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Marr: Sectarian Violence Has Iraq 'Teetering on the Brink'

Interviewee: Phebe A. Marr
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 15, 2006

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Phebe Marr, a prominent historian of modern Iraq, has just returned from Baghdad and finds the situation there "certainly has deteriorated." Marr, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, has generally been optimistic in the past about Iraq's post-Saddam future, but now she says "it's teetering on the brink."

"The sectarian violence, particularly in mixed cities in places like Baghdad, for example, is very serious now," says Marr. "This is part of Zarqawi's legacy, unfortunately. This is relatively new in Iraqi politics. There was a certain amount of difference between Sunni and Shiite communities always, but it never was the predominant feature of political life, and certainly not personal life."

You've just come back from another trip to Iraq. You were there when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and you had a chance to get some sense of the political life going on. What's your impression of the new Iraqi government?

We're going to have to wait and see how it pulls itself together. On the good side, it's inclusive. It includes the major Shiite parties. Of course it includes the Kurdish parties. And this time it includes a portion of the winning Sunni ticket known as the Iraq Accord Front. It also includes some of whom I would call secular centrists. It gives all the sectarian communities and the winning political parties a number of seats and stakes in the system, and that should begin to satisfy the idea that people must join the political process to get somewhere. There is of course the other side of the coin there. This diverse national unity government takes a lot of time to get consensus. The question is going to be whether this is a group that can make decisions and move ahead.

On a previous trip to Iraq, you met the new prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. What kind of man is he?

He is a Dawa party member. It's essentially a Shiite Islamic party. It has a long history in Iraq. It is the granddaddy of all Shiite Islamic movements. But while the Dawa party is religious in its orientation, it is one in which lay people play a very important role, and it has always had a reputation for being somewhat more nationalist and Iraqi-oriented, rather than tied, say, to Iran.

And Maliki certainly represents that trend. For example, he left Iraq, he did go to Iran, I believe it was in the 1980s, but he left Iran and spent most of his time representing the party in Syria. Of course he was rather isolated from the West and the United States. He certainly wasn't among the sort of pro-Western opposition leaders, but he did so because he didn't want to side with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war fighting against Iraqi troops, and he is certainly considered to be rooted in an Arab culture and an Iraqi identity. I found him to be a direct individual, even a little brusque. He expresses views in a forthright manner. I asked questions, he came up with answers. They were short and crisp, so he may be a man who can make decisions and can move ahead rather decisively.

Certainly the actions that he's taken, the statements he's made so far, indicate two things which may be positive. He seems able to move above the party and partisan politics and attempt to represent Iraq, and he does seem to be moving in a good direction. His first steps seem sensible. He wants to address the militia question. Everybody agrees he has got to do that, and he seems willing to begin to take it on. But believe me, he and everybody else there has their work cut out for them. They're facing incredible challenges in attempting to knit Iraq back together, to get past this ethnic and sectarian bloodletting—more sectarian at this point than ethnic—and coming to grips with some of these critical issues on rewriting the constitution is going to be really demanding and tough.

When we had our first interview in April 2003, right after the initial fighting had stopped—you were pretty optimistic that the Shiites and the Sunnis could live harmoniously, that they were first of all Iraqis. Obviously through this whole insurgency, this sectarian division has hardened. Do you think it's reparable?

It certainly has deteriorated. I wouldn't use the word optimism in connection with myself. I try to keep a little bit of an optimistic tone. I'm very cautious about this. I don't want to say Iraq has failed. I think it's teetering on the brink. I think the ethnic difficulties, that is to say how to accommodate the Kurdish factor, is a very difficult one although the Kurdish area is peaceful.

The sectarian violence, particularly in mixed cities in places like Baghdad, for example, is very serious now. This is part of Zarqawi's legacy, unfortunately. Now, having just come back from Iraq, I'm still going to say that this is relatively new in Iraqi politics. There was a certain amount of difference between Sunni and Shiite communities always, but it never was the predominant feature of political life, and certainly not personal life.

Educated communities in Baghdad downplayed the differences. There's a lot of intermarriage, a lot of intermarriage between Shiites and Sunnis. This indicates, you know, for educated people it wasn't that important, and intermarriage is still going on. What's happened? A couple of things have happened. First of all, we had three elections in 2005. We had to have them to get new leadership. But really, Iraq isn't prepared yet to be a mature democracy, and the elections were not held on the basis of parties with interests, or platforms, or programs, and of course it was in the middle of a violent insurgency, and to tell the truth political leaders played on ethnic and sectarian identities to get elected. This is certainly true of the Kurds. That's a known fact.

And certainly the Shiites.

That's right. That's exactly what I'm coming to, the Shiites. This alliance put together a number of parties and with the push from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani [most important Shiite cleric in Iraq] to get a majority of the seats in parliament and a domination of the government. Now the Sunnis generally don't think of themselves as Sunni, and of course we know that they dominated Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and so on, but they were nationalist in orientation, either Iraqi nationalists or Arab nationalists.

Now they are ousted. And some of them, of course, are either silently or actively supporting the insurgency. They are a resentful, marginalized minority, who for the first time are beginning to think of themselves not as Iraqis or Arabs or whatever but as Sunnis. And so this has taken place as the evolution of the insurgency has come about. Zarqawi was probably a pivotal figure in this, but the insurgency is attacking not only Americans, but it's attacking the government in power. The government that came into power in 2005, the first election, was predominantly Kurdish, Shiite with some centrists. The insurgents attacked that government. And Zarqawi and his followers, of course, attacked Shiites specifically.

This has intensified Sunni-Shiite tensions. Sistani was very careful about urging people not to retaliate so you wouldn't get this sectarian war, but eventually a number of these Shiite militias did strike back. And at the moment you have a very vicious sort of spiral going on in Baghdad where both communities are doing harm to each other. Of course, this was greatly exacerbated by this mosque episode—a holy Shiite mosque blown up in Samara.

While this has really intensified, almost everybody I know is appalled by this. First of all, they don't like the violence. Second of all, they really don't want the sectarian war. And most of the people that I would put in this camp are Baghdadis. Baghdad is a huge city now. What is it—four, five million? Not all of them are educated middle class, but a number of them are, and they are appalled by this. Everybody recognizes that if this really becomes a full-blown civil war, it's not only going to split Iraq, but it's the end. You can't really live with this.

This is a real nightmare, and most of the sensible people, and that certainly includes the government, do not want this. But the situation is serious because the government itself has eroded. There's hardly a police force, the army has been destroyed, most of the ruling class, the Baath, has been ousted, and the last few years of the insurgency have simply seen an erosion of any kind of government.

Is there anything the United States can do, or would it be better if the Americans just got out of there?

No. It would not be a help if the United States simply got out of there. Now I'm not saying that the United States should be staying forever. Certainly, they are part of the problem because nobody wants a foreign occupation force. But I can say with a certain amount of certitude that if you talk to political leaders—the ones who are in power who have to deal with the problem and stabilize it—there isn't anyone who will tell you they want the Americans out tomorrow because they know what will happen. They're not ready yet.

Now Maliki is making an effort. The first thing he has done is to go down to Basra and try to calm the situation there, which is a struggle for power among the Shiites themselves. There's a certain amount of harassment of the small Sunni community, but the real problem in Basra is two or three different Shiite parties fighting it out. So you've got a power vacuum, a struggle for power which is being played out in the streets. Maliki has apparently mobilized the Iraqi police and the security forces that have been trained and he is trying to get some order on the streets in Baghdad.

He's put in a curfew, he's got police on the beat out in the street, he's put up checkpoints, all of this is to try to get a grip on the situation and restore some sense of confidence there is going to be some law and order. A long-term solution is to roll back these militias, to get rid of them, to develop both local police who are professional who work for the local police chief and who are going to keep law and order.

And to get a national security force and a national army, which consists of all these communities, and means Shiites are going to work with Sunnis, with Kurds, and everyone else. That is going to be much more difficult, although it's underway. People tell me they are beginning to reconstitute an army, but believe me it is not going to be easy. I asked the question of everybody. How are you going to roll back the militias when your own police force and your military force [are] perhaps weaker at this point than they are? Is this going to be a military confrontation? Are the police and the new security forces going to hold up? Everyone said to me, look, the only way you can do this is really political. You have to get an agreement, consensus on the part of the political parties who own these militias to do this. Now that's the political job Maliki and the new unity government have to come to terms on.

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