Too complex for Dubbya

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Rumsfeld and co never realised the Sunni-Shia division coul

I suspect there have been two defining moments in America's long and painful education that a faraway country called Iraq never consisted simply of 27 million people yearning to be free from a dictator called Saddam Hussein. The first was in Riyadh on 25 November 2006, when King Abdullah, the oil-trading chum of the United States, last seen in Texas in April 2005 holding hands with George W Bush, "read the riot act" to Dick Cheney. He told Cheney that if US forces were to be pulled out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia would have no choice but to support the Sunni minority in Iraq. Meaning Saddam Hussein's thugs? Exactly, Cheney.

The second crucial turning point came just a few days ago, when a hitherto secret National Intelligence Estimates report on Iraq - the first such assessment since 2004, with input from the CIA, Defence Intelligence Agency and various other US spy organisations - was published quietly on a Friday when news in America was dominated by storms that had devastated parts of central Florida. The NIE foresaw the possibility of "extreme ethno-sectarian violence with debilitating intra-group clashes", leading to a "rapid deterioration with grave humanitarian, political and security consequences".

Thus, at long last, the neoconservative simplicities of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and co were shot away once and for all. "I think that the words 'civil war' oversimplify a very complex situation in Iraq," conceded Robert Gates, Rumsfeld's successor as defence secretary, in response. "I believe that there are essentially four wars going on in Iraq. One is Shia on Shia . . . the second is sectarian conflict . . . third is the insurgency . . . and fourth is al-Qaeda." Stephen Hadley, Bush's increasingly worried national security adviser, chimed in: "We need to get across the complexities of the situation we face in Iraq . . . and simple labels don't do that."

So now we know. But when it comes to Sunnis and Shias, alas, the US has a disastrous history of switching sides whenever short-term pragmatism dictates it. For example, the Reagan administration's response to the 1979 taking of 66 US marines and diplomats as hostages in Iran on the orders of the Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini was to bolster Khomeini's old enemy in Baghdad, the secular Sunni Saddam Hussein.

I have some brief footage from 1983 of Donald Rumsfeld, then Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East, shaking hands with Saddam. Anybody who doubts which side the US was on during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war should read a recently declassified 1983 NIE report. It was both succinct and proph etic: "The current [Saddam] regime is likely to pursue policies more favourable to the United States than any successor regime . . . Saddam Husayn's [sic] removal could usher in an extended period of instability in Baghdad . . . any post-Saddam regime is almost certain to fall into factional fighting."

US undercover forces

Yet, exactly two decades later, Rumsfeld was spearheading the removal of Saddam, putting the Shia majority of Iraq back into the ascendancy and opening the door to Iranian expansionism. Iran, with a population of 69 million - 89 per cent of it Shia - became, overnight, a potentially far graver adversary of the United States than Iraq ever was. Last month, US troops raided an Iranian government liaison office in the Kurdish town of Irbil in Iraq, managing to enrage Kurds and Shias simultaneously. I am told that US undercover special forces are now already inside Iran, increasing the possibility of US military action against the Iranians.

No, Rummy and co never realised just how complicated this damned Shia-Sunni business really is. Goddamit, they're even feuding in places like Michigan and New Jersey and break- ing the windows of each other's mosques! Current US foreign policy is to unite the latest "allies" such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, against what Washington sees as the increasingly threatening coalition of Shias from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah with the Sunnis of Hamas - all of whom, of course, have been emboldened by the removal of Saddam. It's still all too much for the US media, which are content to refer to "insurgents" in Iraq - that is, anti-American baddies - without delving into the ancient divisions of Islam.

The late and much-lamented columnist Molly Ivins, who died on 31 January, wrote on 16 January 2003: "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 per cent Kurd, 20 per cent Sunni and 60 per cent Shia. Can you say, 'Horrible three-way civil war?'"

Nobody in Washington, sadly, was listening to the likes of Molly then. And now, none other than the mighty US defence secretary himself is pronouncing that the Iraq calamity has already escalated into a four-way civil war.

Related articles from this issue
Sunni V Shia Zaki Chehab
History of a conflict Rachel Aspden

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State