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Down a dangerous road

Like Lebanon in the '70s, Iraq may be descending into civil war. Worse, it threatens to take the region with it.

April 14, 2006|David Hirst | DAVID HIRST, the Guardian's Middle East correspondent from 1963 to 1997, lives in Beirut. He is the author of "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East."

IS IT REALLY CIVIL WAR in Iraq? Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of Defense, says not. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, concedes that "the potential is there." But former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is categoric: "If 60 dead a day isn't civil war, God knows what is."

Civil wars are rarely "declared"; they steal up. Not surprisingly, this was the same question that foreign correspondents -- myself included -- kept asking when, in 1975, intercommunal clashes began erupting in Lebanon. From sporadic, isolated beginnings, they steadily grew in scale and intensity, ever closer to the heart of the capital, Beirut.

Yet, for many months, most of us held back from concluding the worst, convinced that in the cosmopolitan, pluralistic, Levantine city we knew, this must all be an aberration and that somehow, before long, the growing madness would go into reverse.

We now know how naively optimistic we were. And perhaps, in light of it, someone like myself now inclines to an excess of pessimism when I contemplate what is happening in Iraq today: the steady rise of what in Lebanon used to be called "identity card killings"; the "flying roadblocks" improvised by militiamen across the city where, typically, these sectarian atrocities most randomly occurred; the prevalence of inter-communal slaughter in the poorer, newly developed, religiously mixed suburbs encircling the capital; the complicity of soldiers from the national, multi-sectarian army in the activities of sectarian militias.

In Iraq, not only are these things now taking place on at least the same scale, proportionally, as they did in Lebanon, and with even greater barbarity, but there are already other things -- like the bombing of holy places -- that rarely happened even in Lebanon's darkest days.

Ever since the U.S. invasion, Arab commentators, alarmed at where Iraq is headed, have searched for parallels -- in Vietnam, Somalia, Algeria, Cyprus, the Balkans -- but their favorite by far is Lebanon. And when they forecast the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, they also, as an almost automatic corollary, consider its implications for the entire Arab world. For it is all but axiomatic: Fire in one Arab country is liable to spread elsewhere.

In the end, the Lebanese fire didn't spread; it was contained, instead, and ultimately extinguished by the Arab League with help from the rest of the world.

But will we be so lucky again, in the case of so weighty and pivotal a country as Iraq?

"Iraq," wrote Ghassan Charbel in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, "resides in the Arabs' very conscience and in their calculations for the future. Its very veins are interlinked with the Arabs'. Its pains and hopes cross borders on the map. Many factors prevent Iraq from being able to commit suicide on its own."

Lebanon didn't spread, in part, because it was not a typical Arab state. In its main axis, the Lebanese civil war was fought between traditionally militant Maronite Christians and other sects in turn -- Sunnis, Druzes, Shiites. But there are so few Christians (and hardly any Maronites) in the Arab world at large that it was never going to trigger a similar confrontation there.

By contrast, both in its ruling system and the identity of the protagonists, Iraq is -- or was -- far more representative of the wider Arab world. Saddam Hussein was the very model of the Arab tyrant, with sectarianism, in the shape of Sunni domination, as his chief instrument. At bloody loggerheads with itself, Iraq would become the model of Arab anarchy, embodying the two most disruptive, retrogressive yet popularly mobilizing forces in the Middle East today -- sectarianism and ideologically driven Islamism.

It is now becoming a commonplace of Arab discourse that Iraq's agony is likely, ultimately, to equal in scale the post-World War I Middle East settlement that was the last great upheaval of its kind. Shaped chiefly by the Sykes-Picot agreement -- the secret Anglo-French understanding of 1916 about how to divide territory between the colonial powers -- the postwar settlement drew arbitrary, colonial-style frontiers across the more natural ethnic, sectarian, tribal and commercial lines that preceded it.

For some in the region at least, the new upheaval will "correct" what went wrong then.

How, then, will the fire spread? Syria -- once the contentious nub of Sykes-Picot and the closest in recent historical experience to Iraq -- will be most severely at risk. For, alone among Iraq's neighbors, it is exposed to both the ethnic and sectarian dimensions of the Iraqi contagion.

Syrian Kurds sense a weakness in their own, deeply troubled Baathist regime similar to that which ended in the downfall of its Iraq counterpart. If it finally does collapse amid general chaos, many will push for secession and amalgamation with their brethren in northern Iraq.

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