February 20, 2003
Beware of a ‘Farhoud’
Is the United States going to fight for that New Babylon, a democratic, peace-loving, malice-free Iraq that will serve as a model for the whole Arab re-gion? The answer is probably "yes."
Is the success of the military operation guaranteed? Of course. There's no way that Saddam Hussein can take a blow like that and remain standing.
This time, however, "victory" is less important than the manner in which it is achieved. The sterility of the operation, if you'll excuse the pun, is what will determine whether the victory has maximal value or not. A campaign that is swift, accurate, with as little bloodletting and destruction as possible, would boost the chances of a true transformation of Iraq, and strengthen the impact of such a revolution on the surrounding countries. An attack that turns bloody, vicious and devastating, on the other hand, would suck most of the meaning out of the term "victory."
What's needed here is not drastic surgery, but a lobotomy. Granted, that's easier said than done. The scalpel is in the hands of the American generals just as much as the politicians who direct them from above. If the CENTCOM commanders misjudge in the planning or launching of the campaign, by being overly conservative, cautious or clumsy, or by adhering too strictly to the worst-case scenarios, they might miss the objective in the thick of battle.
Such things are not written lightly, and certainly not with any hint of arrogance. After all, it was our present-day Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who promised then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig a clean, quick lobotomy in Lebanon in 1982 -- an adventure that ended in a bloodbath. "Victory" was achieved: Arafat and his people were exiled from Lebanon, but as we all know, the New Phoenicia never rose. Instead, Israel found itself, to its horror, staring at a pile of corpses in Sabra and Shatilla.
And that, precisely, is the most serious danger lurking in Iraq: A war that will set off a farhoud of enormous proportions, farhoud being the particular term in colloquial Iraqi Arabic for a pogrom -- namely, the massacre of the Jews of Baghdad in 1941 -- or a general settling of accounts. A limping military campaign (like the Israeli army's tortuous journey to Beirut) could, by dint of its slow, careful pace, spark any number of farhouds in a country where every ethnic group, every tribe and every district harbors a huge impulse, built up more than 30 years and more, to avenge anyone who wronged them under Saddam.
The Kurds want back their 300 villages, whose populations were killed or chased out and replaced by Arabs. The Kurds, the Turkomans and the Assyrians all want Kirkuk. The Shiites in the South have no end of complaints against those groups who acted in the service of the regime, driving out, murdering and oppressing everyone from the revered clerics of Najaf down to the last surviving fishermen of the marshes. The Sunni clans of the "iron triangle," Saddam's stronghold in central Iraq, have a long history of internecine blood feuds. The list goes on and on.
The problem the American military planners have to grapple with is not only how to get to Baghdad quickly, but how to prevent farhouds from breaking out all over the country. Anyone who wants to understand what is at stake here should rerun the footage of the Shiite intifada of 1991 -- the rebellion that broke out following the liberation of Kuwait and that only ended because the allies allowed Saddam to use his attack helicopters to quash it.
Those unpleasant images raise the alarm about what could happen again. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani promises that the Kurds will not try to operate beyond their safe haven in Northern Iraq. Any departure from that position will result in tragedy. All the U.N. experts now talking from dawn to dusk about 1 million Iraqi refugees forget to mention that such a mass flight to the borders will be sparked only by fear of a slaughter.
The threat of farhouds is more serious than the fighting capabilities of the divisions of the Republican Guard. The only way to allay this most palpable risk is for the Americans to make a decisive overland drive to Baghdad -- a left hook from Kuwait via Samawa and Nasiriya, on the highway that skirts the valley and the desert, straight to the capital. The journey can be done in 10 hours in a private car. Armored divisions will need two to three days, but any more than that will be an invitation to a farhoud.
The regular Iraqi troops must remain in their barracks. The division commanders should in no way volunteer to help the American forces in the race to Baghdad. It must be made clear that whoever stays put will not risk being bombed from the air, and whoever dares to move will be smashed.
The Americans would do better to leave the Ba'ath party bureaucracy intact, and there is nothing to be gained from bombing the infrastructure. The motto should be "Saddam first. De-Saddamization much later. And de-Ba'athization only after that."
And most importantly, the Iraqis have to be informed that there is already a prepared model for a future regime based on a Shi'ite-Kurdish consensus that preserves the rights of the Sunni minority, along with the rights of the other, smaller ethnic groups.
There needs to be a clear recognition that Iraq has a formula for a new government, and that it will be responsible for settling past scores. That may be enough, inshallah, to prevent a farhoud.
But if there is a feeling in Iraq that everything is open and the various ethnic factions begin to compete for the spoils, then the U.S. president might find himself at the gates of a hell several times more horrific than the one Sharon encountered at Sabra and Shatilla.
Then we will be left without Saddam, and without a new Iraq.
Ehud Ya'ari has been reporting on the events of the Middle East since the 1960s. He is chief Middle East commentator for Israel Television, associate editor of The Jerusalem Report and a columnist for Ma'ariv Daily. Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Report.