Originally Published 2005-10-10 05:52:25 Published on Oct 10, 2005
Yemen is the cradle to the Arabs, Iraq their grave. So goes an Arab proverb. Since March 2003 Iraq has certainly been the grave of a great many Arabs ¿ men, women, and children caught in the crossfire of a conflict wantonly unleashed to sustain a misbegotten thesis.
The complex battlefields of Iraq
Yemen is the cradle to the Arabs, Iraq their grave. So goes an Arab proverb. Since March 2003 Iraq has certainly been the grave of a great many Arabs - men, women, and children caught in the crossfire of a conflict wantonly unleashed to sustain a misbegotten thesis. It has now run out of control, degenerated into the state of nature visualised by Thomas Hobbes, "a condition of war of everyone against everyone." Like a black hole in space, it tends to suck in everything within reach. 

Another dimension to the conflict has now been added. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has given vent to concerns about American policy in Iraq. He described the draft constitution as inadequate. He spoke about foreign (read Iranian) interference and said centrifugal forces were tending to succeed. 

An Iraqi response, in vintage Arab-cold-war language, came from its Interior Minister, Bayan Jabor Solagh. The inheritors of the Code of the Hammurabi, he said, did not need lessons from a "Bedouin riding a camel." The Saudi press was quick to remind the Iraqi Minister (himself a Shia) that camel-riding Bedouins had changed history: both Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali, as well as his sons Hasan and Hussain were camel-riding Bedouins. A few days later the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari apologised to his Saudi counterpart. The memory of the remark would however rankle in public memory. 

The incident is reflective of new tensions creeping into Saudi-Iraqi and Saudi-Iranian relations. Last week Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Muttaki undertook a tour of the Gulf Cooperation Council states and visited Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and UAE. Riyadh and Doha were significant omissions in the itinerary. According to an Iranian news agency report on October 6 the visit to Saudi Arabia, after UAE, "was delayed to a later occasion due to some protocol concerns." A few hours later the agency reported that the Saudi foreign minister had spoken on telephone to Mr. Muttaki and invited him to visit Saudi Arabia. The visit, it said, will take place "in the near future." One could read much into this but damage control was achieved. 

Deadly games are in progress in Iraq. The glue that held the state and its civil society together has been washed away thanks to the Occupation and post-occupation policies. Individuals and groups that had lived together have turned on each other. Iraq's neighbours protest their innocence, deny interference, and devise newer and cleverer ways of interference. 

In this complex scenario, the Jordanians and the Saudis feel handicapped because their primary concern is to deter their own nationals, who have tribal affinities and Islamist inclinations, from joining the Sunni resistance. Syria, under other pressures, is unable to control infiltration across its long borders. Turkey, reluctantly coming to terms with a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq, is concerned about protecting its own Kurdish areas from ideas creeping across. 

This leaves Iran, happy at the decimation of its enemy and sensing a strategic opportunity. Neither the slicing up of Iraq nor the creation of a Shia majority state on its western border is an Iranian idea; Iran can nevertheless benefit from both. Iran does not have to openly `interfere' because some degree of intangible affinity for Iran, intensified by the suffering of Occupation, has seeped through to the interstices of society in southern Iraq. 

Some Saudi commentators now apprehend that if American troops leave Iraq, it would result in Iranian hegemony over Iraq. They urge Iran to support `reasonable federalism' based on 18 governorates rather than one based on three regions. 

Foreign Minister Muttaki said after his meetings in Abu Dhabi that Iran has a key role in safeguarding regional security. Interestingly enough, he cited paragraph 8 of Security Council Resolution 598 of July 1987 that led to a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War. This requested the Secretary General "to examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other States of the region, measures to enhance security and stability of the region." 

With a hostile Iraq now out of the way, Iran perhaps feels freer to explore new ideas about Persian Gulf security even if its path is momentarily blocked by the U.S. The happenings in southern Iraq thus become part of manoeuvres aimed at generating pressures and counter-pressures. The Iranian objective is to cut a deal with the United States; the American effort is to force Iran to accept a dispensation worked out unilaterally. Vienna and Basra thus become acts in a longer drama. 

If the United States inches its way towards exhaustion, many in America would agree with former diplomat Bruce Laingen who, in a letter to The New York Times on October 2, stressed the need for a direct relationship with Iran: "Cold, hard American interests make that clear, not to mention geography. Iran matters; let's recognise reality." 

The battlefields of Iraq may well lead to this. 

The author is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, former Ambassador to Iran, and former Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University. He is presently Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Hindu, October 8, 2005.
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