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Marr: ''We Shouldn't See the Sunni Community as Monolithic''

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Phebe A. Marr
November 19, 2004

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Phebe Marr, a highly regarded expert on Iraq, cautions that Iraq’s Sunnis are not a monolithic group. She concedes that many Sunnis are involved in the insurgency. But, she argues, there are still advantages in reaching out to various Sunni factions as a way to possibly undermine opposition to the U.S. occupation and the interim Iraqi government.

“I think there is a potential wedge,” she says, “to be driven between those who are beyond the pale- they’re not going to come into any new regime and there’s no sense in negotiating with them- and those who must ask themselves, ‘Am I better off fighting the new government, fighting the Americans for no good reason, and losing out in an election and a new power struggle which will leave me without power in the future?’”

The author of “The Modern History of Iraq,” Marr is the Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 19, 2004.


Talk about the Sunni insurrection, as it’s called. Who are these Sunni leaders and what’s motivating this very anti-American drive?

First of all, let me say that we have to be careful about tarring all Sunnis with the same brush. Not all Sunnis are in the insurgency. Sunnis constitute about 17, maybe 20 percent of the population, and only a portion of them are engaged in this. I would divide the Sunnis into several different kinds of communities. There are sophisticated, well-educated groups of Sunnis in large cities like Baghdad and Mosul, and even some in Basra who intermarried with the Shiites, and maybe don’t identify themselves so much as Sunnis, but as Iraqis.

The Sunnis that seem to be giving us the most trouble are those in the so-called [Sunni] triangle. They live in small towns and small cities on the Tigris and Euphrates, where there are very strong clan and tribal ties, where there’s a strong Sunni identification, and there has been, generally speaking, a strong Arab nationalist identification. Add to that now, in recent years, an increase in fundamentalist preaching of Sunni Islam.

The insurgency includes holdovers from Saddam’s regime- most likely his intelligence and military, some of the Baath Party people, and some of the local people who were in his administration and had privileges. They often got a lot of money, and these are the losers in this change of regime, so that’s certainly one of the things that’s motivating them. As we know, they’re getting some help from outside folks who want to have a jihad against the United States, with some [of them] affiliated with al Qaeda.

What is motivating them? There is probably a mixture of motives. There is unhappiness over the change of power and a desire to get power back if they can. Second, there are very strong anti-American feelings, feelings of nationalism, and added to this now, a sort of anti-western religion. The occupation, as everyone knows, hasn’t gone very well, so probably a lot of people who might not [typically be considered insurgents]--young men who are unemployed, even criminal elements who can make some money by kidnapping people and so on- are involved in this. They’re trying to disrupt the elections, the new Iraq. Obviously, they want to get rid of the occupation, which, frankly, is perhaps a sentiment shared by a number of other people not engaged in active opposition.

One would think they’d try to organize themselves to get the best deal they could out of the election, but they seem to be talking about trying to organize a boycott or sabotage the elections.

That’s correct, and, frankly, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on in that community. Remember, it’s more diverse than some of the press reporting may indicate. The prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has been negotiating with people in Falluja and elsewhere. This suggests there are people to negotiate with. Who are these people? They may just be ordinary citizens who live in this town and may not be affiliated with any of these groups we mentioned. They may be people who would like to get involved in the election, but they’re intimidated by the horrendous brutality these insurgents have exercised and don’t particularly want to be associated with America.

But I think there is a potential wedge to be driven between those who are beyond the pale- they’re not going to come into any new regime and there’s no sense in negotiating with them- and those who must ask themselves, “Am I better off fighting the new government, fighting the Americans for no good reason, and losing out in an election and a new power struggle which will leave me without power in the future?”

I don’t rule out, for example, that there are members of this Sunni community, even in the triangle, with whom you can negotiate, and some of them might even be forming organizations. There are some political parties there, some groups that could possibly be brought in.

Also, I should say, we shouldn’t see the Sunni community as monolithic. There are lots of Sunnis in Baghdad who have joined other parties, and I expect they are going to participate in the election.

Elections are due at the end of January. Can you describe the process?

These are the first free elections, if they can be conducted, that Iraq has ever had. They will be voting for a parliament, so to speak, [with] 275 seats. That parliament forms a government, the Cabinet. Perhaps even more important, the parliament will more or less constitute a constituent assembly, depending on how they want to constitute it, that will be sitting down to negotiate a new constitution. That is perhaps the most important thing to know about this election, because if you don’t have your representatives in that parliament, you’re probably not going to have a say in putting the constitution together.

Once that is done- and it’s supposed to be presented in a referendum before the end of 2005- under the provisions of that constitution and presumably a new election law they will then elect a final sovereign government. That will be the end result of this election process- a new Iraqi government under a new constitution which will begin its political life. That’s the schedule according to what’s supposed to happen. Whether they can actually adhere to it, of course, is a question mark.

Ever since Iraq was split off from the Ottoman empire, the Sunnis have had the predominant role in the military and in running the government. We’re on the verge of a historical turnabout if the Shiites dominate the new government, isn’t that right?

That’s quite true. I would like to throw in one caveat here. We keep talking about the three main ethnic and sectarian communities- the Kurds who are Kurdish speakers in the north, maybe 20 percent of the population; the Arab Sunnis that we just talked about, maybe 20 percent; and the Shia, who constitute a majority, certainly 60 percent. But people may identify themselves in other ways than ethnic and sectarian. Many Iraqis would prefer to identify themselves as “Iraqis” and maybe as members of a political party.

The Sunnis, you’re right, have essentially been the political elite which has dominated the military and most governments, although under the monarchy in the last days, many more Shiites were brought into power and so were the Kurds. It’s not either/or, it’s not black and white, but especially under Saddam in the last days, the Sunnis- and not the sophisticated Sunnis from Baghdad, but these small-town Sunnis from the triangle- were the dominant force. [Under Saddam’s rule], there was persecution of Sunnis, but most of the persecution was of the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. In this election, the Shiites hope for a new dispensation in which they will have the majority of seats and presumably be predominant but certainly not have the only word in the government.

This is definitely a revolutionary development and they have a lot of wrenching decisions to make in this constitution. One of them is how much autonomy or semi-independence will be given to the Kurds. What kind of system of government- federalism, whatever? The Kurds in the northern three provinces have been governing themselves practically on their own since 1991 and they want to keep what they’ve had, which is almost a de facto independence on the ground. Reintegrating the Kurds into some kind of a political system is one issue. The second, particularly if the Shiites dominate: is religious law going to be one source of the law or the source of law? I suspect we’re going to see a more religious Iraq emerge from this, but certainly not one that is a carbon copy of Iran.

Of course, the Iranians say they do not want a carbon copy of Iran in Iraq. What do Iraq’s neighbors think of this situation?

Iraq’s neighbors are none too happy with the situation, but it depends on the neighbors. Iraq has two very big, powerful, non-Arab neighbors- Turks in the north and, of course, Iranians to the east. And then they’re surrounded by a variety of Arab states that seldom agree on anything among themselves. It depends on who you’re talking about, but I think it’s fair to say that the neighbors are disturbed by two things.

[First,] they’re disturbed by the instability, the inability to bring order, and the fact that this could spill over- and is spilling over in some respects- into their neighborhood. The last thing they want is a collapsed failed state in Iraq [and] a long period of instability and chaos. So they all have an interest in stabilizing Iraq, but that’s the only common interest they have.

The second [thing] they don’t like, of course, is the occupation. That goes without saying. This is a pretty horrendous development, to have the United States, a Western power, in occupation of a country. How long is it going to last? Is it going to be a semi-permanent feature? They’re certainly none too happy about that.

But beyond that, they all have their own particular interests in Iraq. The Turks, who look with great dismay on the degree of independence of the Kurds in the north, certainly will not stomach an independent Kurdistan up there and are really worried about its getting too much autonomy.

The Iranians are worried about that too, right?

The Iranians have some fears of that, of course, because they have Kurds in their country and don’t want that to spill over. But the Iranians have a very complex set of things to consider in Iraq. As we know, there’s not just one Iranian government but many strands of thought there, so it depends on who you’re talking to. There are positive and negative things about the Iraqi situation from the Iranian point of view. If indeed a successful election takes place and the Shiites inherit a good bit of power, that’s, of course, to their advantage. In fact, the Iranians have held off a bit from doing some nasty things they might do in Iraq with the expectation that that’s going to happen and it will be in their interest.

Second, they see the United States surrounding them- in Afghanistan, from bases in some former Soviet central Asian republics, in Iraq, and of course our strong relations with the Arab Gulf. They’re perhaps not unhappy that we’re in some trouble there, because while we’re mired down in Iraq, it limits what we can do elsewhere, and it’s no secret that we now have bilateral problems with Iran, most notably the nuclear issue.

The Iranians have some sort of leverage that they think they can use against us in Iraq because they have very strong relationships with some of the Shiite political parties. A lot of Iraqis who have been living in Iran have come across the border, and a lot of Iranians both in the north and the south have money and are paying for some of these political parties. The Iranians have strong military relationships with some of the militias, so they’re in a good position to cause instability and some trouble in the Shiite areas. But so far, they haven’t done that because, I think, they see interests in a successful succession of the Shiites to power in Iraq, if that should occur.

The predominantly Sunni Arab countries that surround Iraq all have different interests and relationships with us. The Gulf states- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and so on- and even countries like Jordan and Syria, certainly want to see stability in Iraq. They want to see an end to this occupation in a reasonable period of time.