Genie Out of the Bottle

March 06, 1991

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be of great benefit, not only to this country but to his own. That means departure of the whole apparatus of tyranny: his kin, his cronies from Takrit, the Baath Party and the secret police. This would make possible a stable security arrangement in the gulf, reconstruction credit for Iraq, personal liberty for Iraqis and settlement of other issues. Small wonder that President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker again and again hinted at its desirability.

The dismemberment of Iraq would be a disaster not only for that country but for our own. It would open insoluble strife, unleash nationalisms in conflict with each other and with religious passions. The anarchy might destabilize all Arab gulf states and require the presence of U.S. troops next door long after Americans wanted them gone. Small wonder that Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker emphasized that the U.S. did not seek the breakup of Iraq.

Dreadful events in Basra and southern Iraq towns question whether the world can have one of these eventualities without the other. The binding is being cut, as dissidents rally round the Shiite clergy. The Republican Guard, loyal to the ruler, slaughters the people. Shiite divines have called for help from their Great Satan, the U.S.

British influence invented Iraq in the breakup of the Turkish Empire following World War I, assembling a nation-state out of three provinces whose populations had little in common. With their classical learning, the English were charmed at putting back together ancient Mesopotamia and guiding it to independence as Iraq.

In the north around Mosul, the people were Kurds, Muslims but not Arabs. Putting them in Iraq separated them from Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Syria and the Soviet Union. Ever since, when one of these countries wanted to make trouble for another, it stirred up the other's Kurds. All oppose an independent Kurdistan, for which Kurds hunger.

In the center around Baghdad, a great capital in medieval times, were Arabs who were Sunni Muslims, in the Arab mainstream. Though barely a third of the people, these would rule and hold Iraq together as an Arab nation. And so they have.

In the south, around Basra, were Arabs who were Shiite Muslims, opposed to secular authority, their clerics trained in schools with Iranian Shiites. Shiites are the fastest-growing segment and now more than half the population. During the Iran-Iraq war, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran hoped -- and Saddam Hussein in Iraq feared -- that Shiites would detach the south from Iraq and join it to Persian Iran. They did not. Their Arab nationalism overcame their religion.

But now they are rebelling against hated tyranny. They are capable of ruling southern Iraq, but not the whole country. Saddam Hussein has sent a deputy prime minister to Tehran in a desperate bid for that regime's help in keeping Iraq and his power whole. The U.S.-led coalition has unleashed forces it cannot control. Wars do that.

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