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Imagining a newly divided Middle East

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 16, 2008 | 9:02 am

Not long ago, in a decrepit prison in Iraqi Kurdistan, a senior interrogator with the Kurdish intelligence service decided, for my entertainment and edification, to introduce me to an al-Qaeda terrorist named Omar. “This one is crazy,” the interrogator said. “Don’t get close, or he’ll bite you.”

Omar was a Sunni Arab from a village outside Mosul; he was a short and weedy man, roughly 30 years old, who radiated a pure animal anger. He was also a relentless jabberer; he did not shut up from the moment we were introduced. I met him in an unventilated interrogation room that smelled of bleach and paint. He was handcuffed, and he cursed steadily, making appalling accusations about the sexual practices of the interrogator’s mother. He cursed the Kurds, in general, as pig-eaters, blasphemers, and American lackeys. As Omar ranted, the interrogator smiled. “I told you the Arabs don’t like the Kurds,” he said. I’ve known the interrogator for a while, and this is his perpetual theme: close proximity to Arabs has sabotaged Kurdish happiness.

Omar, the Kurds claim, was once an inconsequential deputy to the now-deceased terrorist chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Omar disputed this characterization. By his own telling, he accomplished prodigies of terror against the pro-American Kurdish forces in the northern provinces of Iraq. “You are worse than the Americans,” he told his Kurdish interrogator. “You are the enemy of the Muslim nation. You are enemies of God.” The interrogator—I will not name him here, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment—sat sturdily opposite Omar, absorbing his invective for several minutes, absentmindedly paging through a copy of the Koran.

During a break in the tirade, the interrogator asked Omar, for my benefit, to rehearse his biography. Omar’s life was undistinguished. His father was a one-donkey farmer; Omar was educated in Saddam’s school system, which is to say he was hardly educated; he joined the army, and then Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaeda–affiliated terrorist group that operates along the Iranian frontier. And then, on the blackest of days, as he described it, he fell prisoner to the Kurds.

The interrogator asked me if I had any questions for Omar. Yes, I said: Have you been tortured in this prison?

“No,” he said.

“What would you do if you were to be released from prison right now?”

“I would get a knife and cut your head off,” he said.

At this, the interrogator smacked Omar across the face with the Koran.

Omar yelped in shock. The interrogator said: “Don’t talk that way to a guest!”

Now, Omar rounded the bend. A bolus of spit flew from his mouth as he screamed. The interrogator taunted Omar further. “This book of yours,” he said, waving the Koran. “‘Cut off their heads! Cut off their heads!’ That’s the answer for everything!” Omar cursed the interrogator’s mother once again; the interrogator trumped him by cursing the Prophet Muhammad’s mother.

The meeting was then adjourned.

In the hallway, I asked the interrogator, “Aren’t you Muslim?”

“Of course,” he said.

“But you’re not a big believer in the Koran?”

“The Koran’s OK,” he said. “I don’t have any criticism of Muhammad’s mother. I just say that to get him mad.”

He went on, “The Koran wasn’t written by God, you know. It was written by Arabs. The Arabs were imperialists, and they forced it on us.” This is a common belief among negligibly religious Kurds, of whom there are many millions.

“That’s your problem, then,” I said. “Arabs.”

“Of course,” he replied. “The Arabs are responsible for all our misfortunes.”

“What about the Turks?” I asked. It is the Turks, after all, who are incessantly threatening to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, which they decline to call “Iraqi Kurdistan,” in more or less the same obstreperous manner that they refuse to call the Armenian genocide a genocide.

“The Turks, too,” he said. “Everyone who denies us our right to be free is responsible for our misfortunes.”

We stepped out into the sun. “The Kurds never had friends. Now we have the most important friend, America. We’re closer to freeing ourselves from the Arabs than ever,” he said.

So goes the opening of Jeffrey Goldberg‘s amazing cover story for this month’s Atlantic and the hope of Iraqi Kurds who believe the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein was the beginning of the new nation of Kurdistan. In his article, Goldberg imagines a new map of the Middle East, seen above, which he says could be the greatest consequence of the war.

It used to be that the most far-reaching and inventive question one could ask about the Middle East was this: How many states, one or two—Israel or a Palestinian state, or both—will one day exist on the slip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River?

Today, that question seems trivial when compared with this one: How many states will there one day be between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River? Three? Four? Five? Six? And why stop at the western bank of the Euphrates? Why not go all the way to the Indus River? Between the Mediterranean and the Indus today lie Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Long-term instability could lead to the breakup of many of these states.

These new nations would largely be drawn along racial and ethnic lines, which certainly would lead to lots of bloodshed, probably like what we saw in Iraq before the sectarian violence slowed toward the end of the year. In fact, many in the Middle East and some pro-Palestinian American academics think this was the goal: an American plot to Balkanize Arab countries for the benefit of Israel. Seriously. The article is so ripe with choice nuggets that I can’t possibly mention them all, but here is a poignant one made by a long-quite voice.

The neoconservatives’ big idea was that American-style democracy would quickly take hold in Iraq, spread through the Arab Middle East, and then be followed by the collapse of al-Qaeda, who would no longer have American-backed authoritarian Arab regimes to rally against. But democracy has turned out to be a habit not easily cultivated, and the idea that Arab political culture is capable of absorbing democratic notions of governance has fallen into disfavor.

In December of 2006, I went to the Israeli Embassy in Washington for a ceremony honoring Natan Sharansky, who had just received the Medal of Freedom from President Bush. Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, had become the president’s tutor on the importance of democratic reform in the Arab world, and during the ceremony, he praised the president for pursuing unpopular policies. As he talked, the man next to me, a senior Israeli security official, whispered, “What a child.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s not smart … He wants Jordan to be more democratic. Do you know what that would mean for Israel and America? If you were me, would you rather have a stable monarch who is secular and who has a good intelligence service on your eastern border, or would you rather have a state run by Hamas? That’s what he would get if there were no more monarchy in Jordan.”

After the ceremony, I spoke with Sharansky about this critique. He acknowledged that he is virtually the lone neoconservative thinker in Israel, and one of the few who still believes that democracy is exportable to the Arab world, by force or otherwise.

“After I came back from Washington once,” he said, “I saw [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in the Knesset, and he said, ‘Mazel tov, Natan. You’ve convinced President Bush of something that doesn’t exist.’”

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