coals: ‘exporting the revolution’ and ‘wilayat al-faqih’. This concern led him to war. His anxiety about Iran and the Kurds pushed him to Halabja. Saddam’s fear from the army generals led him to follow the example of Stalin in resorting to periodic and bloody purges. He adopted the same approach within his own party.”

The speaker recollected past memories, saying: “We took control of the government on February 8, 1963. We took over power, and our anxiety doubled. We were afraid of the Shah’s alliance with America, and dreaded Atlantic Turkey.

Internally, we feared the communists, whom we bloodily fought, and we were anxious about our inability to improve the situation. The people themselves were condemned by fear; Sunni’s fear of numerical weakness. Shiites’ fear of the return to the past… And the fear of Arabs from the secession of the Kurds, in contrast to the Kurds’ fear of being jailed into the map in the absence of federalism. This is why Iraq always seems to be at a crossroads, and its ruler appears to be tempering two or more fires.”

The advice came from a boisterous Iraqi figure, Mundhir Al-Wandawi. It is enough to mention his name to awaken many Iraqi memories. He is the pilot officer, who raided the Ministry of Defense when Abdel-Karim Qasim took refuge in it; and he is the same officer who bombed the Republican Palace, targeting the office of President Abdel-Salam Aref, and the commander of the National Guard, who was accused of committing terrible assassinations against the communists.

Perhaps his advice was the result of his last years spent in Spain, where he noticed that change in governments can take place without walking on hot coals.

I recalled Wandawi’s words about the crossroads. I feel scared when an official or a politician tells me that his country stands at a “crossroads.” I am scared because the expression “crossroads” anticipates confusion and anxiety, and the necessity of hastening the decision.

Fear is due to the painful experiences of our region. Experiences almost say that our countries hesitate for a long time before the crossroads, and then rush into the most terrible of them. Sometimes, after falling in love with a man skilled in epic chanting… Other times, out of fear of other options, perhaps on the basis of choosing the least harmful.

I am even more afraid when groups flock to the polls filled with sectarian or regional hatreds, and give wide mandates to forces that hate democracy and see in it only a ladder that allows ascension to power once and for all.

It happens that the expression, “crossroads”, is used by a French, British or German politician. But this use does not evoke the same connotation as in the terrible Middle East.

In Europe, decades of stability have made it possible to establish institutions that repress destructive ideas, reckless men, and hate-burdened dictionaries.

Unfortunately, these institutions do not exist in the horrific part of the world in which we live. In this part, the chief would rather destroy the palace than see another man sitting in his office. Whenever a difficult labor brought about the end of an era, the task of re-establishing the country from scratch was posed. Neither the constitution provides a shield nor do the traditions protect. Every crossroads portends an abyss and a re-establishment.

Weeks ago I read that Iraq stands at a crossroads, and that the millions of Iraqis who flocked on Sunday to the polls will decide their country’s orientation in the coming years. There are those who believe that the election results will show whether some Iraqi forces have tried to learn the lesson of the past few years. The results will also show whether an increasing number of voters have escaped sectarian prisons and populist temptations to vote in favor of the idea of the state.

The idea of the state is the subject and the test. The battle revolves around it. The most dangerous thing about Sunday’s elections is that the Iraqis are now faced with their own responsibilities. No one can put the blame on Saddam Hussein’s era and his crimes. Nobody any longer believes that America is preventing the recovery of Iraq, or stopping voters from favoring the idea of the state and the institutions.

Inaction cannot be justified by saying that Iran is running a puppet show from behind the curtains. Iran cannot force the Iraqis to choose a specific path, no matter the temptation and intimidation used by its militias.

Despite the big differences in circumstances, people, and periods, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi appeared in the past months as trying to temper two lurking fires.

This reality made him convinced that the only way to get Iraq out of economic deterioration, security turmoil and daily attrition is through state building. The state of the constitution, institutions and transparency. A state that respects the law abroad and at home, and a state that neither fears nor despises its citizens.

A state of institutions, not a state of militias or factions and cruise missiles. That is why Al-Kadhimi was trying to address the regional fires by giving Iraq the role of a bridge for dialogue and a gathering point.

He was trying to tackle the internal tensions by seeking to expand the presence of the law, and turning early elections into an opportunity to achieve some of the legitimate demands of the Iraqi uprising, which were aborted by silencers and sharpened sticks. Fortunately for Iraq, President Barham Salih, who is aware of the impact of the fires, was also raising his voice, calling for the elections to be an opportunity to correct the path.

This is the story of Iraq. A country standing at a crossroads and a ruler trying to temper two fires.

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