ROOTS OF CONFLICT
BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND IRAQ
Joseph F. Coates
can we learn if we trace back to the seeming historic roots
of the Iraq War? What in the origins of
Islam and its earliest clashes with the West foreshadowed 9/11
and the first and second Gulf Wars? How have the modem countries
the Middle East come into existence, and what has Western intervention
been about? How do Afghanistan, al Qaeda, Egypt, Kurdistan, Iran,
and Turkey relate to one anotherand to us? Above all, what are
the main lessons we might draw from the tale, and why is statebased
terrorism arguably the biggest threat of all?—Editor
origins of violent conflict among and between nations are
like a banyan tree. A stem grows and eventually some of its branches
shoots to the ground that, in turn, flourish and become subsidiary
roots. International conflict, itself, is also like a banyan
tree. There is no single cause for hostility among or between nations,
although there usually is a single or a small cluster of trigger
events that move the conflict to violence.
Iraq is the site of some of the oldest ancient empires, which were
located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the area of Mesopotamia.
Those ancient empires grew, flourished, were in conflict, went into
decline, and passed into history. Without recounting all of that,
let us look for a somewhat more recent root of conflict, the establishment
of Islam, sometimes known as Muhammadanism.
Islam had its origins in what is now Saudi Arabia. It can in some
ways be looked at as a successor religion to Christianity, the
way that Christianity is a successor religion to Judaism. Islam
many of the Hebrew and Christian beliefs but also builds on a
number of those beliefs. Abraham, the Jewish prophet, and Jesus
a line of prophets of God, the most recent of whom was Muhammad.
Historically, each of the prophets brought a new message and
changes in beliefs. While many people held to the older religions,
embraced the new.
Muhammad lived from 570 until 632 A.D. The holy book of Islam,
the Quran (or Koran), lays down the ideal life reflecting the will
God (known in Islam as Allah) and requiring that Muslims (those
adherent to Islam) engage in certain routine activities every day:
praying five times a day while facing the holy city of Mecca.
It also requires, if possible, its adherents to make a trip to
in one's lifetime. Islam is strongly family oriented and strongly
believes that religion is or should be a critical component of
the governance of a wellordered society.
Without reviewing details, it is sufficient to note that Islam
expanded rapidly, reaching its geographic apex in the fifteenth
it extended from southern Spain, across all of North Africa,
and east into what is now known as the Middle East and into India
Pakistan. It moved up the Mediterranean through Turkey into
what is now the Balkans. Its eastern European expansion was halted
Austria, first in 1529 and finally in 1683, and its westward
European expansion at Granada, Spain, in 1492.
The enormous scope of Islam was governed through leaders, the caliphs,
who brought together religion and civic governance. This relationship
is the opposite of what we in America see as a central feature of
good government, that government and religion are unequivocally and
distinctly different social functions. For us, government is forbidden
to support any particular form of religion. Islam embraces the reverse
of that basic belief.
With an empire so large, with the passage of time, with the increase
of wealth, and with the differentiation of customs and interests,
the different parts of the empire begin to break into conflicting
factions. The core and the central part of the Islamic empire
which lies in the regions of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, were crossed
travel routes to and from India, China, and the rest of the Orient.
Inevitably, conflict arose because the Middle East is the site of
the origins of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. What is now Israel
was a crossover point of these three religions. The conflict led
to the military ventures called the Crusades, three of which, in
the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, attempted to recapture
the Christian Holy Land from the Muslims. The Crusades built a barrier
of hostility, fear, threat, and antagonism between the Christian
West and Islamic East.
A very early source of conflict within Islam was the question of
succession to the leadership of the religion. The principal split,
between the Sunnis and Shiites, was over who was the legitimate
successor to Muhammad. Today, most of Islam is composed of Sunnis
In Iraq, during Saddam's reign, the Shiite majority (60 percent)
was governed and repressed by a Sunni minority.
THE FLOURISHING BANYAN TREE OF CONFLICT
The longterm roots of conflict were not solely within Islam or directly
religiously based. The Industrial Revolution never occurred in Islamic
territories as it did in the West. Consequently, in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries the West grew tremendously in physical resources,
skills, competence, military experience, military power, and wealth.
In order to secure its new colonial empires, the West became more
and more aggressive toward countries that affected its trade routes.
They were often, incidentally, Islamic. To pacify or neutralize threats
to its commerce, the West in many cases took countries or regions
of countries under its control. The countries had forced upon them
changes, concessions, laws, and rules to the advantage of the West
and to the disadvantage and humiliation of Islamic people and countries.
That imperial aggression by Europe, notably by Great Britain
and France, reached a peak at the time of World War I (WWI).
Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, made a terrible
mistake in WWI. It sided with Germany rather than the Allies.
a result, when the conflict ended, it lost most of its
empire. The residual
core became Turkey, and the empire disappeared. It had
in advanced decay and was widely referred to in that period
sick man of Europe." The empire lost land in the Balkans,
while other portions of the Middle East were set up as
In bringing about change, the British and the French were not particularly
concerned about the longterm development of these regions, but
rather concentrated on the short-term advantages to themselves
up the empire into independent nations or dependencies. For example,
one trouble spot involving a large population known as Kurds
should have formed Kurdistan. The post-war arrangements instead
into parts assigned to what is now Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
That has been a chronic source of unrest since the Kurds are
ethnically and culturally a cohesive group who have for seven decades
forward to establishing their own nation.
The British set up and enforced the position of its own preferred
government in what is now Iraq. That was unsatisfactory and led
to a rebellion and a new government, which continued for years
badly. Still another rebellion led to the establishment of the
Baath Party, which gained control of Iraq, and to the rise of Saddam
Other post-WWI settlements meant longterm trouble in Palestine.
What is now Israel was set up in such a way that that British
were in control of the area. They saw maintaining stability as
goal and did little or nothing to satisfy the desires of the
local people for self-governance and independence. After World
(WWII), with its Jewish holocaust, the massive exodus of the
Jews from Europe who were looking for a new homeland saw Palestine
a logical place. Other places, notably South Africa, had been
considered and rejected.
Massive migration of European Jews into what is now Israel aggravated
hostility with the local Arab people, who saw these Europeans
with better education and more skills as socially and economically
but economically superior to them. This is hardly the condition
for peaceful coexistence. The Israelis ultimately rebelled against
control, engaging in their own terrorist activities against both
Arabs and the British governors. They eventually drove Britain
out and set up the state of Israel.
Other postwar political developments
led to the independence of Syria and Lebanon on the eastern
of the Mediterranean and the independence of Iran (known in ancient
times as Persia), a very large Islamic country east of Iraq and
southeast of Turkey.
A bit further east, with post-WWII independence, India broke into
Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Pakistan itself was in two separate
parts, one to the east of India and one to the northwest of India.
That arrangement was unstable and led to the split into two countries:
Pakistan, now to the northwest of India, and Bangladesh to the
east of India, both Muslim states.
One can see how the geographic and roughcut political situation
following WWII fostered dissension, political dissatisfaction,
unsatisfied nationalism, and broken-up ethnic groups as continuing
OIL AS A NEW ISSUE
As if that were not enough, the banyan tree of conflict developed
more new shoots and roots. An important event after WWII, focusing
the economic attention of the rest of the world on the Middle East
to a previously unheralded degree, was the discovery of massive deposits
of oil in the Arabian Peninsula, now comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,
and several sheikdoms along the Persian Gulf known as United Arab
Emirates. Massive deposits of oil were also discovered in Iraq.
All of these areas became important politically to Europe and the
United States because of the increasing consumption of petroleum
in industrialized nations. At first oil provided fuel for automobiles,
trucks, and airplanes. Its use quickly expanded into all forms of
energy production: for example, in electric power plants.
The banyan tree of conflict has prospered since the founding and
expansion of Islam, its encounters with the West, and its several
periods of deterioration and breakup. The major interventions
by Europeans, long after the Crusades, were to protect the Suez
and other trade routes to the Middle and Far East. This led to
several countries being governed or controlled by France and Great
and other non-Islamic nations.
The end of WWI played a significant factor in bringing about hostility
and conflict in Islam, since the post-war settlements usually
involved arbitrary, unnatural geographic boundaries and the arbitrary
of governments. For example, the British forced a monarchy on
Iraq. Similarly, the formation of a separate Lebanon and Syria,
French protectorates, created hostility since the Syrians felt
that Lebanon should be a part of Syria.
IRAN: CASE STUDY
Understanding the situation in Iran is a key to much of what has
happened in the Middle East. Iran, formerly known as Persia,
was an absolute monarchy in the beginning of the twentieth century.
drew up its first constitution in 1906, and, in 1925, the Pahlavi
Dynasty came into power. Persia's name was changed to Iran in
1935, and the second Shah Pahlavi came to power in 1944, pursuing
of westernization of the military, resources, transportation,
and other infrastructure.
Iran, rich in oil, became a focus of western oil companies' attention.
It enjoyed substantial prosperity from the oil industry and developed
a new middle and upper class. The rest of the population, 96-percent
Muslim, did not enjoy uniform prosperity. The mass of ordinary
gained nothing, but saw too many of their traditional values
continually being affronted, not just by the Westerners, who were
a small part
of the population, but by those Iranians who were adopting and
adapting to Western modes of life and culture. It reached the point
some of the traditional religious leaders spoke out aggressively
against this trend.
Most aggressive was the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was finally expelled
from Iran by the Shah Pahlavi. He moved to Paris and over some
15 years sent recorded messages back to his home country, which
widely played, deploring the assault on the fundamental values
of Islam. A movement grew more and more hostile to those supporting
and promoting the Western cultural intrusion. Finally, the unrest
became so great that the Shah left the country and the Ayatollah
Khomeini returned to set up a new government, based on fundamental
religious principals. The hostility to the West focused on the
States. The unruly masses attacked the U.S. embassy in 1979,
and Americans had to flee.
Today, 24 years later, the United States still does not have
diplomatic relations with Iran, and President Bush has
marked it as one of
three countries on an "Axis of Evil." The important
kernel of this story is how the rebellious masses under
have made the affront to the general Muslim population's
religious and cultural values a virtually universal issue
Islam. As the leadership either directly or indirectly
and more westerners to move into their countries, often
with a practical
goal of developing resources, they failed to provide a
broad sweep of benefits to everyone in the country. Those
to traditional Islam as a way of life were the ones most
affronted and benefited the least from foreign intrusions.
TURKEY: CASE STUDY
No two countries are alike. The story of Turkey is very different from that
of Iran. The shift of political power in Islam to the Ottoman Empire created
new shoots of discontent and disquiet. The Ottomans emerged out of Anatolia
(now Turkey) in the early fourteenth century to become the dominant power
in the Islamic world, reclaiming and expanding old boundaries. As the Ottoman
eventually weakened and decay set in, local unrest flourished as a further
aggravation of conflict.
The end of WWI and total military defeat led to the independence of Turkey
and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A new leader, Mustafa Kernel Ataturk,
only one future for Turkey, the suppression of the traditional social, economic,
and legal constraints put in place by the Ottoman Empire and traditional
beliefs. He began aggressive changes toward a secular society, more specifically
in which religion and government were clearly separate from each other.
He abolished the religious courts. He then banned the men's traditional hat,
the fez, as a
symbol of the old ways of living and behaving. Ataturk was in some ways the
George Washington of modern Turkey.
However, the transition to a modern Turkish state was not easy. The new country
included a large Kurdish region and population which has been a chronic source
of problems. The Turkish Kurds, along with those in Iraq and Iran, have been
seeking independent nationhood since well before WWI. In any case, through
thick and thin, Turkey has survived, with the armed forces often keeping
together as it moved to an increasingly constitutionbased democratic government.
Turkey has come so far that it is now a candidate for joining the European
Economic Community. On the other hand, it still has its Kurdish problem and
is also facing
a rising fundamentalist movement.
EGYPT: CASE STUDY
Egypt is quite a different case. The British took over Egypt as a protectorate
and held that control through the end of WWII, despite recognizing Egypt's independence
in 1922. Egypt is overwhelmingly Muslim, but includes a varied minority population
who are relatively secure and stable. As with many of the Islamic countries,
the military has played a critical role in national development because it has
been the only force able to maintain internal stability.
As a practical matter, the military in the Middle Eastern countries were usually
westernized in terms of the military equipment and technology they had and were
often familiar with the ways of the West through training overseas. The military
has often played a role in promoting stability and supporting democracy. In
other cases, the military became monarchs of a new tyranny.
AFGHANISTAN: CASE STUDY
Afghanistan has been the site of conflict between Russia or the Soviet Union
and Great Britain for dominance over the country. Entirely tribalized as it stands
today, it is made up of mostly Sunni Muslims, but its ethic groups, the Uzbeks,
Tajiks, Hazaras, and Pushtans, are a continuing source of internal conflict
who more or less maintained the country as a tribal society. It was consolidated
into a kingdom in the eighteenth century.
In 1973, a military coup brought in a republican form of government which
was favorable to the Soviet Union. The United States, presumably operating
the CIA, worked hard to support internal guerrilla fighting against the pro-Soviet
regime. They finally succeeded in driving out the Sovietoriented government.
The UN-assisted treaty in 1988 facilitated withdrawal of Soviet troops. In
the years of struggle, 2 million Afghans died and 6 million moved to neighboring
countries for safety and security.
The religious fundamentalist group, the Taliban, fought the pro-Soviet government
and eventually took over and instituted extensive, extremely conservative
measures: for example, forcing women into very modest, traditional clothing.
schools to be much more fundamentalist in their orientation. They kept women
at home and out of the work force and school. They forced the nation into
an extremely strict and oppressive version of Islamic life.
The fundamentalists also offered a home base for Osama bin Laden who set
up training camps and bases in Afghanistan's almost inaccessible highlands.
Once it was established
that al Qaeda, bin Laden's group, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks on
the United States, the U.S. military moved in both to wipe out al Qaeda and
government that was supporting them. Another goal was to establish a stable,
broadly-based government in Afghanistan.
It is such a rugged country of very tough people that it has been difficult
for Afghanistan to become a modem nation. It was and remains a tribal society
a highly questionable and ineffective central government. The extent to which
reform has worked or continues to work and the rate of recovery in Afghanistan
are outside the scope of this essay. U.S. intelligence has reported that
by no means were all members of al Qaeda eliminated. Some escaped to other
while others may still be hidden in Afghanistan. They are still very much
How does this tie in with Iraq? As previously mentioned, the banyan tree
of conflict developed new shoots and roots after WWI. Iraq was set up under
with a more or less arbitrary form of government, with no popular support.
Through a series of coups, there was a takeover by an extremist party, the
influence spread beyond Iraq and throughout much of the Middle East. General
Kassem, who succeeded the Hashamite monarchy, ran a relatively open government,
even giving opportunities for bureaucratic employment to the Shiites and
Kurds. He was overthrown and executed by the Baathists in 1963. The repressive,
Baath party took over in 1968 with Saddam Hussein as second-in-command. He
then became first-in-command and ruled with an iron fist.
A war between Iraq and Iran began in 1981 and ended in 1988 with the United
Nations' brokered settlement. In 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait to take control
of its rich
oil fields. The Iraqi government had long claimed that Kuwait was historically
a part of Iraq. This led the United States to intervene, with UN support
and multinational involvement, to drive Iraq out and liberate Kuwait.
Rather than continuing the fighting to crush the army of Iraq, the war instead
ended too soon. One of the side effects was that the Shiites, who were strong
in southern Iraq, were massacred on a large scale. They had rebelled and when
the Americans withdrew unexpectedly, Saddam worked his vengeance.
The Kurd's story is not quite as bad, because when a no-fly zone was set
up in Iraq, it acted as an umbrella protecting the Kurds from attack for
over a decade.
They prospered and flourished in an increasingly participatory society. The
Kurds, however, remained suspicious of long-term U.S. interest because of
to help their rebellion in 1991. The Kurds had suffered tremendous horrors
under Saddam, including the poison gassing of thousands of women, children,
elderly in Saddam's punitive strikes against them.
While Saddam was leading a secular totalitarian state, he manipulated
the religious commitment of the people to support the regime. He built
the people of his "hometown" region who were Sunni, filling
positions in the military and government with them. This more or less
loyalty because their prosperity and success depended upon Saddam maintaining
The U.S. government claimed after the actions in Afghanistan that al Qaeda, or
at least some portions of it, made arrangements with Iraq to acquire support,
including weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Incidentally, Iraq, by international
treaty, was forbidden to have weapons of mass destruction, that is, chemical,
biological, or nuclear weapons, which were all supposed to have been destroyed
after the Iraqis were defeated in 1991.
The U.S. government claimed that contrary
to those agreements, Iraq continued to produce weapons of mass destruction and
could become the main supplier of such weapons to dissident movements, such as
al Qaeda, operating around the world including in the United States.
Sanctions were levied on Iraq by the UN to push it toward compliance with
its international agreements. For example, the revenue coming out of Iraq
could be used only for food and medical supplies and a limited number of
other items for Iraqi citizens. The use of that money gradually expanded.
of numerous UN demands, Saddam's regime seemed to be in constant violation
of the limitations on 'WMD. The U.S. position came to a head in arguing Iraq
helping al Qaeda and that they were going to supply weapons of mass destruction
to terrorist groups. Therefore, they had to be stopped. The weapons inspection
system set up under the UN moved slowly and found no unequivocal evidence
of such weapons.
The United States chose to build a coalition force to disarm and remove Saddam
Hussein's government. The disagreement with the UN over strategy made the
war a two-country enterprise. The United States and the U.K. led the operation
received support from some two-score other countries, including Saudi Arabia
The conflicts between Iraq, the UN, and the United States have many
banyan tree-like roots. First is the old hostility that exists within
and the Shiitesthe former backing and dependent on the Hussein regime
and the latter oppressed by the Hussein regime. Second is the consequence
of Iraq and the failure to establish a Kurdish state at the end of
WWI, giving Iraq a hostile, independence-seeking group. Third is the
rise of oil as an
important international resource, focusing the advanced nations' attention
on the need
for a guaranteed, stable supply of fuel.
Fourth, the totalitarianism of the Hussein regime stifled any internal reform
and drove the lucky few dissident leaders out of the country. Fifth, Saddam
took advantage of the Israel-Palestine situation to provide vocal support
to the Palestinians while raising the general cry of Pan Arabism against
Israel. In the 1991 engagement between the UN and Iraq, some missiles were
Israel. They had more propaganda value than deadly effect but over the years
added some Pan Arabic support to Iraq as an enemy of Israel and therefore
a friend of the movement. Sixth, the response of fundamentalists throughout
hostility toward the West and support (or at least sympathy) for any nation
seen as standing up to the Western powers, hence the widespread resistance
to disarming the nearly universally-recognized villain, Saddam.
Seventh, the legacy of Western imperialism in the Middle East raises immediate
suspicion of any proclaimed motives behind intervention. Eighth is the cultural
gap between the Islamic world and the West. Western leadership, especially
in the United States, strongly plays down the reality of deepseated cultural
The tendency is to see the other parties as thinking, valuing, and acting
by the same customary rules we do. That assumption could not be further from
reality and is rich in troublesome surprises. Ninth, the shock of 9/11 politically
a vigorous U.S. response with a continuing effort to track down al Qaeda
and its supporters.
A BROADER VIEW
While the section above noted specific factors leading to the
flourishing of the banyan tree of conflict, there remains
the question—are there more
factors that move us into violent conflict? There are several. First, ideology
blinds us to alternatives. Commitment to an ideology, be it religious or
secular, easily leads to "I am right and you are absolutely wrong." Ideology
tends to make the world black and white, yet the reality is that
most of our activities are in a gray zone.
Second, as Henry Kissinger emphasized during his time in the Nixon
urgent tends to drive out the important," in political discussion.
Elected officials in our own country live in a relatively short-term
world with two,
four, or six years between elections. Appointed officials can have
even shorter tenure. In large businesses, focus tends to be on short-term
improvement. The result is that we don't pay attention to the larger,
in anticipating how they could affect us.
Third is the inability to honestly acknowledge and appreciate cultural
differences. Our elected leadership may be unable or unwilling to anticipate
how a culturally
different group with whom we are in conflict may see our actions or what
actions they may take in response to ours or how we might misunderstand
Fourth is a tendency to demonize the enemy, particularly when we don't
understand them. Demonization puts them outside the boundaries of humanity
and hence avoids
any significant consideration of their motives, leaving us with only one
goal: to neutralize, eliminate, or paralyze them.
Fifth, throughout the Middle East, but also in Africa and Latin America,
in the last century there have been endless cases of state-based terrorism.
government being the aggressor in using illegal and immoral force and
imposing social, physical, economic, and too-often cruel and viciously
or restraints on people in order to maintain the status quo.
The failure of international organizations to make an attempt to stop state-based
terrorism may slowly change. Iraq is an example of where state-based terrorism
has gone on for decades. The United States, along with the UN, had an opportunity
to intervene and prevent government terrorism in Iraq after the first Gulf
War in 1991, but we didn't. The world has yet to learn that state-based
is by far the greatest source of widespread violence against innocent people.
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