Forecaster of the chaos in Iraq remains gloomy about future

August 24, 2007

Gareth Stansfield
Reader in Middle East politics, Exeter University

When Gareth Stansfield accepted a job as a consultant to Unicef in Iraqi Kurdistan, at the age of just 22, he could not have imagined the situation he was about to step into.

With a geography degree and an MA - with distinction - in Middle East politics from Durham University, he was qualified for the job, but that could not prepare him for what he found in Iraq. "I went into Kurdistan without a clue," Dr Stansfield recalls. "I went from a very closeted situation at Durham into one of the most volatile situations in the world."

In 1998, a short time after he arrived, the US and Britain bombed Iraq in Operation Desert Fox. Saddam Hussein barred the US and Britain from working with the United Nations in the country.

The young Briton was able to stay on only by becoming an adviser to the Kurdistan Government on humanitarian policy. He ended up heading a research unit of 80 local staff and a handful of international workers. "We were in sovereign Iraqi territory, at the invitation of the Kurds, but illegally and without visas. Saddam knew we were there... It was all very exciting stuff," he recalls.

Dr Stansfield gradually became aware of a rising radical Islamic threat towards Westerners. "The current insurgent moment had its beginnings then. We received threats from the nascent Islamist groups, alongside the perennial threats from Saddam's operatives in Kurdistan."

The project ended in 2001, and he returned to Durham to complete his PhD, on the development of de facto state institutions by the Kurds, which he had been researching while in Kurdistan.

A year later, a Leverhulme special research fellowship allowed him to move to Exeter University, where a former Durham colleague was setting up a research group to look at the reconstruction of Iraq following the first Gulf War. "It was an interesting period," Dr Stansfield says. "There was a feeling that Saddam was looking durable, that perhaps he would remain in power for some time."

By the time Dr Stansfield took up his post in October 2002, forces were gathering for the US-led invasion of Iraq that would take place in March of the following year.

Dr Stansfield's work not only led to a lectureship, followed by a swift promotion to reader in 2005, but a growing media profile. He has an experience of life in Iraq unique among British academics, and time has shown the prescience of his comments at the time of the invasion.

In a March 2003 article in The Observer, he noted that Iraqi opposition groups, which the US was banking on as the architects of a future democracy, were ideologically and politically diverse, with "perhaps more of an aversion to each other than to Saddam himself". He compared the toppling of Saddam to "removing the lid from the pressure cooker".

Dr Stansfield's book The Future of Iraq , co-authored with Liam Anderson and published in 2004, predicted the emergence of ethno-sectarian forces and the arrival of a powerful Shia movement.

Dr Stansfield says: "The coalition went in with an ill-informed view of what Iraqi sociopolitical life was about. They seemed to think there was a great swath of secular middle-class people to fill the political gap. But the middle classes had been fleeing the country for years - they simply weren't there any more."

The view that Saddam represented the Sunnis and oppressed the Shia was also wrong. "He was a terrible, brutal dictator, but he brutalised everybody and everybody recognised his power - he was a common enemy."

Dr Stansfield believes that the departure of British and US troops from Iraq will be disastrous.

"There is a view that the troops are not achieving much and that they are inflaming tension, and there is a view that they are the only thing preventing Iraq falling into a cataclysmic civil war," he says. "I agree with the latter view. The US forces in Baghdad are the only thing preventing the Shia attacking the Sunnis in a much more aggressive way."

Whether the troops remain or go, Dr Stansfield is pessimistic about the country's future. "The chances of its declining into civil war are greater than it stabilising and forming a federal state," he says.

I graduated from  Durham University

My first job was research associate at Durham University

My main challenge is protecting my time

What I hate most is flying

In ten years I would like to be recognised as having made a major contribution to the field of Middle East politics, and particularly with regard to conflict management admittedly quite a task

My favourite joke : Why do Communists drink herbal tea?
Because all proper tea is theft.

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