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Gelb: Iraqi Frustration With the U.S., but 'Real Hatred' for Terrorists

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
April 28, 2005


Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, just back from a 10-day fact-finding trip to Iraq, says he detected "frustration and anger" directed at the United States but also "real hatred toward the terrorists and what they are doing to Iraq." Gelb said the appointment of a cabinet by Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari could mark a "beginning" for coping with the insurgency.

"Anyone who knows the history of insurgencies knows you can't win a military victory over an insurgency; the route to victory is in political legitimacy," he says. "You have to have a government and a cause people are willing to fight and die for. I think the people and armed forces would be willing to fight for a whole Iraq where the parts take responsibility for most of their own lives."

Gelb was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on April 28, 2005.

You've just come back from a 10-day trip to Iraq. Can you explain the circumstances?

The State Department arranged a terrific set of interviews throughout that period. We must have met with upwards of 75 percent of the Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. We met with newspaper editors, businessmen, political leaders, university professors and deans, provincial council people. We met with city council people, not only in Baghdad but also in Kirkuk, and in the north, Erbil and Sulaimaniya. So we had a tremendous run at the Iraqi leadership, all parties, and ethnic and religious groups.

Prime Minister Jaafari has announced his government, and it includes representatives of all the factions and many women. How significant is it that there is now a government in place? And why did it take so long to form one?

It's important that a government has been established, and the reason it took this long is that the Iraqi political leadership knows how to do politics, it knows how to bargain. That's what they were doing. They were doing it entirely on their own, which was very difficult, given the historical differences and conflicts among them. They needed some help from the outside, and finally the United States stepped in and gave them a little shove.

That accounts for the length of time. It is just hard to adjudicate all these different interests, given historical conflicts. Elections were a beginning.That they have a government in place now is yet another beginning. They will run the government, more or less in a caretaker status, and their main job now is to set in motion a process for writing the constitution, a power-sharing agreement, and that's essential.

Will an Iraqi government that represents all the different factions help weaken the insurgency?

I think it is the beginning. Anyone who knows the history of insurgencies knows you can't win a military victory over an insurgency; the route to victory is in political legitimacy. You have to have a government and a cause people are willing to fight and die for. I think the people and armed forces would be willing to fight for a whole Iraq where the parts take responsibility for most of their own lives.

One of the things that struck me [in Iraq] was that, for all the frustration and anger there is toward the United States, there is real hatred toward the terrorists and what they are doing to Iraq. And if there is a government that is reasonably democratic, that conducts open politics, that is not too corrupt--corruption is a terrible problem--the vast majority of Iraqis would prefer it to any leadership by these terrorists and insurgents.

Under the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the government is supposed to have a new constitution finished by August, ratified by the voters in October, and new elections in December. The TAL allows one six-month postponement. Do you think the new government leaders will have to use it?

My guess is they will, because this document is the ultimate agreement on how they are going to share power, what the power will be in Baghdad, in the central government, what powers will be reserved to the different provinces or regions, and what the role of religion will be in the state. So this will really be haggled over, bargained over. If this country is going to work, it's going to work in good part based on the parties coming to an agreement that will gain political support and that will be something the Iraqi forces will be willing to fight and die for.

It's been said in many press articles that the stepped-up insurgent violence in recent months was caused by the lack of a government. Do you agree with that?

I don't know. It is so hard to tell. One of the main conclusions I came away with from the trip was that we hardly know what is going on. I spent 10 very intensive days there. That's far longer than administration leaders who have gone there, like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for half a day, or congressional delegations for half a day. I spent a lot of time talking to Iraqis, listening to them, and I don't feel I know what was going on there.

I know a lot more facts, but I am not sure that I understand the rhythms and trends much better than I did before. And I don't think the Iraqis do, and I don't think the Americans there do, and, for the most part, they are rather humble and careful about this. It's hard to judge. Everybody tries to find some excuse. They say, "Oh, it's because the government wasn't formed." But the people I spoke with there, in the U.S. Embassy, and Iraqis, they couldn't figure out why there had been a lull in violence for the last few months and then an eruption, what was going on with the various insurgent groups, and when it would end, or why it would end. They were guessing, too.

Did you talk to many Sunni leaders? Do they want to participate in the government?

First of all, there isn't an established Sunni leadership group, as you would find with the Kurds in the north or with the Shiites in the south. The Sunnis are in great disarray. You have some tribal leaders, but they have not stepped forward to try to assert their leadership beyond their own local areas. You have the Muslim Brotherhood Group, which is like the Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, and they speak for some portion of the Sunnis.

But you don't have anything comparable to the United Iraqi Alliance [the predominantly Shiite coalition that controls the largest bloc of votes in the National Assembly] or the Kurdish alliance that brought the political leaders of those groups together. So it is much harder to measure opinion. You get the sense that most of the Sunni leaders now regret they did not participate in the January 30 elections and that they were not more part of the political scene. They realize it makes it more difficult for them to share future power in Iraq and to get their share of oil revenues. So there's no doubt they are talking about more participation in the political process, but the question is how to do it and whether the Sunni terrorist insurgents will come after them, too.

There is no Sunni leader who can order the insurgents to stop?

No. The insurgents are calling the shots. There are two powers in Iraq today: the United States military and the terrorists. The Iraqi political leaders are caught in between. The only power they have is to ask the United States to leave, if they dare. And they don't dare. In fact, even the Muslim Brotherhood people are no longer calling for an immediate American withdrawal. Even they understand that would bring utter chaos to their country.

Did you spend time with Prime Minister Jaafari?

He asked to see us twice, but then had to cancel twice because of the bargaining over the government. But we saw his principal aides.

This is someone whose party, the Dawa, was once on the U.S. terrorist list.

Yes, it was involved in the creation of Hezbollah and some groups like that. But Dawa is changing, and the Shiites, at least a good chunk of their leadership, now seem eager to take part in the political process, and to assume a leadership role. To make that happen, they are prepared to get along better with us as well.

At the end of 2003, you wrote a widely discussed op-ed article in The New York Times in which you proposed a "three-state solution" for Iraq. Do you still believe in that?

Yes. I believe, in order to preserve the whole, you have to have maximum regional autonomy. Each of the three regions--Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south--has got to essentially run its own internal affairs, with the government in Baghdad having limited powers on such issues as border defense, maintenance of the common oil heritage, division of revenues, and health. Otherwise, it won't work. The Kurds made it very clear, in every conversation we had with them, that they are not going to give up one iota of the autonomy they have had for the last 14 years. They are still going to run their own affairs.

There is a strong political movement in the south, around Basra, to do the same. When we discussed this with the Sunnis in the center, it was difficult to get them to focus on it, but they, too, understand that if they are not going to be run by the Shiites or the Kurds, or some alliance of those two, their best deal is to have maximum autonomy for themselves. I was quite prepared to go out there and be told I was wrong because, frankly, I figured that when our Middle East experts said most people had Iraqi identification, not ethnic or religious identification, they knew far more about the country than I did. But, much to my surprise, I was right and they were wrong. I didn't bring it up with leadership groups we spoke with; they brought it up, [in the context of] what they think will happen, either by negotiations in the constitution-drafting or by civil war.

I asked these people what they thought of themselves as. The elites, like people working in the foreign ministry or high civil-service people, would say they were "Iraqis," or "Iraqis and Shiites." But most others put their religious or ethnic identification either first: "I'm a Kurd and an Iraqi," "I'm a Sunni and an Iraqi," or they just said, "I'm a Kurd." This country was never together on its own accord. It was put together by Ottomans, then by British, and then held together by the brutality of Saddam Hussein.

The TAL says the new constitution can be vetoed if two thirds of voters in any three provinces vote it down. That gives a veto to the three major constituencies, so does tat mean they will have to compromise?

Of course, and I asked the Speaker of the National Assembly, Hajim al-Hassani, who is one of the authors of the temporary law. He said they drew it up themselves. They had input from American experts and others, but they drafted that document, which was based on acceptance of regional realities or differences. They all said, if they can put together a constitution, it will look like the TAL. They are well aware of the historical precedent in the United States, where you had 13 colonies becoming states, and most of the legislation in our history, until the New Deal, was state-based legislation.