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BookBrowse Reviews The End of Iraq by Peter W. Galbraith

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The End of Iraq

How American Incompetence Created a War Without End

by Peter W. Galbraith

The End of Iraq by Peter W. Galbraith X
The End of Iraq by Peter W. Galbraith
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2006, 272 pages

    Jun 2007, 288 pages


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The End of Iraq, definitive, tough-minded, clear-eyed, describes America's failed strategy toward that country and what must be done now

From the book jacket: The United States invaded Iraq with grand ambitions to bring it democracy and thereby transform the Middle East. Instead, Iraq has disintegrated into three constituent components: a pro-western Kurdistan in the north, an Iran-dominated Shiite entity in the south, and a chaotic Sunni Arab region in the center. The country is plagued by insurgency and is in the opening phases of a potentially catastrophic civil war.

George W. Bush broke up Iraq when he ordered its invasion in 2003. The United States not only removed Saddam Hussein, it also smashed and later dissolved the institutions by which Iraq's Sunni Arab minority ruled the country: its army, its security services, and the Baath Party. With these institutions gone and irreplaceable, the basis of an Iraqi state has disappeared.

The End of Iraq describes the administration's strategic miscalculations behind the war as well as the blunders of the American occupation. There was the failure to understand the intensity of the ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq. This was followed by incoherent and inconsistent strategies for governing, the failure to spend money for reconstruction, the misguided effort to create a national army and police, and then the turning over of the country's management to Republican political loyalists rather than qualified professionals.

As a matter of morality, Galbraith writes, the Kurds of Iraq are no less entitled to independence than are Lithuanians, Croatians, or Palestinians. And if the country's majority Shiites want to run their own affairs, or even have their own state, on what democratic principle should they be denied? If the price of a unified Iraq is another dictatorship, Galbraith writes in The End of Iraq, it is too high a price to pay.

The United States must focus now, not on preserving or forging a unified Iraq, but on avoiding a spreading and increasingly dangerous and deadly civil war. It must accept the reality of Iraq's breakup and work with Iraq's Shiites, Kurds, and Sunni Arabs to strengthen the already semi-independent regions. If they are properly constituted, these regions can provide security, though not all will be democratic.

There is no easy exit from Iraq for America. We have to relinquish our present strategy -- trying to build national institutions when there is in fact no nation. That effort is doomed, Galbraith argues, and it will only leave the United States with an open-ended commitment in circumstances of uncontrollable turmoil.

Peter Galbraith has been in Iraq many times over the last twenty-one years during historic turning points for the country: the Iran-Iraq War, the Kurdish genocide, the 1991 uprising, the immediate aftermath of the 2003 war, and the writing of Iraq's constitutions. In The End of Iraq, he offers many firsthand observations of the men who are now Iraq's leaders. He draws on his nearly two decades of involvement in Iraq policy working for the U.S. government to appraise what has occurred and what will happen. The End of Iraq is the definitive account of this war and its ramifications.

Comment: Peter Galbraith served on the staff of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1979 to 1993, where he took a special interest in Kurdistan. In 1993, he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Croatia by President Bill Clinton. He later served as United Nations ambassador in East Timor where he negotiated an oil-treaty between East Timor and Australia 90/10 in Timor's favor, and forced Australia to back down on maritime boundary issues, declaring to Australian oil men, "The Timor Sea is closed for business!"

In 2003, he resigned from U.S. government after 24 years of service in order to be able to criticize U.S. Iraq policy more freely.   He is currently a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and writes frequently about Iraq in the New York Review of Books.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, there is no shortage of books about the current situation in Iraq.  However, few, if any, come from better qualified sources than Galbraith.  Those who don't agree with his arguments for allowing Iraq to separate into its three constituent parts, unsurprisingly find fault with his book, and suggest that his take on events is skewed by his long-held support for a Kurdish nation.

Galbraith's cogent analysis of the history of Iraq, and the USA's involvement in the country, seems to be eminently balanced and clear and, from the point of view of this armchair-observer of the Iraq debacle, it is difficult to find fault with his conclusions. 

Sunnis and Shi'a
Sunnis and Shi'as (aka Shiites) are both Muslims, but are split by theological differences of opinion that date back to shortly after the religion was founded. Within both main groups there are various subsects, and many Muslims prefer not to identify with either group and refer to themselves simply as Muslims.  Shiites (from Shiat-Ali, meaning "partisans of Ali") believe that only heirs of Ali (cousin and son-in-law to Mohammed), are legitimate successors to Mohammed.  Most Shi'as believe that the Twelfth Imam (the Mahdi, "Guided One"), who disappeared in 931, will return at the end of time, and meanwhile he divinely guides their leaders.  As the Shiite leaders are divinely led they are believed to be perfect interpreters of the Qur'an and infallible. 

Sunnis believe that any qualified ruler can lead them and that their rulers are fully human and therefore fallible.  Both Sunnis and Shiites hold to the five pillars of Islam (daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, alms giving, pilgrimage to Mecca and the believe in one god).  Both groups believe the Koran to be sacred and that resurrection will follow the final day of judgment.  Worldwide, Shiites represent about 15% of all Muslims, but are in the majority in Iran (89% Shi'a) and Iraq (~60% Shi'a). Sunni/Shi'a Comparison chart.

The Kurds (historical map of Kurdistan; map showing modern boundaries)
The region that covers northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey has been known by variations on the word Kurd since the time of the Sumerians.  In the 10th century, Kurdistan was split into five principalities, and in later centuries into a collection of semi-independent states under Ottoman rule. 

Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, The Treaty of Sèvres proposed providing an autonomous homeland for the Kurds, but this was rejected.  In 1923, The Treaty of Lausanne divided the Kurdish region between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. 

In 1946 The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), dedicated to the creation of an independent Kurdistan, was founded.  In 1961, the Kurds of northern Iraq rose up against the government; they were crushed but in 1970 a peace agreement was signed giving them some autonomy.  In 1974 another uprising was put down over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. 

In 1975 the leader of the KDP left to found the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), beginning decades of conflict with the KDP. Meanwhile in Turkey in 1979 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was created with the aim of seeking Kurdish independence.  In 1979, the Iranian revolution sparked a Kurdish revolt in Iran that was quickly put down. Five years later the PKK turned to armed struggle. 

In 1988 Iraq retaliated against the Kurds for supporting the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war; thousands were killed and more than a million were uprooted from their homes.  In 1991 during the Iraq-Kuwait war, Iraq's Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein with the encouragement of the USA.  However, the UN forces did not help the Kurds and their revolt was brutally put down.

In 1993, the Turkish government granted limited autonomy to the Kurds, but a year later fighting broke out between the KDP and PUK over control of the Kurdish autonomous region; a peace treaty was signed in 1998.  In 2002 the Iraqi Kurdish regional parliament met for the first time in six years indicating real signs of unity between the two factions.   On May 30 2007, the autonomous northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan signed a security cooperation accord with the U.S-led coalition. Kurdish History Timeline.

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This review first ran in the June 7, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  A Short History of Iraq


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