For the last three years, Bartle Bull has contributed to Prospect a series of dispatches from Iraq that have taken a noticeably more optimistic view of the post-conflict society than most coverage in the western press. His first Prospect piece, in the November 2004 issue, looked forward to the democratic transfer of power to Iraq’s Shia majority. In mid-2005, after spending five weeks in Baghdad embedded with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, Bull described the increasing politicisation of a rebel group that less than a year earlier had been battling US troops in Najaf.
Now Bull has written what is likely to be his most controversial piece yet. In the current issue of Prospect, he argues that contrary to the bleak picture of Iraq painted almost universally, at least in the west, most of the big questions in Iraq have largely been settled, and mostly for the good. The country has not fallen apart. It has embraced the ballot box, in huge numbers. It has created a legitimate and fair constitution. It has avoided civil war. Power has been democratically transferred to the Shia majority, while minority rights have been safeguarded. The country has ceased to be a menace in the region. It has even emerged from the trauma of war, occupation and widespread bloodshed with a sense of national unity, as was clearly shown by the national celebrations following the country’s football victory in the Asian Cup in July.
This is an unsettling argument. Iraq is clearly not a country at ease with itself—while sectarian violence may have dipped slightly since the beginning of General Petraeus’s military “surge” earlier this year, Iraqis are still dying violently at the staggering rate of 1,500 a month. But Bull’s argument is that this violence, while horrific, is no longer of strategic importance. Of the Sunni insurgent groups, the former Baathists are finally coming around to Shia majority rule and seeking a place for themselves in the political tent; the tribal groups in western Iraq have accepted the new dispensation and are doing their best to milk it for all its worth; and the violent Wahhabi fundamentalists, most of them foreign, are losing the battle to take Iraq back to the 7th century. As for the Shia anti-occupation violence, since al-Sadr’s uprisings in 2004, it has been non-existent. Scattered death squads and offshoots of the Mahdi army continue to shed blood, but al-Sadr is now more interested in politics than fighting.
Taken on its own, “realist” terms, Bull’s argument can be seductive. But, as David Goodhart points out in his editorial, it is hard to skate over the continuing violence, as well as the steady stream of refugees fleeing the country. Many people will be shocked by the article—indeed, it was the source of many arguments in the Prospect office. Let us know your thoughts below.