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Wars That Defy Categorization

The war in Iraq, 9/11 attacks and the Iranian Revolution pose challenges for Western imagination

LONDON - The novelty, suddenness and scale of the attacks on New York and metropolitan Washington on September 11, 2001, left analysts and commentators scrambling to find a suitable label. Was it just another example of suicide bombing albeit on a colossal scale? But in the past, such bombings had been wrought by individuals wearing a belt of explosives. Such was not the case on that fateful day.

The attacks stood apart from previous terrorist acts because of the use of passenger-laden civilian aircraft as deadly missiles. That's why 9/11 ended up as a case by itself.

It's not the first time that history had thrown up an event of such complexity and magnitude that it defied neat categorization. The Iraq War that ensued, as improbably linked as it was to 9/11, offers another example of an indefinable conflict.

Such, too, was the case with the 1978-79 revolutionary movement led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The Marxists, participating in the popular upsurge, interpreted the phenomenon as an anti-imperialist struggle, which, if successful, would pave the way for a socialist revolution - their ultimate objective. The liberals considered the overthrow of the dictatorial Shah as a step toward establishing a Western-style democracy in Iran. But, as we know now, the Islamic forces within the movement had their own ideas.

In the absence of any religion inspiring political revolution during modern times, activists and analysts lacked historical guidelines to categorize the Iranian upheaval. All agreed, though, it was a revolution, which overthrew the ancien régime root and branch, politically, economically and culturally. Whether the revolutionary transformation has been progressive or regressive remains open to debate to this day.

As for the Iraq War, in a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, US President George Bush made comparisons with the Vietnam War and World War II, the latter which ended with the total surrender by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Bush is wrong in both instances. In the case of Vietnam, the popular regime in North Vietnam was capable of bringing stability and security to its southern counterpart. Eventually, it played that role, and a unified Vietnam emerged as a stable state. Can anyone imagine the fairly peaceful three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan stabilizing the remaining 15 provinces of Iraq?

Overall, tension was mild between the majority Buddhist and minority Catholic Vietnamese in South Vietnam, despite the fact that, first, France and then the US favored the Catholics. Such a relationship was in stark contrast to the centuries-old animosity between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq.

Bush's assertion that democracy will ultimately establish itself in Iraq as it did in Imperial Japan after the Second World War is equally irrelevant.

Imperial Japan formalized its defeat in August 1945 with an unconditional surrender. But Emperor Hirohito retained his title and power, and fully cooperated with the occupying US forces. Since Japan's administrative machinery was intact and Japanese remained reverent to their emperor, the change-over to democracy was fairly smooth.

By contrast, President Saddam Hussein did not sign an instrument of total surrender. He went underground. Invading American troops dissolved the state's administrative machinery, disbanding the army and police.

Therefore any parallel between Iraq of 2003 with Imperial Japan of 1945 is fanciful. Equally fanciful was Bush's reference to the US reshaping Japan and Nazi Germany into reliable and responsible democratic allies.

Unlike pre-2003 Iraq, Germany in the early 1930s had a history of democracy: Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 through elections, not a coup.

Bush's flawed thinking stems from the gross misconceptions, which formed the main basis of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Principal among these was equating the 9/11 assaults with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941; and Saddam as another Hitler and the ruling Baath Party as a variant of the Nazi Party. In reality, Saddam was more like the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin than Hitler, and Baathists had more in common with Communists than Nazis.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the leftists' argument that the insurgency in Iraq is tantamount to armed resistance to US imperialism in the mode of previous anti-colonial armed struggles is also flawed.

The insurgency in Iraq is backed not by the majority - the Iraqi Shiites - but by a minority, the Iraqi Sunnis. And the positive reception that a section of the Iraqi Sunnis has given to foreign operatives of Al Qaeda - a transnational, millenarian organization with an agenda for setting up Taliban-style regimes in the Muslim world - muddies the case of those who present the Sunni insurgency as a pristine example of traditional anti-imperialist resistance.

Equally flawed is the comparison of today's Iraq with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia of yesteryear. In the case of Yugoslavia, the towering personality of Marshall Josip Tito held together half a dozen principalities into a federation. With his death, the federation began to fray, finally imploding in 1991, with Slovenia breaking away.

As for Iraq, a foreign invasion, not a natural death, ended the rule of the strongman Saddam Hussein.

To find some parallel, we need to dig deeper into history - in the Indian sub-continent - when Imperial Britain overthrew the Muslim Moguls as the governing authority in the sub-continent in the mid-19th century, ending seven centuries of rule by minority Muslims.

Muslims lost power and sulked, while the hitherto powerless Hindu majority quickly adjusted to the reality of the new rulers. Replace Indian Hindus, 70 percent of the population, with Iraqi Shiites, and Indian Muslims, 25 percent of the population, with Iraqi Sunnis - and the situation almost resembles post-Saddam Iraq.

The rising Hindu professional class formed the backbone of the Indian National Congress, which went on to demand independence. Once Muslims realized that the principle of one person, one vote, would condemn them to permanent subservience to the Hindu majority in an independent Indian sub-continent, the emerging middle class represented by the Muslim League demanded partition. To abort such a prospect, the Congress Party conceded a loose federation of the Indian provinces, but the Muslim League rejected the idea.

The subsequent division of the sub-continent - inhabited by 360 million people in 1947 - led to ethnic cleansing in certain regions. This resulted in the deaths of a half million to 1 million people, and the displacement of some 12 million. So far, in Iraq, the estimates of the civilian deaths attributed, directly or indirectly, to the Iraq War, vary between 50,000 to 650,000. In a country of 26 million, more than 2 million have fled, and more than 1 million have become internal refugees - chiefly due to the ethnic cleansing that has occurred in the wake of the Anglo-American invasion.

Partition of Iraq into three independent states will create more problems than it will solve. Besides more ethnic cleansing and internal violence, the landlocked, independent Republic of Kurdistan will almost certainly be invaded and partitioned by the forces of Turkey, Syria and Iran. So, consolidation of the present informal federal structure of the Iraqi state seems the best bet.

In sum, like 9/11, no single parallel can be held up to compare the Iraq War of today. But a few elements of what happened in the Indian sub-continent provide useful clues.

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