Iraq's regional ambitions to take decades to recover

BAGHDAD - Iraqs once-lofty ambition to be a major power lies in tatters five years after the US-led invasion, with Turkish forces crossing its northern border with impunity and former bitter foe Iran now the preeminent force in the region.

What will it take for Iraq to recover is unknown but an end to ethnic strife and a sense of national unity are prerequisites. Observers say that can be best reached via a healthy democracy, which still seems years away.

"We need to create a real political system with democracy and participation -- this is the only way forward in the near future," said Nabil Mohammed Younis at Baghdad University's Centre of Strategic Studies.

However, "it is very difficult right now to see Iraq as a regional power", he said.

Historically people from the land known today as Iraq have played a central role in the region.

The Assyrians and Babylonians were influential and powerful kingdoms of antiquity.

Centuries later the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate was the centre of the Islamic world, an empire that prized learning and culture at a time that Europe was in the Dark Ages.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the end of World War I, two main currents of thought competed in Iraq: a pan-Arabic model that sought to unite the Arab world, and a multi-cultural model that focused more on national issues, writes Eric Davis, author of "Memories of State," a book on collective identity in modern Iraq.

In the 1920s Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, Jews and Christians all joined to fight the British occupiers.

As a show of unity Sunnis and Shiites even prayed in each other's mosques. "It was a nationalist movement," said Davis, a professor at Rutgers University in the United States.

Iraq obtained full independence in a July 1958 coup led by General Abdel Karim Qassim that toppled the British-imposed monarchy, but the coup plotters soon split over the country's goals.

The pan-Arabist and largely Sunni officer corps, supported by the Baath Party, pushed for joining the Egyptian-Syrian union, while Qassim, supported by Iraq's communist party, put the priority on domestic issues.

Qassim, of mixed Shiite-Sunni heritage, won and today he is remembered for distributing land to the poor and public housing projects, such as what today is Baghdad's Sadr City area.

Western powers however feared Qassim, who established ties with the Soviet Union. With their support Baathist officers led a coup in 1963 and executed him.

In the 1960s Iraqi leaders competed for regional influence with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. Iraq's General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a Baathist president in the 1970s who nationalized the oil industry, was a leading pan-Arabist.

The philosophy of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party "was supposed to be an ethnicity-blind ideology", said Davis. But by the time Saddam became president in 1979 the party was controlled by people from his hometown of Tikrit.

The pan-Arab model was shattered after defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, yet it "artificially lived on in Iraq subsidized by income from oil sales", said Davis.

Saddam bolstered his regime by re-writing history, harkening to the Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire (750-1258) to justify Iraq's central role in the Arab world.

In his version the Abbassids were destroyed by internal conspirators and foreign invaders -- metaphors to blame foreigners and dissidents for Iraq's ills, while absolving his regime of responsibility.

When war broke out with Iran in 1980, Saddam's regime was seen as the Arab buffer to Persia's growing power. His million-man army and air armada of 1,000 warplanes were the envy of the region.

After eight years of fighting the war ended in a stalemate, with one million people killed.

A US-led coalition crushed Saddam's military in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and his regime, riddled with corruption, was a shell of its glory days when it collapsed in 2003.

"You have a mess after 2003 in terms of leadership, trust and instutitions," said Davis. "It's going to be very difficult to reconstitute trust."

His solution: promote a historical memory that focuses on Iraq's tradition of 20th century democratic debate, coffee house discussion and nationalism.

Davis is calling for an internationally-funded "Marshall Plan" for Iraq that would generate millions of dollars for public projects, and work on upgrading Iraq's oil infrastructure.

For Younis at Baghdad University, "the problem is that Iraq's political leaders are not thinking in the long term", he said. "We don't really have political parties that work."

"It is very difficult to strengthen the political parties, but we must try," he said.

Educated Iraqis just want to start rebuilding the country.

"Forget this sectarian talk and let's be united again," said Yasser Ghazil, 29, a Baghdad building contractor.

Most Iraqis have long preferred authoritarian leaders, he said, and many have drifted towards religious leaders seeking clear answers. But that solves nothing, Ghazil said.

"The government is controlled by Islamist parties and this is the most corrupt country in the world," he said. "We need to eliminate religion from politics, then let the technocrats do their job."

ch/jds/hc

03/17/2008 01:37 GMT

Copyright © 2008