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The Winners and Losers of Iraq’s First National Election

February 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For more on the results of Iraq’s elections and the maneuvering that may follow, we turn to: Fouad Ajami, Director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; and Vali Nasr, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Professor Nasr, what’s your overall impression of the election results?

VALI NASR: Well, I think it’s a good day for the Shiites and the Kurds, but it’s not a good day for Iraq as a whole because the elections have highlighted rather than erased sectarian divisions in Iraq. What we’ve ended up in the parliament is not a parliament of political parties but essentially two communities that now dominate over 70 percent of the parliament.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ajami, what do you make of it?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, Ray, the view I suppose here from New York is that this is a very good day for all Iraqis. In fact the story we led with from Beirut the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri tells us what the alternative is. Arabs know too well the spectacle of crimes, the spectacle of assassinations.

Now the spectacle of ballots being counted and the spectacle of people bargaining over seats in the national assembly and the spectacle of a country in fact beginning to apportion power, that’s a new thing. I think it’s a good day for all Iraqis. The Sunnis have a chance to come in. They will be invited in. They will come in. But for now we must hail this day as a signal day in Iraqi history.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you respond to Professor Nasr’s critique that you have a very small number of parties dominating almost all the seats in the new assembly?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think we know that’s true but if you take a look at the results I mean if you look at the so-called Shia victory it wasn’t sweeping. It was less than 50 percent. If you take look at the role of the Kurds, the Kurds are secular. The Kurds are liberal. The Kurds have enormous experience building a homeland for the last fourteen, fifteen years under Anglo American protection.

And they will bring all this to them –with them to this process. Even Prime Minister Allawi didn’t do so poorly. He has 40 seats. And it is really parliamentary politics at its best. Again and again, we are talking about the Sunnis. In our piece we showed Adnan Pachachi complaining about the process not being inclusive. Pachachi was on the ballot. He won one seat, himself. He had no coattails; so it’s really — we must give this political process its time.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nasr, why don’t you respond to that, that idea that the Shia victory though decisive was not sweeping. They may still need other parties in the parliament to govern.

VALI NASR: Well, that’s true. And actually the practice of voting has been important for Iraq and the Arab world. But the reality is that the Shia vote does not represent a political party’s victory in the parliament, the Shiites voted for a communal bloc that was supported by Ayatollah Sistani in order to protect Shiites’ position in Iraq.

Now what will emerge from this scenario that we see is that you’re going to have an administrative government in Baghdad that’s going to rule over Iraq and provide administration, but the real power in Iraq is going to be exercised from Najaf and Sulaymaniyah. And given the fact that the Shiites did not dominate and the Kurds have such a large number in the parliament makes it very difficult to have a powerful center ruling out of Baghdad.

And in fact, if anything, Iraq might have a very weak center and very powerful provinces that will govern over themselves. That might be fine, but that’s a very different conception than the one that we have been working with so far.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you as confident as Professor Ajami that the Sunnis will be invited in and play their rightful role in the drafting of the new constitution?

VALI NASR: I am confident that they will be invited in. But the problem is that because they did not participate in elections, we really do not know who their leaders are. The whole purpose of participating in an election is that a community or a political party would produce leaders with whom you can negotiate particularly because the constitutional process will involve a lot of hard bargaining.

It is important to know who are the leaders of the Sunnis. The other part of voting is that when a community sends its representatives to a parliament, when those representatives negotiate and agree to things, that community is bound by what its representatives have agreed to. Since there is no Sunni leadership that has a mandate from its population, the Shiites or the Kurds may negotiate with them. It’s not binding on the Sunnis. And it’s not very clear that Pachachi or any other Sunni leader really actually represents the Sunnis.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ajami.

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, you know this is a very surly view of history. In fact, we have these people who have been oppressed and brutalized for nearly four decades, and now comes this demand from my colleague from in Washington who wants this whole process to be perfect.

I am not worried about Sulaymaniyah having a piece of the action in modern Iraq. Sulaymaniyah, by the way, is in the North. It’s the base of Jalal Talibani. I know Mr. Talibani. If this man is going to be president of Iraq it would be a thrilling day for Iraq. He’s a decent man. He’s a secular man. He’s pro American. He wants the best for Iraq.

So the fact that Najaf will have a piece of the action as well, that is not unusual. Nor do I believe that Iraq is going to be ruled out of Najaf. Nor do I think this is the last — this is the election that will end all elections. If this process plays out, there is going to be the drafting of a constitution by August. There’s going to be the ratification of this constitution in October. And there’s going to be a new election in December.

The Sunnis can have another crack at this when they are good and ready, when they are represented. And as far as someone like Alwar, being the leader of Sunni Arabs from Mosul, now this is one of the most decent men in Iraq; again secular, open to the Shia, open to the Kurds, wanting the best for his country. Let’s give these people a chance. Let’s not judge them. Let’s not impose these draconian democratic hurdles that they have to meet so early in the hour and so early in this new order.

RAY SUAREZ: Well you said you’re not too worried about Sulaymaniyah and Najaf, the Shia and Kurdish power centers having a piece of the action. But are there things that the Kurds want that the Shias aren’t necessarily ready to give and vice versa?

FOUAD AJAMI: Right. To be honest with you, there are things that the Kurds want which I like. For example, the Kurds have sent a message: the red line to the Sunni Arabs no return to Arab nationalism. This is a bi-national country of Arabs and Kurds. Their message to the Shia Arab, no theocracy, no excessive rule for the clergy in political life, so there is Kurdish influence in Iraq, so be it.

I welcome Kurdish influence because it will be democratic. It will be secular. It will be towards federalism. It will tend toward federalism. Now we know that in their heart of hearts maybe the Kurds would like their own state. But the Kurdish leaders are realists. They know what the world can bear and can’t bear. And they know that they will need to stay within Iraq in order to keep the Turks and the Iranians and the Syrians out of their affairs.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nasr, we talk at a time when the United States is said to be turning up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. Can a new government of Iraq be both aligned with Iran and pro U.S. at the same time?

VALI NASR: Well, that’s going to be a challenge before the Iraqi leaders. Without a doubt, the current set-up in Iraq is going to be more friendly towards Iran. Mr. Talibani has had relations with Tehran. That does not mean that he’s a stooge of Tehran but means that he has had lines of communication with Tehran and a good portion of the UIA in the South which now sits in the parliament has spent a good amount of time in Iran during years of exile and the party Sciri, which is a component of UIA has won very large in Baghdad.

And all of these power brokers will have good relations with Iran. And it’s very clear that Iran welcomes what is coming forth in Iraq. It views the victory of both the Kurds and the Shiites as meaning that there will be a government in Baghdad that is more friendly towards Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about Professor Ajami’s point that the Kurds having a big influence in the new assembly is probably a good thing given the way Iraqi politics are breaking out, and his confidence that they’ll be able to accomplish all the business they need to do during the year of 2005?

VALI NASR: Well, we hope that that will come to pass. And there is no doubt that the Kurdish influence is good in many regards for Iraq, also along the lines that he mentioned namely putting pressure on Arab nationalism. That is something also that Iran welcomes that Iraq does not go back to a Sunni-led Arab nationalism.

But the key question is whether the parliamentarians will act at parliamentarians trying to represent popular political programs and trying to reflect socioeconomic demands or whether they will act as representatives of just ethnic demands — that the Kurds will look to maximize power for the Kurds and the Shiite in the South for the Shiites. That may well still work for Iraq but it will make for a very different kind of Iraq with a very different balance of power than the one that that country has been used to.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ajami, what about that idea that this is a very stiff assignment for a political class that’s still very new and untested?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, but that’s it. As they say of the longest journeys they must begin somewhere. This is just the first step toward a democratic Iraq, toward a federal Iraq, toward a secular Iraq, toward an Iraq that’s not filled with terror and mass graves. I mean, this is a break for the Iraqi people. And one should just give it time. One should trust in the willingness and the ability of the Iraqi people to draw a line for the Iranians.

I’m not worried about Iran dominating Iraqi politics. The Iraqi body politic will put Iran and the clerics and the example of Iran at the distance. None of the Iraqi leaders I know believe that Iran is a great example for Iraq to follow. Indeed, they have a different idea of Iraq. And so from the Shia leaders, from the Kurdish leaders and from the Sunni leaders who understand that their community must now forsake hegemony and participate in an open Iraq, they all understand the magnitude of the challenge and the difficulty of it.

RAY SUAREZ: and Professor Nasr, some of the men who had been expected to be big players in a new Iraq, Adnan Pachachi, Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, are they yesterday’s men after these votes have been counted?

VALI NASR: Well not necessarily. But one of the things that Dr. Ajami also alluded to is how do you build a government in Iraq. Whoever controls the government in Baghdad will have a position of building a political machine that can dominate politics in the future; and it really comes down to whether in the coming years those who will form Iraq’s government which are going to be largely dominated by the United Iraqi Alliance of Ayatollah Sistani are actually able to deliver to the population both on the constitutional issues and also on the issues of governance. If they are not, it is very likely that Iraqis will turn to an alternate leadership which will be coming from the men that you mentioned.

RAY SUAREZ: Professors Nasr and Ajami, thank you both.

FOUAD AJAMI: Thank you.