Phebe Marr: “Iraq Is Not the Balkans”

Phebe Marr: “Iraq Is Not the Balkans”

April 29, 2003 1:48 pm (EST)

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.

Phebe Marr, the author of The Modern History of Iraq, says that the animosities that led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia don’t have a parallel in Iraq. She also warns that it may take more than five years to lay the foundations of democracy in Iraq, and that Washington should not be deterred by anti-American demonstrations because most Iraqis probably want the United States to stay as long as necessary to get the job done.

A former senior fellow at the National Defense University, Marr concedes that anti-U.S. protests will probably continue. But she cautions that Americans should avoid “the mindset that if we don’t achieve perfection, we fail. There’s going to be plenty of anti-Americanism. We ought to be prepared for that. [Iraq] is a country that likes independence, it likes to complain…and while we should try to address some of those complaints, we shouldn’t be sidetracked by them.”

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Marr was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at, on April 28, 2003.

Other Interviews

What should happen next in Iraq?

I can tell you what I’d like to see happen. I’d like to see a frame of reference for what the United States might achieve in a reasonable time frame. Over the long term, within, say, five years, I think we want to see a process in Iraq that allows for a pluralistic, consensual government that’s reasonably stable. And [we want to see] that this process takes hold and allows Iraqis to govern themselves with a reasonable degree of success. That would be my long-term goal, but I don’t think even in five years [that this process] will be fully embedded or fully stable, because these kinds of democracies may take almost a generation to achieve.

What about in the short term?

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We ought to be working very hard to return Iraq to some degree of normalcy. By that I mean reviving the economy, letting people send their kids back to school, ensuring that they can return to their jobs, and pumping some money into the economy.

And above all, throw away the key to Iraq. Iraqis have been living in a big prison, they couldn’t get in, [and] they couldn’t get out. We ought to open the country up, allow them to travel, allow books and ideas and people to come in, and give them a measure of freedom, which we are indeed starting to do.

The No. 2 short-term goal should be a return to a rule of law. The security system has to improve, but you have to have a return to a reasonable and uncorrupted court system, and a police system that enforces the laws.

And No. 3, which is going to be somewhat harder, is beginning the process I’m talking about, a constitutional framework that Iraqis themselves must decide on and that allows the different ethnic and sectarian groups— as well as various political groups— to participate. This process can provide decentralization, federalism, or whatever, but it has to be agreed upon by at least the majority of Iraqis. Maybe everybody won’t agree, but most of them will, and then it can turn into some kind of an elected system.

Is it important for the United States to be willing to remain in Iraq for a prolonged period?

Absolutely. This is going to be a very tricky, very sensitive task. And we shouldn’t get ourselves in the mindset that if we don’t achieve perfection, we fail. There’s going to be plenty of anti-Americanism. We ought to be prepared for that. This is a country that likes independence, it likes to complain, and from here on in we’re going to hear plenty of anti-Americanism, and while we should try to address some of those complaints, we shouldn’t be sidetracked by them.

A number of Americans seem to have been disconcerted by the large Shiite demonstrations saying “no to Saddam, no to America.” And that seems to frighten Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who says the United States is not going to allow an Iranian type government to emerge in Iraq. Are these fears justified?

[They’re] not entirely unjustified. One could imagine fundamentalist groups, both Shiite and Sunni, highly anti-American, rushing in to fill a void, and then getting a grip on local areas of authority that would be difficult to dislodge. But I think the fear has been overemphasized in the press. Iraq is a big country, it has many different groups, there’s going to be a lot of competition among a number of groups for power.

We’ve had a big religious ritual take place that got a lot of press coverage in Karbala, and you know these things get hyped, they get blown out of context and made to seem overwhelming. You need to put that in context, and I think the president did that very nicely in saying, well, the Iraqis now have freedom, and this is the first time they’ve had this ceremony in a long time, and let’s not get overly upset about it.

Could you discuss the Shiites in particular?

The Shiites make up between 55 to 60 percent of the population. They are not homogenous. Who says that [some] religious clerics speak for the majority of Shiites? We don’t know that. My strong suspicion is that if you gave all of the Shiites a free vote, it’s very doubtful they would vote for the clergy who say they want to install in Iraq something like they have in Iran.

There’s a diversity of opinion among Shiites. Some are secular, some are very well-educated. There were Shiites in [Saddam Hussein’s ruling] Baath Party. In fact, Ahmad Chalabi, [head of the dissident Iraqi National Congress], who’s a secular leader, is a Shiite. [Ayad Alawi], the head of the Iraqi National Accord, which is the ex-Baathists’ opposition [group], is a Shiite.

Even among the clergy, there are distinct differences of opinion as to whether they ought to get involved in politics or stay out. So we ought to step back and be a little more sanguine, and for the moment let a little freedom work. There are certainly many offsetting factors to any particular Shiite cleric attempting to establish fundamentalism in Iraq, including the fact that 40 percent or more of the Iraqi population is Sunni, and they would simply not accept such a thing.

How do the Shiites and the Sunnis get along? The popular image is that they are quite hostile.

I don’t know where that perception comes from, and it ought to be dispelled immediately. Iraq is not the Balkans. There really isn’t traditional enmity or hostility between Sunni and Shiite communities in Iraq. They have coexisted for time immemorial in Iraq. Among educated Iraqis, there’s a good bit of intermarriage. [But] there is [also] this:

Sunnis, particularly Arab Sunnis, have governed Iraq. They have very important positions in the military. When a military revolution took place [in 1958] and Army officers became the dominant force, almost automatically the Sunnis dominated.

There is substantial distrust, alienation, by the Shiites against the Sunni-run government. And there is a universal feeling among the Shiites that in any new government they must have, if not the majority voice, certainly a much greater voice.

Sunnis are sometimes suspicious that the Shiites are too attached to Iran and that in an Iraqi state, if you put Shiites in power, they might lean toward Iran. There’s no evidence that the Shiites are not loyal to Iraq as a state— perhaps not to the government but to Iraq as a state— and they fought loyally for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. On the other hand, Shiites are inclined to think that the Sunnis are too Arab-nationalist, too interested in integrating Iraq with the rest of the Arab world, which would reduce the Shiites to a minority [since most Arabs are Sunni], and they’re more interested in an Iraq-centered state.

Are the Shiites generally at the lower end of the economic ladder or are there wealthy Shiites too?

There are wealthy Shiites. The Shiites are just as heterogeneous as any other group of people in Iraq. Many of these tribal leaders in the south were land owners. Shiites are very good businessmen, and many merchants are rich. There is a very substantial Shiite middle class. In fact, a substantial portion of the atomic energy scientists that we’re trying to track down are Shiite. Many of the people in the newer fields— computer scientists, financiers, university professors— are Shiites. Many [Shiites] worked for the government. It’s just that most of them, particularly under this administration, never got into top positions.

However, as with the Kurds, if you’re in the central government, if you live in Baghdad in the center of the country, you have access to most of the privileges. You have better schools for your kids, health care, an ability to move ahead. If you live in the rural areas, you don’t get as many benefits, so your kids are not as likely to go to school or get the good jobs. And in general, many of the Shiites live in rural areas. Now under the Baaths, in recent years, because the Shiites and Kurds rebelled, they were neglected. Their areas have fallen behind.

But a substantial portion of Shiites live in Baghdad. Baghdad is a Shiite city. So these people are also middle class. And there are also poor Sunnis, there are also rural Sunnis.

Can the Kurds resolve their differences, or are they going to be perennially divided?

Why should we worry if they are? The idea that we have to have a unified Kurdish entity— [or] that we have to have unified Shiites— I don’t think that these differences are going to be resolved, but it doesn’t matter. The Kurds have done quite well. They agreed to disagree. [In northern Iraq] Massoud Barzani [head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party] is pretty much in control of one area and Jalal Talabani [head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] is in control of another. They’re coordinating, they’re talking to one another, their education system and so on is coordinated, [and] there’s certainly no civil violence up there. The real issue is, if we’re going to keep the territorial integrity of Iraq together, how are we going to fold the Kurds back into Iraq?

There’s been a lot of talk about a federal government.

If you’re going to have federalism, many people feel it would be better to do it on a geographic basis, such as we have in the United States. They have 18 provinces in Iraq, for example, and you could give a lot more authority and develop local institutions in these provinces. It would turn out in these circumstances that in Kurdish-dominated provinces, Kurds would probably dominate the government. In mixed areas— that might include Kirkuk, which has Kurds, Turkomen, even some Arabs— you’d have a more mixed government. Baghdad of course is completely mixed, [and there] you couldn’t impose one ethnic group on another.

There is an Iraqi identity. The silent majority of people in Iraq have a distinctly Iraqi identity first, and something else second. Now it may be more difficult [to cultivate feelings of Iraqi identity] with the Kurds, because Kurdish nationalist parties are in charge of the north, but even there, Kurds understand they have to stay in Iraq. The Americans ought to encourage this Iraqi identity, [that would lead to] perhaps a more decentralized, obviously more pluralistic, and a more consensual government. That should be the ultimate aim. And I think that will get support from the overwhelming majority of Iraqis.


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