TOPICS > Politics

Iraq in Transition

June 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Dexter Filkins, welcome. There seems to be a fly in the ointment of this interim government which was announced in Iraq, and it involves the Kurdish population. Bring us up to date on that.

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, the last couple of days, there has been just a lot of intense bargaining and shouting and other things. But what essentially happened was the Kurds are… because of all the really… they’ve suffered so horribly over… not just over the past decade, but ever since the Iraqi state was created in 1920.

They… in the interim constitution that was created, that was drawn up in March, under American guidance, there were written into that constitution some guarantees about… that would… some guarantees and protections of Kurdish self-rule and Kurdish autonomy. And the Kurds up in the northern part of the country, mountainous area, they’re very protective of those. And when the Iraqi leaders and the American officials and the people at the U.N. did not include that interim constitution in the U.N. Security Council resolution, the Kurds panicked, and they got very nervous, and that’s when this all started, because I think when they saw that, they became very concerned that these protections for them that are in this constitution are not going to be honored after June 30 and later on.

GWEN IFILL: Do the Kurdish leaders, particularly those who are part of the interim government, and others, do they believe that the United States sold them out on this U.N. Resolution?

DEXTER FILKINS: I think what you have… it’s an interesting relationship between the Americans and the Kurds. It’s one of… I think even now, it’s one of pretty warm friendship. The Kurds have developed, on their own in the North for 13 years now. And that was largely… if you remember, the Americans set up the no-fly zone. They more or less protected the area from incursions from Saddam’s people, and so there’s a lot of gratitude among the Kurds for that.

But I think what you’re seeing is that at least through the eyes of the Kurds, is because of this friendship and the warm relationship, the Americans have asked the Kurds, kind of turned to them on a couple of occasions and said, “look, you know, you know we’re friends. I need you to take a hit for me. I need you to compromise here. We’re trying to get the Shiites onboard, and the Sunnis, and we’re trying to make this whole thing work.”

And I think what’s… what… if you listen to the Kurds, what they say is, “the Americans have asked us to take too many hits for them, and we’ve made too many compromises. And we’re still friends, but we’re getting a little nervous here because we feel like our friendship is being stretched.”

GWEN IFILL: And their friendship is being stretched, they feel, at the expense… at their expense because of what’s happening in the southern part of Iraq with the Shiites, and in particular with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I think what you’re seeing… I mean, fundamentally what you’re seeing is a dispute between two groups, the Kurds on one hand and the Shiites on the other, who have both been traumatized through incredible expense over the decades. I think that the stakes are very high now because they see that the outlines of the new Iraqi state are being drawn up. And both of these groups, having suffered so much and having been so terribly victimized, are not in the mood to compromise. And they’re very, very wary.

They want to make sure that as this new state is drawn up and as it’s developed, that they get… you know, that they get what they feel they need. And in the case of the Shiites, it’s majority rule. They’re the majority, and if you talk to the Shiites, they say, “we’ve been excluded from power for 500 years, first by the Ottomans, then by the Brits and then by Saddam, and now is our time.” And so when… of all these guarantees that were written in for the Kurds into this constitution, one of which is essentially gives the Kurds a small minority veto power over the writing of the constitution, permanent constitution, which is supposed to be written next year, the Shiites say, “we can’t tolerate that. You know, now is our time. We’re the majority. We want to take power, and we can’t have once again a small minority in this country vetoing and preventing our rise to power.”

So they’re arguing over sort of language, you know, in the interim constitution, but it’s actually a much more fundamental conflict than that. I think that’s why it’s so troubling.

GWEN IFILL: And, meanwhile, there are still pretty significant physical conflicts happening on the ground in cities like Najaf even this week, even after the U.N. resolution, even after the interim government has been named.

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, there is. I mean, just last night and today, some of the Mahdi army in Najaf seized the police station. Actually what was the most interesting thing to me about it was that the Iraqi police appear to be fighting very hard, which is something they didn’t do back in April when this uprising started. So it’s kind of encouraging to see that, even though they had to surrender the police station.

The governor of Najaf has said, “we’re going to get it back, and we’re going to go in there. And we’ll call in the Americans if we need to, but we’re going to try to do it on our own.” But I think what you’re seeing, you know… Muqtada al-Sadr was excluded from the interim government, not surprisingly. And he was kind of excluded from the political process. And I think there’s actually some talk among the Shiite leaders that the way to really kind of bring him… to really quiet him down ultimately would be to bring him to the table and actually give him a seat, to give him a seat at the table and try to bring these guys into the mainstream.

I don’t know if that’s going to work, but at the moment, they’re not part of the interim government and they’re not part of the political process. So in a way, it’s not terribly surprising to go see that some of these guys are still willing to fight on.

GWEN IFILL: With these problems with the Kurds to the North and Shiites largely to the South, does this mean that the interim government that’s been created is more fragile than expected, or was this something which U.S. forces and the coalition expected to pretty much be a rocky road?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah, it is going to be a rocky road. I think the reception that… the interim government is actually, from what we can tell here, has gotten a reasonably good reception among the Iraqi people. They’ve basically said, “Well, we know some of these guys, and let’s stand back and kind of give them a chance.” But it’s an inherently weak government. That’s why, you know, there’s 140,000 foreign troops here who are essentially trying to help this government succeed. So, yeah, in that sense, you know, these foreign troops, after June 30 it won’t be called an occupation anymore, and the government theoretically would have the right to tell all these foreign troops, Americans and British troops, to leave. But I think without these troops here, this interim government probably wouldn’t survive.

GWEN IFILL: Dexter Filkins, thank you once again.