To the Frontline Club in west London last night for a public discussion on the Iraq “surge.” Iraq’s man in London, the very personable Salah al-Shaikhly, and Ahmed Rikaby, founder of a Baghdad radio station, both claimed that the increase in US troops had significantly improved the security situation on the ground in Iraq, and al-Shaikhly in particular was, unsurprisingly, bullish about Iraq’s future stability. In the pessimistic corner was the disembodied voice—he was speaking over a telephone link—of former US diplomat Peter Galbraith, who made the case he argued in his 2006 book The End of Iraq that the country has no viable future as a single state, and should be split along Shia/Sunni/Kurdish lines (Gareth Stansfield argued similarly in the May 2006 issue of Prospect).
To a witness of the sectarian carnage in Iraq, Galbraith’s pessimism can be alluring. Although sectarian violence has fallen since the surge, monthly casualty figures are still well into four figures. An overwhelming majority of the Kurds in northern Iraq favour independence, while elsewhere in the country, signs of reconciliation between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities are scant, both at street level and among the politicians. Yet amid such gloom, it is easy to forget that Iraqi national feeling is not just a figment of the west’s imagination. Asked in March what constitutional structure they favoured, almost 60 per cent of Iraqis wanted a unified country, with just 15 per cent supporting separate independent states. Salah al-Shaikhly reminded last night’s sceptical audience that Shia Iraqis made up 65 per cent of Saddam’s supposedly pro-Sunni Baath party, and that half of all marriages in Iraq cross the sectarian divide. And in his article in this week’s New Yorker, George Packer states that a poll found that the percentage of Baghdad residents who identified themselves as Iraqis “above all” doubled between 2004 and 2006, despite the rise in sectarian violence. More difficult to quantify, but still telling, is the claim, made both by Rikaby last night and Nibras Kazimi in his most recent Prospect column, that the national celebrations that followed Iraq’s recent football victory in the Asian Cup ran far deeper than the brief coverage in the western media would have us believe. (Rikaby said that parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iraqi flags are usually as hard to find as Iraqi WMD, were immediately decked out in the things after the victory).
Without any apparent appetite for partition, or even “radical federalism,” among either US or Iraqi leaders, it’s difficult to see any future for Iraq that involves the country breaking up—although as Packer’s article makes clear, it is very difficult to predict what effect the inevitable withdrawal of American troops will have on the country.
You can see a video recording of last night’s Frontline discussion here.