A hallmark of Ba’athist regimes is minority rule. In Syria, the Alawi al-Assads have ruled a predominantly Sunni country for many years. In Iraq, the Sunni Saddam Hussein had ruled a predominately Shi’ite country, one which he thought nothing of plunging into an extended war with the most important Shi’ite country, Iran.
Now the U.S. presence there and its push for democracy has resulted in majority rule, and that majority is Shi’a, which help from the Kurds. This has not sat well with Sunni Muslims either in Iraq nor their foreign friends, especially those from their neighbour and the heart of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia. The U.S. presence has obscured this; it’s much easier to hate us now and deal with other Muslims later.
However, when the day of U.S. withdrawal comes, a Shi’a dominated Iraq will naturally turn to Iran. That’s why the Iranians are busy supporting terrorists in Iraq; the sooner they induce loss of nerve in the Americans, the sooner they will have the upper hand in Iraq. That event will trigger a serious tilt in the balance of power in the Gulf, one that the Saudis have tried to avoid for years.
There are many reasons given why the first Bush didn’t invade Iraq in 1991. My own personal idea is that the Saudis didn’t want him to; they knew the long term result of that would be Iranian hegemony in the land between the rivers. That’s why they were unenthusiastic about this war as well. The last thing the Saudis want to see is a strengthened, Shi’a Iran at their doorstep.
The Saudis position is, as usual, weak. They are in the middle of a succession problem in the royal family. They have a young population with high unemployment and the discontent to go wth it. They have a sizeable Shi’a population of their own, as do the Gulf states. And, contrary to their own pronouncements, their oil production may be peaking about now. The oil revenue, of course, is what floats their internal money-favouring (which perpetuates the House of Saud) and their external Wahabbi madrasses and mosques, designed to feed Muslim fanaticism and careerism. It is also financing their ongoing acquisition of nuclear weapons from Pakistan, something many people are in the dark about while focusing on Iran’s program.
The U.S. believes that bringing democracy to the Middle East will dull the impetus for terrorism. On paper this is correct, but in societies where autocracy has been the rule making a democracy is easier said than done. (Just look at the example of the French and the Russians to understand this.) We are too enamoured with Napoleon Hill “Think and Get Democracy” type thinking to realise that real, functioning democracy requires some preparation of the people themselves, and that takes time.
In the meanwhile, we are seeing a setup for a major Sunni-Shi’a rivalry across the Gulf. Having the great forces of Islam more worried about each other than us is a potential boon for the West, but until we find the best way to make the transition to that state, any thought of using that to the West’s advantage will remain a dream.