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Why Study Iraq?
Dr. Eric Davis
Department of Political Science
Rutgers University

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States faces one of its most difficult foreign policy challenges in Iraq. The stakes for both Iraq and the United State are very high. Iraq is potentially the leader of the Arab world. Along with its rich civilizational heritage, which can be traced back at least 5000 years, Iraq is the only Arab country which possesses a combination of water, a highly educated populace, and the world's second largest proven oil reserves. Will this country with great economic, political and cultural potential be able to assume a positive leadership role in the Middle East? Will Iraq be able to offer its citizens economic prosperity and democratic governance? Will it become a model for stable, prosperous and culturally open societies in the Arab and Muslim Middle East? Or will the ongoing violence which Iraq suffers from at the time of this writing provide a different model for the region? Will Iraq devolve into chaos and anarchy, attract Islamic radicals from elsewhere in the region, and provide an example of a failed state which serves to destabilize its neighbors by becoming a center of radicalism and the politics of intolerance.

In the West, Iraq is viewed as a country mired in ethnic and sectarian conflict. Many Westerners would characterize it as a violent and unstable society. Others would go so far as to say that Iraq, after the overthrow of Saddam Husayn's Bacthist regime in April 2003, allowed underlying ethnic tensions to emerge. Once dictatorial rule was removed, the "natural" conflict between Iraq's main ethnic groups, the Sunni Arabs, the Shici Arabs and the Kurds, came to the fore, setting the stage for the problems which we find today.

The problem with the view of Iraq as a violent and intolerant society is that it does not have a historical tradition of religious radicalism. Further, the Iraqi nationalist movement of the 20th century which preceded Bacthist rule was characterized by cross-ethnic cooperation, not conflict. How do we explain this paradox? One approach is to understand the terrible social and economic problems which afflicted Iraq after Saddam Husayn decided to invade neighboring Iraq in 1980 after the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was the longest conventional war of the 20th century. It was also the costliest in terms of human and material losses. No sector of Iraqi society escaped the suffering caused by the war with Iran.

In August 1990, in an effort to recoup the losses incurred during the war with Iran, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In January 1991, a United Nations coalition, led by US forces, ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Iraq suffered such severe bombing by allied forces that it was its level of industrial development was knocked back to that of the early 1960s. After the war ended in February 1991, a major uprising (Intifada) occurred which involved 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces. An unfortunate decision by the US military to allow the Iraqi army to deploy helicopter gun ships allowed the Bacthist regime to repress the uprising in a brutal fashion. According to official statistics, 300,000 Shicis alone were killed in the south.

Another problem which Iraq faced after the Gulf War was the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq used poison gas not only against the Iranians but against its own Kurdish population. When it was discovered that Iraq was also involved in efforts to develop biological and nuclear weapons as well, the United Nations imposed a strict sanction s regime on Iraq. This sanctions regime prevented Iraq from importing a wide variety of essential goods. School children were deprived of lead pencils because lead was considered a potential component of WMD. A substantial portion of its oil revenues was diverted to Kuwait as reparations for Iraq's damage done to the country during its occupation from August 1990 to January 1991. As a result of the sanctions, and the Bacthist regime's manipulation of rationing, large segments of the middle classes were pauperized and the situation of the poor deteriorated still further.

It was in this environment of political repression, economic deprivation and state corruption that new sectarian identities began to find fertile soil. As Iraqis began to turn to their respective ethnic groups and religious identities for some psychological relief from the difficulties of daily life, sectarian organizations, often under the guise of religious charities, began to offer the social services which the state could no longer provide. Once the Bacthist regime collapsed in 2003 following the United States led invasion of Iraq, these sectarian organizations took advantage of the institutional vacuum, and poor American leadership in rebuilding the Iraqi economy and political system to establish their power bases in many areas of Iraq.

What this module offers is the opportunity to study a problem which faces many former authoritarian countries in the non-Western world. How can these countries build democratic political systems which will provide the framework for economic development, a pluralistic and tolerant culture, an open education system, and foster the values of respect for human rights and the rule of law? While Iraq suffers from sectarian violence, political instability and economic decay, its people have voted in large numbers in national elections, approved a new constitution, and have engaged in rebuilding civil society, often in spite of the occupation policies of the United States. Iraqis enjoy a vigorous press with almost 200 newspapers and journals published on a regular basis. Internet access, banned under the Bacthist regime, is widespread. In numerous public opinion polls, Iraqis continue to express their support for democracy and their rejection of sectarianism.

Many experts of Middle East politics argue that the United States must reject an outworn foreign policy which relies on alliances with authoritarian political elites in the region, backed by military force. Actively promoting democracy, on the other hand, provides a much better foundation not only for the citizens of the countries of the Middle East but for promoting political stability and economic growth. The study of Iraq is ultimately not just about an important country in the Arab Middle East, but about the processes by which all the peoples of the world can work together to achieve the goals which they all desire, personal security for themselves and their families, personal freedoms, and the opportunity to make the best of life.


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