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Iraq Is Not Vietnam: Division Not Unification

Iraq Is Not Vietnam: Division Not Unification


By David G. Miller

Comparing the current war in Iraq to that which took place in Vietnam has become a favourite method of attack for those opposed to the conflict and the Bush Administration. Perhaps comparisons were inevitable once the Coalition had been drawn into a guerrilla war and Iraq started its path towards civil war but nevertheless, the warnings are being shouted even louder as the US and Britain explore ways in which to pull their forces out. The United States has suffered a greater number of casualties in Iraq than at the same stage of the Vietnam War and some see similarities in its curious mix of issuing vague threats to Iran while discussing an exit strategy in Iraq to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and helicopters leaving Saigon. But, despite these analogies, Iraq is not Vietnam.

The reason for saying this is that once the American and British forces leave Iraq, there is a strong possibility that the country will break up along religious and ethnic lines. A federalist system is being touted as an option and even the British Foreign Secretary uttered as much because without American support, the government in Baghdad is powerless. The power in Iraq lies with religious and tribal leaders who have moved to fill the vacuum left behind by the fall of Saddam Hussein. Aside from the occasional much publicised anti terrorist operation, the Coalition forces have moved back to their barracks and the Green Zone while the rival militias establish control in their local areas and seek to destroy anyone who is not one of them. Whereas the end of the American involvement in Vietnam saw that country unified, Iraq is likely to break up into separate cantons.

Iraq was created from the pens of Britain and France during their colonial heyday. A mixture of Sunnis, Shia’s and Kurds, the country has always been held together through the power and brutality of its ruling cliques - the former monarchy or recently deposed Baathists. The US led invasion gave the Iraqis the opportunity to remove that bind yet rather than merely depose Saddam; the US administration under the somewhat less than competent Paul Bremner dismantled the country’s entire governmental and security structure. The result is the ensuing violence and civil war.

The case for a federal arrangement argues that it would provide the various factions with their own areas of control, resolve the problem of Baghdad’s status and would provide a basis for discussion between the autonomous regions over oil revenues and other nationally owned economic assets. Federalists look to countries such as the US, Canada and even Australia as having regions that have self governing powers yet co-exists under a broader structure. The flaw in the argument is that these countries are not suffering a civil war and the longer the factional fighting continues in Iraq, the harder it will be to keep it intact as one integral country. A Federalist arrangement enables the Coalition to withdraw its forces but still claim to have kept Iraq whole and in the hands of a democratically elected government. Yes, this is true, but this arrangement will become one in name only as time goes on and more power is ceded to the provincial militia leaders.

Iraq is damned if does and damned if it doesn’t move down this path. Unless the militias can somehow find common ground and lay down their arms and support the current government then the only thing keeping Iraq intact is the presence of foreign troops. Once they go, the country will go, as did South Vietnam in 1975 when the local forces there proved incapable of defeating their enemies and keeping their hold on power. However in that case, Vietnam was unified albeit under a communist government but it has prospered economically and has found peace. Unfortunately, the same may not be true for Iraq in the wake of this latest US withdrawal.

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David Miller is a New Zealand writer living in Christchurch

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