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Telhami: Despite Elections, Iraqis Face ‘Tide of Sectarianism’ Making Forming of Successful Government Difficult

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Shibley Telhami, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
January 20, 2006

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Shibley Telhami, a leading expert on Arab politics and attitudes, says he is concerned that neither the Sunnis nor Shiites in Iraq will be able to overcome their sharp sectarian differences to form a united, stable government. "The issue is who's going to be in the best position to build a national government, to deliver stability, and to become a reliable, significant partner for the international community," says Telhami, who is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "And I think that no one today has demonstrated the ability to do that."

"What made Nelson Mandela great in history was obviously the fact that he was able to look beyond the past and reach out to all South Africans, and I think that the Shiites are going to have to demonstrate that kind of foresight in their dealings if the purpose is a unified Iraq," he says. "And at the moment, we don't see an assertive and clear Sunni leadership emerging that is capable of making difficult decisions, and I don't see Shiite leadership that is willing to reach out. What I see is a dynamic that remains sectarian."

Telhami also expresses concern about the latest taped statement by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He says he takes seriously the threat to launch another attack on the United States. "I do not think it's just rhetorical, and I don't think that we have been doing enough in our own strategy to confront the fact on some level that the threat from al-Qaeda remains bigger than the threat that any state makes, and that includes Iran and North Korea."

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 20, 2006.

The official election results were announced in Iraq today, and they seem pretty much as expected. It looks as if the Sunnis did a little better than some people thought they would and the Shiites have of course won the most seats. What is your overall view of the political scene in Iraq right now?

I think the elections themselves are important, even though they will continue to be doubted by many Sunnis, and also by perhaps the majority of people in the Arab world who will still see them as not being legitimate. Nonetheless, when you have an election with its focus on forming political coalitions, on the formation of a government, on discussion of the issues that divide the communities, along with a lot of bargaining and a lot of maneuvering, all of that is good.

I think it changes the nature of the discussion, so those things are good. At the same time, I think it is clear that even a successful government—that is a coalition that has some Sunnis in it—is going to be swimming against the tide of sectarianism. The reality on the ground remains one of sectarianism. That trend of sectarianism remains by virtue of the nature of the power, by the makeup of society, by virtue of the nature of the militant attacks and the government responses, and by virtue of the make-up of the bulk of the security forces and the armed services in Iraq. We think we are building national Iraqi forces, but of course, in general, the make-up of those forces remains roughly sectarian. So we are unwittingly just affecting the balance of power on the ground for what remains a largely sectarian game.

The security forces are largely Shiite?

Largely Shiite and Kurdish. And clearly, those are the ones that are carrying the bulk of the counterinsurgency operations. And those are the ones who have been accused by the Sunnis of essentially being largely in their minds avenging what they have suffered under Saddam Hussein. So there was this notion that when you are a Sunni, you don't think of the Iraqi security services as representing a neutral party that represents a new Iraq, but you think of them as the enemy. And that obviously, in some ways, is part of the continuing sectarian problem. So our American role, which in some ways has been helping people live in the midst of the sectarian conflict, is in effect changing the balance of power along sectarian lines in a way that does not necessarily assure in the future that you're going to have a unified, stable Iraq. In fact, it could ensure that if there is an explosion of sectarian conflict, it's likely to be more bloody because you have far more trained people and far more arms on both sides.

Some people, of course, early on had urged for a strict federal state where there'd be three separate governments. You didn't favor that, did you?

Here's my view on all of this. First, obviously the Sunnis are going to have to come to grips with the fact that they're no longer a majority, and they're not. The Shiites are a majority, and they have rights as a majority and they have in fact paid a price in the past for the Saddam Hussein regime. But I think what the Sunnis need to be assured is that they are going to have a significant say in a new national Iraq, particularly when it comes to the division of resources and oil. They are certainly fearful of the Shiites dominating oil in the south and the Kurds dominating oil in the north, and being left with a smaller share of the pie. They also have concerns, beyond the Shiite-Sunni division. The Sunnis have the sense that some of the main Shiite leadership has close ties with Iran. And since most Sunnis still are very resentful of Iran, I think any package between the Sunnis and the Shiites is going to have to take that into account.

Well, if they ask your advice, who would you like to see as the new prime minister of the country?

I'm a secularist myself and if I were to have a prime minister, I'd hope for a secularist one. But in the end, that's useless. The issue is not who I like, the issue is who's going to be in the best position to build a national government, to deliver stability and to become a reliable, significant partner for the international community. And I think that no one today has demonstrated the ability to do that. We don't know all the players who are being put forth on the table. It's noteworthy, by the way, that the party of [former Deputy Prime Minister] Ahmed Chalabi, the man initially favored by the United States, has apparently won no seats. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is a secular Shiite, appears to have won twenty-five [seats], which is respectable but certainly does not make him a major player.

The Shiites themselves are not unified. They are unified as a coalition that ran and did well, but it's not a single party with a single ideology, and they are divided over who's going to be the next prime minister. The two main factions, in particular, within that coalition, are divided over who's going to be prime minister. It's not clear what the followers of [firebrand Shiite leader] Muqtada al-Sadr are going to put forth. I think it's reasonable for them to make the argument that the turnout by the Shiites in those elections was in part due to their effort to rally the poor in many of the neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere, and they would want a say. And they have had a different agenda. So even the Shiites themselves are going to have to sort their options out, sort the leadership issue out before they begin negotiating with other factions.

And the Sunnis, of course, have two separate party lists; one, the Iraqi Accordance Front got forty-four seats, and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue won eleven. What were the differences in those two parties?

Remember, Iraqi politics remains largely tribal. And it's not clear that you have a very significant ideological division in the way people postulate their position. It's very difficult to have coalitions that are regional and tribal in nature in terms of the make-up of the candidates. But I think it's likely that no matter what transpires in the negotiations, they're going to coordinate their position, particularly on matters related to the constitution, which remains the biggest issue. In fact the most important early signals will be on the willingness of the Shiites to address the issue of the constitution. This had taken a setback in the past few days with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), taking the position that the constitution would not be revised. There's great suspicion and distrust among the Sunnis.

Well, is there any way this election can be translated into ending the insurgency?

Let's think about it theoretically for a moment. Theoretically, if you have a government that signals a willingness to change the constitution—including the allocation of resources—and if you have a government where the Sunnis are participating, supportive public opinion, and Arab governments are persuaded to back it—because Arab governments provide certain signals to the Sunni community in Iraq—then you, theoretically, stand a chance of attracting many of the Sunnis who are not at home with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda bunch.

All the public opinion surveys in the entire region show that most people, when they support al-Qaeda, they support it only because it's in confrontation with the United States, not because they support its message. Of course, nobody wants Zarqawi to be the ruler, even those within the Sunni community who may be rooting for him to kill Shiites.

If you peel off a majority of people who are not at home with Zarqawi's message, but who are supporting him by default, you stand a chance of minimizing the insurgency and then start building a unified Iraq. That's the theory. It's not a bad theory. But the chances of that happening are very small in this environment, because it's all happening where there's no clear signal from the Shiites that they want to compromise on most major issues. In the same way that the Sunnis are no longer the majority and they're going to have to find a way in Iraq where they have to come to grips with the fact that they are the minority, the Shiites are going to also have to come to grips with the fact that if they want a unified Iraq in which they play the central role, they're going to have to reach out.

The great majorities shine when they reach out to the minorities. What made Nelson Mandela great in history was obviously the fact that he was able to look beyond the past and reach out to all South Africans, and I think that the Shiites are going to have to demonstrate that kind of foresight in their dealings if the purpose is a unified Iraq. And at the moment, we don't see an assertive and clear Sunni leadership emerging that is capable of making difficult decisions, and I don't see Shiite leadership that is willing to reach out. What I see is a dynamic that remains sectarian.

Can the United States play a constructive role at this point?

Sure. I U.S. leverage remains, and I think the United States in some ways may have more leverage than people think. In the end, if our aim is to have a unified, stable Iraq, it can only happen if we persuade a majority of the Sunnis on the game. If we are going to persuade the Sunnis, we are going to have to persuade the Shiites to compromise with them. It's very simple what we have to do. A lot of that has been happening. The United States in fact has been trying to weigh in on behalf of the Sunnis a little bit in the past few months in the negotiations. My own read of it is that, despite the public position that some Shiites take that ultimately they want the United States to withdraw, in the end the current Iraqi government—and that means of course the coalition, the winning coalition in Iraq—does not want to see a rapid U.S. withdrawal because they don't think they yet have the significant training and power to govern on their own or even to confront a successful sectarian war in Iraq. And I think in some ways they see the United States as empowering them over time.

That gives the United States much more leverage in those talks with the Shiites. The talks have to be with the Shiites as much as they are with the Sunnis.

I see. At the same time as the electoral results became known, Osama bin Laden's latest tape became known. What did you get from that?

The whole tape is a message to the American people, although of course he's always talking to his world audience indirectly. And the focal point was to tell the American people that their government is making a big mistake by not withdrawing from Iraq and, quote, "ignoring public opinion polls" in America. He's actually reading public opinion polls in America that tell him Americans really want the Americans to withdraw. His key point, if you want to see a key point there, was that the president is saying he wants to take war to the terrorists, meaning to Iraq, and not outside, and the point of Osama bin Laden was that, "Yes, you're taking it there, and you don't realize how helpful Iraq has been for us in recruiting more people, but we are not limited in penetrating anywhere else and the fact that we haven't had an attack in the United States now is not limited by our inability to penetrate, we've been planning, and you will see that it will pay off."

So he puts the threat in the context of, "We can take it to you, don't think we cannot take it to you; our presence in Iraq isn't going to undermine our ability to take it to you." See, that's the context in which this threat comes. He's talking to the American people, and of course he's talking to the Arab people, to show them he's still strong and can threaten. Now, I happen to think that what's going on here is two things.

One is that he of course knows the elections were coming up in Iraq; he's focused on Iraq and the American withdrawal. He wants to ultimately claim that the partial American withdrawal is due to the success of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and he wants to escalate and exploit that by focusing on the elections to demonstrate they haven't changed much. The second thing is I think, he's also reading the polls in the Arab world. And when you look at the polls in the Arab world, like the one I just released with Zogby International where I asked what aspect of al-Qaeda you sympathize with most, only about 6 percent say they sympathize with al-Qaeda's aim to establish a puritanical Islamic state. Only about 7 percent say they sympathize with their message. The majority say either that they sympathize with the fact that al-Qaeda confronts the United States or that al-Qaeda is speaking for other Islamic causes. So they understand that this is a default support; it's not a support for their aims. It's support primarily for confrontation with the United States.

And in the polls, the United States is seen by over 70 percent of Arabs as a primary threat. Not only don't Arabs like U.S. foreign policy, which is nothing new, but they see the United States as a primary threat. Now in that sense, Osama is responding to that. The United States is almost the equal of Israel in Arab minds as a primary threat. And so what he's doing is he's saying to his Arab audience through his message to the Americans, "I'm still confronting America, I'm still going to take it to them. Not only are they going to lose in Iraq, but wait and you'll see, there will be more havoc on American soil."

I'm concerned. I do take the threat seriously. I do not think it's just rhetorical, and I don't think that we have been doing enough in our own strategy to confront the fact on some level that the threat from al-Qaeda remains bigger than the threat that any state makes, and that includes Iran and North Korea.

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