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Reply to Dr Hilmi

My article 'On overthrowing Saddam hussein has provoked the following
response from Dr Fawaz Hilmi:

"I feel that there is true miscception and lack of knowledge of the
ethnology and the religious sects in Iraq. This sort of invention of sect to
become and ethnic group like what is been mentioned in the article and very
much by the media as the Shi'ia is NOT oly untrue but is sickly fictional.
The great majority of the Iragi population within the boundaries of country
are Arabs and there is Iraqi patriotism , but there is nothing called Iraqi
nationalism. The Arabs are Shi'ia Muslims (the majority), Sunni Muslims and
(minority),Christians a small Jewish community. also small other ETHNIC
groups i.e. Armenian, Turkish ect. Alernatively the Kurdish population of
Iraq can be both Sunni Muslims and Shi'ia Muslims. I wish that people
capable of writing articles about Iraq as created with Sykes-Peco treaty of
criminal partition of the Arab homeland. It ia imperative in order to be
more factual and scientific is NOT to run along with Zionist pathological
dreams to dismantle the Arab nation and to deny her existance. However, if
the law is truely has been upheld the legal fact Iraq remains an Arab
country and founding member of the League of Arab States"

I accept entirely what I take to be Dr Hilmi's basic point: that when people
like myself speculate about the internal politics of other parts of the
world, we risk making fools of ourselves. Nonetheless my country is involved
in a war with Iraq (a blockade reinforced by periodical bombing raids is in
any normal understanding of the term an act of war); and this war is
justified by a particular understanding of the politics of the region (a
fiendishly wicked tyrant who is a threat to all his neighbours). In opposing
the war I have to try to develop my own alternative understanding of the
politics of the region.

In attempting this, I find I get very little help from Iraqis, who are,
obviously, the people in the best position to know. I assume that there is,
somewhere, a rich political debate accurring among Iraqis but so far as I
know it isn't occurring in English. If through my own amateurish efforts to
make sense of the situation, I succeed in provoking any good thoughtful
analyses written by Iraqis, I will feel I have done something very

With that proviso I address myself to the argument of Dr Hilmi's letter.

The 'Arab homeland', which had previously been part pof the Ottoman Empire,
was, as Dr Hilmi points out, partitioned under the terms of the
English-French Sykes/Picot agreement into a number of states  Iraq, Jordan,
Lebanon, Syria  constructed in imitation of the nation states of Europe and
placed under the 'protection' of England (Iraq/Jordan) and France
(Lebanon/Syria  for the sake of simplicity I'm leaving out Palestine).
Since the Sykes/Picot agreement was a violation of the agreement the English
had made with the leaders of the anti-Ottoman Arab revolt (the story of
Lawrence of Arabia), Dr Hilmi can justifiably regard it as 'criminal'.

The division between these states, largely based on the administrative
divisions of the Turkish Empire, did not correspond to any particular
feelings of national sentiment on the part of the peoples concerned. The
British, attempting to establish a unified Iraqi state (under their own
domination), were faced with resistance by the Kurds in the North and the
'Marsh Arabs' in the South. They suppressed them with unprecedented
brutality (the aerial bombing of civilians, several years before the German
bombing of Guernica, was for the time the moral equivalent of the use of
chemical weapons today). The fact that Saddam Hussein is faced with the same
problems among the same peoples and has used similar means (allowing for the
progress of technology) to deal with them, suggests that these differences
are pretty fundamental.

I do not entirely understand Dr Hilmi's objection to my use of the term
'Iraqi nationalist'. Though I do know that the term 'Nationalist' is widely
used as a term of abuse (ie 'British Nationalist' or 'Serb Nationalist').
This, however, is a recent development and I am unused to it. I use the term
simply for purposes of description and as such it is for me synonymous with
the term used by Dr Hilmi 'Iraqi patriot'.

I take it that an 'Iraqi Nationalist' is someone who accepts the state
boundaries imposed by Britain and France in the 1920s as a reasonable, or
perhaps as the only possible, framework for political development; and who
therefore wishes to create an Iraqi national identity that will overcome
other possible divisions, ethnic and religious, among the population. This
could be done by persuasion (an Iraqi national identity that includes the
Kurds, for example) or by coercion (forcing Kurds to declare themselves to
be Arabs and then relocating them in the South, for example).

Dr Hilmi's letter compains that I over-emphasise the ethnic and religious
divisions among Iraqis. He wants instead to stress what they have in common.
That strikes me as being a perfectly reasonable Iraqi Nationalist response
to my article. But although he wants to simplify the problem he still
reveals at least part of its complexity. The primary identity for him is not
Sunni, nor Shi'i, but 'Arab'. That, however, excludes the Kurds. And it
also, logically, excludes Iraq itself, which was a product of the
'Sykes-Picot treaty of criminal partition of the Arab homeland'.

The great task facing Iraqi nationalism is, as I have said, the creation of
a coherent Iraqi national identity, which means uniting Arab and Kurd. The
Americans - or at least some Americans - would like to think this is what
the INC has succeeded in doing. One of the main points I was trying to make
in my article was that the difference between Kurd and Arab remains intact
within the INC. Dr Hilmi hasn't succeeded in proving that I am wrong.

He may, however, be right in thinking I am too cavalier in evoking the
Sunni/Shia difference. I am certainly too easily inclined to identify the
Shia with the Iranian supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution.
It was very noticeable that the Arab Shi'i of Southern Iraq (unlike the
Kurds) did not generally support Iran in the Iran/Iraq war.

Nonetheless I believe it is true that the political class that forms
governments in Baghdad is for the most part Sunni, and that this is a source
of grievance among the Shi'i who, as Dr Hilmi points out, are the majority,
at least if we exclude the Kurds. I believe that this Sunni preponderance is
also found in the INC  that, in other words, again excluding the Kurds, the
INC leadership is dominated by Sunnis who want to preserve and strengthen
Iraq as a unified nation state (which is why I call them 'Iraqi

I suggested that the fact that they come from from this political class
(which happens to be predominately Sunni and which has always in the past
shown a tendency to exclude the Shia) could create problems for them if they
want to establish a miitary enclave in the predominately Shi'i South. That
still seems to me a perfectly reasonable argument. It points to a problem in
Iraqi politics. It does not in any way imply that I want to see the
establishment of a separate Shi'i state.

A final point. One of the professed aims of the Ba'ath Socialist Party, as I
understand it, was to recreate the unity of 'the Arab homeland', fractured
by the 'criminal partition' imposed by Britain and France in the 1920s.

The Ba'ath first took power in Syria. When they then took power in Iraq, it
was reasonable to assume that Syria and Iraq would unite, which would have
created an enormously powerful Arab state. This development was aborted by
Saddam Hussein, who proceeded to purge the Ba'ath Party of all the leading
advocates of union with Syria.

Although this purge has been widely trumpeted by the American and British
advocates of war on Iraq as one of Saddam's crimes, it was in fact a huge
service rendered to US imperialism and to the security of the state of
Israel. It was followed by another huge service when Saddam succeeded, at an
unimaginable cost to the Iraqi people, in breaking the impetus of the
Iranian revolution.

In this (the purge of the Ba'ath supporters of union with Syria), Saddam was
acting as an 'Iraqi nationalist'  Iraqi first and Arab second  and it
explains the unrelenting hostility of Assad of Syria. So the contradiction
implicit in Dr Hilmi's letter between an Arab national identity ('criminal
partition of the Arab homeland') and an Iraqi national identity ('Iraqi
patriots') is more than just a logical conundrum. It is a real problem that
has had huge and tragic consequences for all the different peoples in that
part of the world.
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