Is Iraq becoming the New Lebanon of the Middle East?
Dr. Gareth Stansfield (Lecturer in Middle East Politics, Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies, University of Exeter), Dr. Mohamed Ali Hussein (Access – Mideast, Middle East Consultant), Dr. Maha Azzam (Associate Fellow, Middle East Programme, Chatham House) and Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
Sean Curtin: During the height of its 17-year Civil War (1975-1992), Lebanon became a no-go country where even aid workers were too frightened to work. How corrosive and fair do you think is the perception that Iraq is becoming the new Lebanon of the Middle East? Will it hinder Iraq's reconstruction efforts? I am particularly thinking of the barbaric and horrific hostage-taking we have witnessed recently. We have seen Korean, American, Italian and British citizens beheaded and now a Japanese national is under the same threat. How damaging is all of this to the long-term efforts of America and others to rebuild the country?
Dr. Gareth Stansfield: We cannot say that Iraq has reached that state yet, but I think that there are indications it could. We have seen the Iraqi Governing Council and the interim government adopt a consultation political system with power-sharing. It is only one more step before we get veto-powers, balances of elites that you get with classic consultation systems and the totally moribund situation you get with such governments. On top of that we do have competitions for power, and yes it has started to look like the situation in Lebanon in its early stages [of the Civil War]. The mixed and cosmopolitan cities are particularly a cause for concern. If any zones of Iraq warrant any immediate international attention, then yes, it is these principle cities. Baghdad certainly, Kirkuk certainly, even Mosul and Basra to a certain extent. The fact that they are mixed and have been cosmopolitan cities for decades, if not even longer, does not mean that they cannot fall apart overnight as was unfortunately evidenced by Sarajevo.
Sean Curtin: One of the lasting images of the Lebanese Civil War is of foreign hostages being held captive for months and in some cases for several years. Do you think this could happen in Iraq, which has been experiencing an upsurge in foreign hostage taking?
Dr. Mohamed Ali Hussein: I don't really think anyone knows what is going to happen. There are many of these kidnap-groups and it is almost impossible to contact them. The Iraqi interim government and foreign powers have little room for maneuver. It is extremely doubtful that Japan will be able to establish a line of communication with the people that took their countryman. What commentators say about these groups and their motives is just pure guesswork. The situation looks extremely grim. I am gravely concerned for the safety of this young Japanese man [Shosei Koda] and Margaret Hassan [the abducted Irish aid worker who has lived in Iraq for over thirty years].
Sean Curtin: How concerned should we be for the Japanese hostage Shosei Koda?
Dr. Maha Azzam: From the evidence we have, it is almost certain that this al-Qaeda-related group [al-Qaeda Organization of the Holy War in Iraq] has him and this is a cause for very deep concern. Regrettably, the actions of this particular group in the past indicates that the chances of the hostage being released alive are not very high.
Note: The above discussion took place before Japanese hostage Shosei Koda was executed by his terrorist captors. (Related article here.)
The above comments were made at Chatham House in London on 27 October 2004