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Democracy Still Fragile in Iraq, Where Sectarian Tensions Reach Breaking Point

September 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Recent bombings and shootings have raised doubts over the effectiveness of Iraq's coalition government to bridge divides between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Margaret Warner talks to the National Endowment for Democracy's Laith Kubba and Indiana University's Feisal Istrabadi on the challenges to ending violence and sharing power.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more now, I’m joined by Dr. Laith Kubba. He served as Iraqi government spokesman in 2005, and now he’s director for the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy.

And Feisal Istrabadi, who served as former deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007, he’s now director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Indiana University.

And, Laith Kubba, beginning with you, what does this death sentence and the reaction to it tell us about the state of play in Iraq right now, particularly politically?

LAITH KUBBA, former Iraq government spokesman: Well, it’s obviously a sign.

It’s going to raise the temperature at a difficult moment. I think if it happen two years ago, maybe Iraq can bear it and it will pass. The fact it is happening now, in the context of Iraq’s internal problems and what’s going on in the region, is worrying.

You have a huge bloc, which is a bloc that more or less won the largest votes in Iraq, has put its weight behind the vice president. I think other Sunni leaders are worried, if this passes, then they might be next on the list.

I think the Kurds have been unhappy for a while. So, all of this is going to raise the temperature. And bear in mind, while the people themselves, the Iraqis, can live without sectarian tension, they’re OK, but their politicians are playing those sentiments. And this is what is worrying. And the timing it of it is most worrying.

MARGARET WARNER: Feisal Istrabadi, how do you see it?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, former deputy Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations: I agree with much of what Laith has said.

The problem is that, as the political leaders in Iraq continue to play these sectarian games, you also see that reflected in the broader population. It is very worrying.

It seems to me a sign that Maliki doesn’t intend to engage in reconciliation and in power-sharing, instead, that he intends to assert his continuing dominance over Iraq. And that, too, is a worrying sign.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point, Laith Kubba, the criticism that Maliki really is not sharing power? Where does the truth of that lie?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I think Maliki…

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, there are some Sunnis in the coalition government, are there not?

LAITH KUBBA: Right.

And I think, to be, like, really accurate here, Maliki, by his instinct, realized that a lot of Iraqis want a strong state. They want to build state institutions. They want security. And this will not come cost-free. So, I think maybe he took advantage, like any other politician, of pushing the envelope there. And every…

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning that the Iraqis wanted stability above all, and so he thought, even if it means having a strongman.

LAITH KUBBA: Right.

And I think opinion polls, especially among the Shias, gives him positive feedback that the more than he is taking those daring risks, he’s actually gaining popularity. It might be at the expense of other important things, but, by and large, the feedback he is getting is encouraging him to go that way.

Now, again, taken out of context, you might say this is OK. But, in reality, Iraq is still fragile. Democracy is still a work in progress. You don’t have a media that will keep an eye on power. You don’t have a strong judicial system. So you’re having violations. And in an atmosphere where power is politicized so much, this becomes a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Feisal Istrabadi, no group claimed responsibility for these bombings, this coordinated — these coordinated bombings on Sunday. But are they part and parcel of the same sectarian tensions politically?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I think so.

We always say that al-Qaida is responsible for these things, and it probably is. And from — and, in the next few days, it may or may not claim responsibility. The issue is, where does the average Sunni, say, in Anbar Province, which direction does he decide to go?

If he sees that whether he votes or whether he stays at home, or whether he votes for sectarian candidates or whether he votes for a nonsectarian nationalist candidate, and whether they lose the election or whether they win the elections, absolutely no change occurs in the governing structure of the country, that individual may well start to look the other way as al-Qaida attempts to reinfiltrate in Iraq.

And that’s the real danger, as I see it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Laith Kubba, what’s the overlap between what is happening in Iraq right now and what’s happening in Syria?

LAITH KUBBA: A great, great deal.

Number one, sectarianism in Syria is now fully fledged there. And I think this is going to resonate in Iraq. Do not forget violence in Iraq is still an active memory. It’s not even a residual memory. This can easily be reignited in Iraq.

And, in fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people crossing the borders both ways. Now, if Iran strategically loses Syria, which is where things are heading, Iran will increase and consolidate its presence in Iraq, because that is — it’s going to become a vital frontier for Iran.

So, that fight is going to move into Iraq. And we have already seen tension with Turkey. So the spillover of what’s happening in Syria will resonate not only amongst Iraqi politicians, but it will cut much deeper inside Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Feisal Istrabadi, how do you see the connection with Syria? Is it that al-Qaida in Iraq has been exporting fighters and weapons into Syria, or is it a blowback from Syria into Iraq, or both?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I think it’s a little bit of both.

We have had periods where the current Syrian regime has allowed al-Qaida to use Syrian territory as a launching ground to enter Iraq through the early period of the U.S. invasion. There may be some cross-border going — you know, going the other way, but, fundamentally, it’s a fairly porous border.

And what you have to keep in mind that the Sunni of Iraq will enjoy the support of most of Iraq’s neighbors, all of them with the possible exception of Iran. This is a very worrying sign if you are trying to engender genuine stability, not stability at the barrel of a gun.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Laith Kubba, does that mean that this can really fragment into sort of a broader Sunni-Shia conflict in the region?

LAITH KUBBA: I think, as I said, the temperature has risen. And we’re getting closer to a break point.

I think, as far as al-Qaida, just to underline, it’s a living organization. It’s finding an appropriate climate. It will breed, spread, and re-root itself. And it will touch Iraq. It’s a totally independent factor.

But then you go into the other politics, I think, that Feisal mentioned, which is there is the Shia-Sunni issue. And there are Iraq’s neighbors who all are looking at the strategic balance against Iran. And Iraq is going to be a frontier for that fight.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s not a pretty picture.

Well, Laith Kubba and Feisal Istrabadi, thank you both.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Thank you.