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World War I and the Future of Iraq

Can the seeds of success or failure of U.S. policy in Iraq be found in the past 100 years of Iraqi history?

May 9, 2003

The year was 1993. Turgut Ozal, then Turkey's President, wrote an urgent letter to his Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel.

"The Turkish Republic is facing its gravest threat yet," the letter stated. "A social earthquake could cut one part of Turkey from the rest, and we could all be buried beneath it."

The letter, of course, was written only two years after the first Gulf War. The Northern "No Fly Zone" imposed by the United States above the 36th parallel to stop air attacks by Saddam Hussein's regime against Kurds in Northern Iraq was opening the door for an autonomous Kurdistan.

In 2003, a decade later, not much has changed. The same concerns are repeated by today's Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

He says that "Turkey's territorial integrity might be threatened by the movements of the Kurdish groups in Northern Iraq" and that "Turkey will not allow Mosul and Kirkuk to be referred to as Kurdish towns."

For Turkey, such seeming details matter a great deal. They are often referred to as "red lines" — meaning that ownership for these two towns can not be claimed by any single ethnic or religious group but the Iraqi people.

Turks believe that anything else will be a direct threat to Iraq's territorial integrity. The top Turkish General, Hilmi Ozkok says, "The Turkish army will do what is necessary if the red lines are to be crossed."

This whole issue goes back to the era immediately following World War I. It was back then that Britain and France (but mostly Britain) started to redraw the map of the Middle East by divvying up the defeated Ottoman Empire — and establishing new states.

During that war, Lawrence of Arabia persuaded the Arabs to rebel against the Ottoman rule and seek their independence.

"We have to get past the past" says U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz these days. But due to his great influence in shaping Iraq after the recent second Gulf War, he may not be able to pass up the title of the "Wolfowitz of Arabia."

The Bush Administration, for its part, is clearly hoping to open a new page in history for post-Saddam Iraq.

But while Washington is solely focused on the future of the Middle East, the people in the region seem to be turning back the page to the time of World War I.

It seems as if that war — which ended in 1918 — has not yet been concluded in the Middle East.

So, when it comes to explaining the strength and dynamic of the Shiite resistance today, their passion to rule the new Iraq goes back well beyond the repressive rule of Saddam Hussein. To many Shiites, the acts of World War I have never been settled to their satisfaction.

The same source of passion is what drives the Kurds. They may just seek a federal body hoping to have their independent state eventually. But their passion is hidden in those post-World War I years.

Those years host the roots of today's conflicts in the region. Anyone who still remembers how today's Iraq was built — and who appreciates the immensely long time lines in which Middle-Easterners think — cannot be shocked.

Instead, everything unfolds as it would according to the unfinished historical sequence.

The Bush administration, on the contrary, wants to write a new history. The problem with that approach — laudable as it is — is that it does not match the realities of the region. The new history, if it seeks a peaceful and stable Middle East, can only be written by making peace with the past.

The obvious problem for the Bush Administration then is how to balance the past with the present.

Concessions will have to be made on all sides, but hopefully the concessions will put an end to the past conflicts once and for all.

Then, but only then, anything and everything is possible. Hopefully, we will all reach the peace for which we have been longing for a long time.

But there are some troublesome developments that cause more worry. The military side of the Iraqi operation seems to have worked with great precision. Yet, very little work seems to have been done in advance for the much more crucial aftermath.

Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (IKDP) leader Massoud Barzani said, "the Kurdish nation has the right to self-determination and to establish its own state. However, this issue is not on our agenda right now."

That sounds good — and like a step in the right direction. But it also begs important questions: When will it be on the agenda? Will Iraq's territorial integrity be kept?

The First Gulf War yielded an autonomous Kurdistan. Will the next twelve years offer an independent Kurdistan? Do the Kurdish people have a right to an independent state?

Do they have right to claim land that falls under other independent countries? If the United States wants to hand over Iraq to its people and Kurds seek their own nation, while the Shiites want to join Iran, what will the United States do?

Will the Kurds be treated differently than the Shiites? Does Kurdistan seem to undermine U.S. national interests in the region?

All of these questions lead to a bigger one. Why don't we have the road map to answer these questions? It is as if there is an interest on the part of some people to create another conflict similar to the Arab-Israeli one in the region.

Evidently, Turks and Kurds have equally strong distrust as far as their respective rights to self-determination and territorial integrity are concerned.

When Mr. Wolfowitz — the new Lawrence of Arabia — was recently asked how the United States will balance the contradictory interests of its two allies, he said they will be dealing with them fairly and openly and transparently.

One can only hope so. But one thing is for sure. The region's politics are laden with history. Running away from it will not provide any lasting solutions.

Now is the time for the United States to take action and be frank with the Turks and Kurds about what exactly their future forecast for the region is.

Silence does only fuel conspiracy and fear in the region — and leads all involved to question the true intent of the United States. Isn't it also a time to start preemptive conflict resolution talks?