Does Iraq Need a Saddam?

Would a regime change in Iraq create more problems than it would solve?

August 27, 2002

Would a regime change in Iraq create more problems than it would solve?

Bringing democracy to Iraq has been one of the most frequently used justifications for the Bush Administration's plans to topple Saddam Hussein.

And not only to Iraq. Iraq, it is argued, may serve as a positive example for all those countries in the Arab world that are still ruled by undemocratic strongmen. Even some of the closest U.S. allies in the region — including Egypt and Saudi Arabia — sorely lack democracy.

But some former State Department hands are not convinced that genuine democracy is an option for Iraq. They also question whether Iraq is the wrong country to start bringing democratic change to the Arab World.

In fact, Iraq may turn out to be in many ways similar to Afghanistan — meaning that a regime change could create more problems than it would solve.

To begin with, although Iraq is almost entirely Muslim, with 95% of its 22 million people practicing Islam, there are potentially explosive sectarian divisions in the population. Economic and political power is heavily concentrated in the hands of Sunni Muslims, who are in the minority — making up just a third of the population.

Discontent among Shi'a Muslims actually burst into the open during the Gulf War, when their armed rebellion was brutally put down by Saddam's military and police forces. The government has banned Shi'ite political organizations — and keeps a close eye on this restive force.

Although Iraq is a fairly homogenous nation, 20% of Iraqis are non-Arab minorities. Those minorities have been subject to persecution — and Saddam's government has been following a policy of Arabization, forcing them to learn Arabic.

They have resisted these efforts to forcibly assimilate them. Since the Gulf War, the Kurds have at least won a measure of autonomy in the north. But Kurds constitute a real challenge for the region. Iraq has four million Kurds — about 10% of the world population, which is divided among four Middle Eastern countries.

Kurds have been waging a relentless struggle for independence for centuries. Evidently, a regime change in Iraq could give them a long-awaited opportunity to set up an independent state.


In fact, setting up a democratic coalition government in Iraq could be far more complex than the undertaking in Afghanistan. There, the fate of the government rests on its ability to balance power between Pashtuns (38% of the country's population) and Tajiks (25% of the population).

It was the Tajiks who composed the heart of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban — who were mostly Pashtun. The vast majority of Afghans, however, are Sunni Muslims (85%), so religious sects are not a major concern.

A democratic government in Iraq, on the other hand, would have to create a balance between its Shi'a and Sunni populations — while Iran's intimidating Shi'a theocracy looks over its shoulder.

Such a government would also have to balance power between Arabs and Kurds. Genuine Kurdish autonomy could create trouble for Turkey and Iran, which have much larger Kurdish populations within their borders (as many as 20 million in Turkey and 10 million in Iran). In addition to the Kurds, Iraq has a substantial minority of Turkish-speaking Turkmen, as well as about 1 million Assyrian Christians.

This ethnic and religious mix is volatile and notoriously hard to rule. Moreover, despite its oil wealth and high degree of urbanization — some 60% of Iraqis live in four major cities — Iraq is actually very much a medieval country. It does not have the political traditions to mediate — or solve — struggle between competing domestic interests by peaceful political means.

Furthermore, although Saddam Hussein subscribes to a modern, secular ideology embodied by his Arab Ba'th Socialist Party, this is merely a grand-sounding name for members of his extended family clan — who occupy all positions of power in the country.

In short, looking at its religious tensions, ethnic mix and feudal traditions makes one highly skeptical about the ability of the United States to impose democracy on post-Saddam Iraq. Quite likely, another strongman may emerge to take his place.

Anybody who questions such an outcome might also want to look to Haiti, where a U.S. installed priest-turned-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is now widely viewed as having turned into a veritable despot.

And yet, a pro-American dictator — say, one who would bring in his own family to rule Iraq, clamp down on dissent and keep Iraqi oil flowing — as distasteful as it may appear, is probably the best-case scenario.

If attempts to democratize Iraq backfire, the country could disintegrate and even face civil war — not unlike what has been happening in Afghanistan over the past decade. This could drag Iraq's neighbors Iran and Turkey, a NATO member, into the fray — and end up being much worse for the entire region. Not a pleasant thought.

Given these unpleasant choices, there will surely be some unpleasant options to face. Only one seems certain: Iraq will continue to occupy Washington's policy elites — whether Saddam is removed or not.