Iraqi Government Grapples with Insurgent Violence
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RAY SUAREZ: We get that from Phebe Marr, an independent scholar and senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, a federally funded independent think tank in Washington. She’s been analyzing Iraq for this program since before the first Gulf War. Marr spent three weeks in Baghdad and Basra last month interviewing members of the new Iraqi leadership as part of a study looking at the political future of that country. A historian of modern Iraq, Phebe Marr was making her second trip to the country in recent months. She visited Kurdish northern Iraq in December, and she joins us now.
Phebe Marr, looking at the press coming out of Iraq, you hear everything from this is a country that’s on the verge of slipping out of America’s grasp to a country that’s on the verge of being ready to stand on its own two feet. How do you see it?
PHEBE MARR: Oh, I see it very much in the middle. Those are two extremes. It’s going to be a race against time, but I think the Iraqis and the United States ultimately are going to win that.
There’s good news and bad news, and you have to learn to balance them. Sometimes we get only the bad news of the insurgency. We don’t see people trying to rebuild civil society, trying to cope, getting on with their lives. But it’s — I won’t say it’s an uneven struggle, but it is a struggle.
RAY SUAREZ: Outside of the places where there’s still a hot shooting war going on, does the government of Iraq feel like it’s in day-to-day control of large parts of the country, the things that a government does?
PHEBE MARR: Well, I think government has gotten a lot weaker. Three things strike me about what has happened in Iraq. One of them is very good. There’s a real political process going on in Baghdad and parts of Iraq. There’s a real government, there’s a real political parties, real people talking. And actually I was able to sit in the ante room, in the lobby where the national assembly was meeting, and you can see them. They come out, they talk — not only to the press, they talk to one another; they talk to people like me. Nothing like that, of course, ever went on in Saddam’s Iraq.
The second process is one of decentralization. While this is going on in Baghdad, government control is very weak. It’s weak in Baghdad, and it’s weak in the provinces. In fact, that provides an opportunity for the provinces, if they can seize it, to develop their own local government. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do with it. But I would say government capacity of any kind — getting electricity on, getting the garbage collected, getting security — is weaker today, certainly than it was under Saddam’s rule, but weaker than it was, say, about a year ago.
And the third process, of course, that we need to watch very carefully is the tendency toward what I’m calling cultural identity politics. The old Iraq was based on a middle class, a sense of national identity — too much nationalism, of course, under Saddam. Now there is a political vacuum, and there’s a struggle for power going on, but also a struggle for identity. And as we saw in the result of the election, people are tending more and more to vote on ethic and sectarian grounds. This probably needs to be reduced somewhat, and we need to work on rebuilding a sense of genuine Iraqi identity.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, does that ethnic consciousness that you talked about, and the earlier decentralization that you talked about, are those really circumstances that come more by accident than design, because Baghdad is so physically isolated from many other parts of the country by the fighting?
PHEBE MARR: I would say it comes about because of two things: We owe it through not only a regime, but most of the pillars in society. We really created a complete vacuum and people turn to traditional groupings under those circumstances. The Kurds in the North, of course, have been governing themselves for almost 15 years now, and the Shia parties have tended to identify as Shia. But the insurgency is also doing that.
The insurgency is, of course, strongest around Baghdad in the North and the South and in the so-called Sunni Triangle. So that is isolating Baghdad, which is the most mixed population in Iraq. It’s got Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, everyone. And like all big cities, these people intermix, they even intermarry. But the insurgency is cutting Baghdad off from the North, from the South, and so it’s tending to accentuate both the provincial emphasis as well as this ethnic and sectarian identity, because the demography of Iraq is such of course as we know that the Kurds are in the North mainly, Shia are mostly in the South, and the Sunni population is in the Anbar and other provinces where the insurgency is raging.
RAY SUAREZ: With the ascendance of so many people who were locked out of power before, is there more of an emphasis of coming from the right ethnic group and right religious subgroup than whether or not you know how to run a water works or a power plant or lay blacktop on a road?
PHEBE MARR: That’s one of the complaints people have of the new government, but we shouldn’t go to extremes there, either. The election tended to produce the following result. One major alliance, which is predominantly Shia, although it has mixed Shia groups won — that is to say, they got a little over 50 percent of the government, and they occupy now key positions in the government and in the constitutional committee.
The second group, of course, is the Kurds, who got about 26 percent of the seats in parliament, which really quite over-represents their numbers. The Sunni population didn’t participate either because of boycott or intimidation, and so they’re relatively absent.
Now there is a third group here. I would call them kind of the centralist group, secularists, people who perhaps identify more as Iraqis than as a sectarian group, and that vote seems to have gone to (Ayad) Allawi, who got about 14 percent. So what you have is a shrinkage of the kind of secular — what shall we say?
RAY SUAREZ: Technocratic?
PHEBE MARR: Technocratic group at the expense of people who voted for sectarian and ethnic identity. But that doesn’t mean the sectarian and ethnic tickets don’t have qualified professional people.
But what’s happening is ministers go into a ministry and they appoint people they know, people from their party, people from their group, and they will tend to be of the same ethnic and sectarian groups. So certain ministries are now getting set aside for this group or that group. It’s beginning to look a lot more like Lebanon.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, very quickly then before we go: Is there room, is there space, yet in the Iraqi imagination for a loyal opposition?
PHEBE MARR: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: People who are loyal to the idea of an Iraqi government, but don’t necessarily like the guys who are in power.
PHEBE MARR: I think you are going to see a very interesting development here, and that is the Allawi ticket, which is now emerging as perhaps the first loyal opposition in Iraq, which is going to take a position, which stands apart from sectarianism, centrism and so on.
RAY SUAREZ: Former interim Prime Minister Allawi.
PHEBE MARR: That’s correct. I doubt he can win, but if he gets a good slice of the vote, it could constitute a very interesting legal opposition to this trend towards sectarianism and ethnic identity.
RAY SUAREZ: Phebe Marr, thanks for joining us.