Iraq Expert Marr: ’Long, Slow, Struggle’ Ahead in Iraq

June 15, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Phebe Marr, the author of The Modern History of Iraq, has just returned from a trip to Basra and Baghdad, where she was struck by the “genuine and very lively political process” taking place in preparation for the drafting of the new constitution. But the downside, she says, is that the government is ineffective and not yet able to move decisively against the insurgency.

Overall, she foresees a prolonged struggle to defeat the insurgents. “I see this as a long, slow struggle, which we will gradually win,” says Marr, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Forces that we are training will get better. The government and the situation will improve slowly so that people will have something legitimate and better to look forward to. But, I think we have to prepare ourselves for a rather long process here.”

Marr was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on June 13, 2005.

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You’ve recently returned from a trip to Baghdad and Basra. What is your overall impression about what you saw in Iraq?

Well, it’s a mixed picture. In Baghdad itself, I think, there is a very genuine and very lively political process going on. The members of the temporary National Assembly were meeting, they were interacting, and there was intense dialogue. There are certainly attempts to compromise, because they’re forming a constitutional committee and so on. One of my positive impressions was that there was a real and genuine political process going on in Baghdad, which is almost unique for the region. They’re really arguing and struggling over legitimate and very difficult problems.

And the downside?

Yes, of course, there is a downside. If democracy is really going to take hold and people are actually going to discuss these issues, they may have to forgo some efficiency and decisiveness. These things are going to take time. It’s going to take time to make the decisions, and governments that are deeply involved in these kinds of negotiations can’t also be efficient in getting electricity flowing, in getting the oil running, and so on. That’s one issue.

The second issue is that I’m not sure how much of this intense political activity in Baghdad is getting out to the provinces. And that’s one of the things the insurgency is preventing. It really is tending to cut off Baghdad from the surrounding area and to cut off the country, to a certain extent, from outside ties. So, a second impression I have is that Baghdad may be increasingly isolated from the rest of Iraq and that the rest of Iraq, the provinces, particularly the north and the south, may be left to go on their own a lot more. That’s clear with the Kurds. Of course, we know they have a government up there and so on. But down in Basra and the south, I also found people interested in moving ahead on their own, with their own interests and so on, without waiting for Baghdad.

Some people have been theorizing that the idea of the Iraqi nation is artificial and that the country will naturally breakdown along Shiite/Sunni/Kurdish lines. You have traditionally felt there was an Iraqi identity. Is that identity withering because of the insurgency?

It’s getting weaker, that’s for sure. I don’t think any country’s borders are natural. There’s no such thing as a natural country. Everywhere, borders are drawn, somewhere, some time, and the population shares resources and a government. There’s hardly a single country in the world that isn’t somehow multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian. So the question is: How do they see their common interests, or do they not see their common interests? Do they see themselves coming together?

Now, with Iraq, I go back to the monarchy, not just Saddam Hussein. Iraq was artificial, it was created in 1920. But in the course of about the first three-quarters of the century, the people who lived there did come to share not simply ideas, but resources. They came to live together, they felt comfortable with this. I think in urban areas, among the educated class, the sense of ethnic separatism and, certainly, sectarian separatism was greatly reduced. Now, what’s happened with all the upheaval and turmoil, beginning with Saddam and what he did to the country, and through the occupation and the insurgency, there has been a great surge of what I’d call identity politics. That includes ethnic and sectarian politics. It’s very clear to everybody. It’s as sharp as I can ever remember in Iraq. However, it’s not clear to me that Iraq is irreparably broken down, or that it can be clearly broken down into these three different units, although the Kurds are furthest along in this effort.

What needs to be done? Right now, there’s politicking going on—the Sunnis want a certain number of seats on the constitutional commission and the Shiites are struggling to limit that. Do you think it’s feasible for the Iraqis to meet the August 15 deadline to draft a constitution, or should they ask for an extra six-month delay as outlined in the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL)?

It’s going to be very hard [to meet the deadline], it seems to me, but they keep saying they’re going to try to do it. But let me try to parse some of the parts of this, including the time issue. The people in power—Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds and others—are saying there should be about 15 seats for the Sunnis. That seems about right, to me. The real issue here is: Who are the Sunnis? Which Sunnis? In fact, there are a number of Sunnis the government could pick. But the problem is that the Sunnis who are really most opposed to this process, the rejectionists—I’m leaving aside the hardcore terrorists and ex-Baathists, who are probably incorrigible—understand that we and the Iraqi government have to bring in a portion of the Sunnis to give them some stake in this regime. But which ones are they going to be, what is the price, what do they want? Who’s going to pick these Sunnis? Are they going to be—as the Sunnis might say—tame Sunnis that the Shiites can get along with, or are they going to be real representatives of the Sunnis who come forward in this process, many of whom still seem to be true rejectionists? And we have to remember that these Sunnis did not run in the election. And that’s what’s at stake here: Are you going to rely on a process of violence, and so on, to get what you want?

I think they will certainly find some Sunnis to put on this commission—they will go forward with it. Whether they can meet this deadline, however, is a big question. One of the ways in which you can meet this deadline is this: You can rely heavily on the TAL, the Transitional Administrative Law that they’re operating under now, and modify it and change it in certain ways that wouldn’t involve too much work. There are a lot of people who think that’s not too good of a way to go. The second thing is, you can probably move ahead on this constitution if you got a group of people together, sat them behind closed doors, and got the experts to make clear where the compromises have to be made. If the process indeed went on behind closed doors, this kind of swapping and consensus and compromise might lead to something in August. But what is going to be sacrificed here is the democratic aspect of this. The TAL itself requires outreach. It requires that the population be educated on this, that TV, radio, and newspapers educate the population so that on [constitutional] referendum day [currently scheduled for October 15] they’re not shown a sheet of paper and asked to vote it up or down when they haven’t read it. So if things happen too quickly, that will sacrifice some of the legitimacy, the outreach, and so on, which will be necessary to get a population that understands what the constitution is and has bought into it.

Are there are some significant individuals who are showing leadership right now?

Here are some of the tentative conclusions I’ve come to: There are two or three different kinds of groups. The Kurds themselves. As you know they came in with a very strong alliance and they got 26 percent of the seats [in the National Assembly]. They have the most experienced, skilled political leadership in Iraq today. That’s not an accident, because, of course, they’ve been governing themselves up in the north [since the early 1990s]. They have had to deal with the outside world, so they’ve learned. They’re pragmatic, they’re skilled, and they’re going to be very hard bargainers. Some of the most experienced people are among them: Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, just to mention a few, really do look very competent. Among the Shiites, the Shiite alliance that came in, many of these leaders are new. Bayan Jabr, the new minister of interior, and Abdul Mehdi, one of the deputy prime ministers, are people who have had some experience in the Iraq Governing Council [which was disbanded in June 2004] or the previous cabinets, but essentially this Shiite leadership is very new.

Most of their careers have been spent underground in opposition to the regime, with many of them in Iran, some of them in Europe, and all of a sudden, they find themselves in charge of this important oil state. So, I think we have to recognize that they have to get their feet on the ground and shift gears. They themselves have a very complex alliance to negotiate and have to keep their own constituents in line and so on. So I don’t expect these new Shiite leaders to be very decisive, because I don’t think they can be. They’re learning the ropes. I think they’ve been extremely pragmatic. I think they’ve done a reasonable job, but as I said at the start, you’re not going to get a strongman leader. First of all, they don’t really want that, nobody really wants that. It would be nice to have decisiveness and a military army that could do something about the insurgency, but they’re not in that position. I would give them reasonable marks on dealing with an extremely difficult situation and becoming more experienced and pragmatic. But we have to have our expectations down at a reasonable level.

What about former Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi? Where does he stand in all of this?

Well, I think, that’s going to be interesting, and let me raise a question here to which I don’t have the answer. The government currently consists largely of two giant blocs: the Kurdish bloc in the north and this diverse Shiite coalition [the United Iraqi Alliance], which runs kind of a gamut and includes some hand-picked Sunnis who perhaps don’t represent the “real” Sunni community. Allawi and his group have stood aside from the government. They’ve been asked to come in and join this big umbrella compromise, and they’ve decided it would dilute their message.

Now, what is their message, and how do they sound? When I talked to those delegates, I got the impression they represent what’s left of the old middle class, which has the Iraqi identity, state-oriented and non-sectarian. And as you know, Allawi was a former member of the Baath regime. So they’re kind of state-oriented. They got, all told, maybe 14 percent of the vote, which is quite small, but they do represent a third [political] force there. And I’m told that this group is going to try very hard to develop a stronger alliance in the next election, and everybody is focused on the next election already. That alliance could include some secular Shiites, who might not like the religious tendencies of this coalition. It could certainly include some Sunnis who might feel comfortable. Maybe they could get together with the Kurds, who feel more comfortable with a secular group. So there are interesting permutations and commutations, and it’s possible that we might find in Allawi the bones of a kind of legal opposition.

The next election, theoretically, would be either in December—if the constitution is completed and ratified by October—or in mid-2006 if the constitution is delayed.

That’s correct. The constitution has to be ratified before the election. But even if [the election] comes in December or January, that’s pretty close. And even if it comes sometime next year, that’s still a pretty close time. And needless to say, all of these parties and groups are jockeying for position. Those that won the election last time want to make sure they win it again, and those that didn’t get in, want to this time.

I would like to mention something here that I think is worth looking at, and that’s the election law. It’s one of the trends that I see developing in the provinces. For example, Basra is interested in developing local government. That might be a good idea. But the problem is that this portends an ethnic and sectarian trend that seems to be splitting Iraq. One way in which that could be mitigated would be to take a look at the election law and this single list, proportional representation system. Remember, parties run on a single list for the entire country. And the votes don’t get re-divided after the election. If some way could be found to moderate that somewhat—I don’t think you can throw that out—but if you could move toward a district-oriented election in which individuals, and different kinds of parties could run, the voter would know the individual, and the individual would have a big stake in looking after his constituents. That would tend to reflect the diversity of Iraq, I think, much more and perhaps move people a little bit away from this extraordinary identification with ethnic-sectarian identity.

As the constitution is framed, how critical will the issue of sharia [Islamic law] be?

That’s a very important issue. I’m less worried about it than a lot of other people because my own sense is, frankly, that Iraq, like many other countries in the region, has really gone in a much more religious direction in the last decade or two. You see women in hijab [veils], you see much more orientation towards religion, and many of the Shiite leaders that I talked to, including some of the Sunnis as well, really want to see Iraq have an Islamic identity—not Shiite, Kurd, Sunni, or Arab—but an Islamic identity. Now that’s, of course, moving away from secularism. They don’t want to have a state dominated by clergy. They certainly don’t want to go the Iranian way. But they want to infuse society with Islamic mores. That will have an impact on women and so on. And certainly, they want to enshrine sharia in some way in the constitution. So they’re going to fight over this issue. I doubt that they could get away with putting that in—there’s too much opposition to that. They could say it is a source of law or that the laws in the constitution shouldn’t contradict the sharia. But I predict they’re going to find some language to compromise that.

A third of the delegates in the assembly are women, so they must have a strong voice. Are many of those women very conservative, as I’ve read?

Yes. This shows you that you can’t just label groups of people. Just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you’re going to hold a certain point of view. Now, some of the women who were elected—this is particularly true of the Kurds, but some others as well—are very strong advocates of women’s rights. I don’t want to say secular, but many of the things we stand for in the West, they would espouse. But a great number of these women were put there because the constitution and the TAL required it. So the political parties, especially the religious parties, went out, they found women willing and able to stand, and needless to say, those women are just as conservative as the political parties and the parties made absolutely sure that was the case. Moreover, many of them are newcomers. They’ve never been in politics before and they’re unused to it and they’re likely to be dominated by the men. So, you need to be careful because a number of them, by our standards here in the West, are conservative. Some of them are even, for example, acquiescing [on the issue of] polygamy and so on. Don’t just think that because women are there that they’re going to be all in favor of the same secular trends that we are [in favor of] in the West.

Let’s talk about the insurgency. Is it going to die on its own?

The insurgency is the one thing I’m not terribly optimistic about. I’m kind of optimistic about the political process. I think it’s going to be slow, but it’s moving in the right direction. But the insurgency—we’re having a hard time getting a grip on it. Of course, it may be that they’ll shoot their wad and their money will run out. But it doesn’t look that way to me. I think there’s only one answer to the insurgency, and that’s to get enough Sunnis—and let’s face it, this is a Sunni operation—it’s to get the Sunni community to turn against them.

I don’t think the Americans are going to flood more troops in there—and we all know we’re not going to do that—and that’s one of the problems as well. So it’s going to be a process of getting the Sunnis so sick of it, so tired of it that they’re going to turn against it. And I think this is happening, but it’s very slow. I see this as a long, slow struggle, which we will gradually win. People will get tired of it. Forces that we are training will get better. The government and the situation will improve slowly so that people will have something legitimate and better to look forward to. But I think we have to prepare ourselves for a rather long process here. I’m sorry to have to say that, and I hope I’m wrong. But that’s the way it looks to me from Baghdad.

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