On March 27, 2008, the U.S. Department of State’s International Information Programs in Washington D.C., the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center jointly held an international videoconference seminar focusing on Iraq. Brief biographies of the participants can be found at the end of the article. This seminar is part of the GLORIA Center’s Experts Forum series.
Barry Rubin: For good reasons, people are often focused on the military side of the war and the issues in Iraq, but the political side determines what will happen in terms of the fighting, its duration, and direction. We want to focus here on Iraqi politics, its effect on the war and stability of the country, and on U.S. policy at this very critical crossroad.
Amatzia Baram: Had we held this meeting a year ago, I would have been pessimistic, perhaps even very pessimistic–but this past year–between early 2007 and early 2008–made me, let’s say, very cautiously optimistic. First of all, the fact that three very important laws (amnesty, province-center relations, and national budget for 2008) could finally be passed by Iraq’s parliament by an overwhelming majority–as a result of a compromise reached after some very creative thinking–is a great achievement. Everything is dependent upon what happens next, but this is still a very important sign.
In addition, they passed very important laws a little earlier changing the de-Ba’thification rules and another concerning pensions for those who cannot get back into government service. So I see some movement; it is slow but moving forward. And the reason why they were able to do this is a substantial decrease in intercommunal violence. There is still a lot of ordinary crime, but political violence has subsided. It hasn’t disappeared though. About a year ago, every day about 100 Iraqis were dying as a result of political violence. Today, I would say the number is maybe 30 or 35. It is still far too much, but in Iraq, where it was three times as much, this is a sign of progress. A key factor is the U.S. decision that came from the field to start working with tribes of Anbar and later other tribes in the Sunni areas. Soon work will start with southern (Shi’i) tribes as well.
Another reason is the surge, and a third is that Muqtada al-Sadr, for his own reasons, decided to declare a ceasefire for six months and then another six months. We see this decline as a result of these three factors. I see this as progress. It’s very brittle, it’s vulnerable, we know that, but still, it’s very important because of the results. In April 2008, a new spate of violence erupted as a result of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to wrest parts of Basra from the control of the Mahdi Army. While successful in Basra (not without U.S. and British support), as could be expected, this challenge to the status quo provoked Muqtada al-Sadr (now in Iran) and battles erupted in Sadr City (and less so in other towns) between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government (and American) troops. However, this violence is limited to Shi’i areas and is a result of Maliki’s conscious decision. This is the price for the wish to impose central control on the southern port city and, in the process, to strengthen the position of his party, the Da’wa, and of the Hakims’ party, ISCI (and its militia, the Badr Brigade) at the expense of Muqtada’s Mahdi Army.
Eventually, parliament will need to pass the hydrocarbon law, but right now the central government is allocating a more or less equitable share of the oil revenues to each province–after of course some is taken for central government needs. What we see here is something very interesting. The immediate controversy today is not between the Sunni tribes of Anbar, as organized in Majalis al–Sahwa (the Awakening Councils), and the Shi’a-controlled central government. The tribes don’t deny the fact that the center is allocating Anbar revenues equitably. Their main complaint is directed against the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is heading a 44-member Sunni parliamentary coalition, of course. They say that these people who are controlling the local government in Anbar, seated in Ramadi, are taking the money and not enough money is going to the tribes. So today, funnily enough, we have a Sunni-Sunni controversy.
There is another problem: the government offensive in Basra. If this is something designed to impose government control over the Basra town and province, that’s good, but they must disarm all the militias, not just the Mahdi Army. There are about five militias there, also including a number of tribal militias. If they don’t do that, it’s just like the government against the Mahdi Army, and in my mind that’s not enough. Government control of Basra must be imposed 100 percent; no armed men should be allowed to operate around Basra, unless they are fully incorporated into the central system.
I see a number of dangers. Basra is one, as are the conflicts between the Sunnis and Shi’a, and between the Sahwa and the central government. It’s crucial that the central government goes on with its initial intention to absorb soldiers, militia men, from the Sunni areas into the government-sponsored and controlled bodies–the army, the police, and so on. It’s necessary. It has to happen. In addition to that, because it won’t be able to absorb too many, a possible solution would be to build something like a state-financed local guard force in each province–along the lines of the American National Guard. The young men who are now serving in the Sahwa but who cannot be incorporated into state-sponsored security bodies must be absorbed into the economic system or violence will erupt again.
Basically, the very important issue is to create a connection between the Sunni tribes of Anbar, Salah al-Din and elsewhere, and the central government; providing jobs and positions of authority for their representatives in the central government.
Ellen Laipson: My analysis converges with that of Amatzia’s, certainly on a couple of his bottom lines, namely the importance of not wallowing in pessimism and to try to understand some of the incremental changes in a positive direction occurring in Iraqi political culture. And the second is the absolutely critical need to connect the dots between the bottom-up things that we have seen as part of the surge strategy and the Sahwa phenomenon in the Sunni areas with the central government.
So, let me start by sharing with you what I think are some of the broad analytic approaches being discussed in Washington about Iraq. We see some very fine reporting coming from both military and civilians participating in provincial-level political activities–from democracy-promoting NGOs who talk about their interactions with Iraqi actors, and visiting Iraqis to Washington. Now we are getting some summaries of the Iraqi parliament sessions. We are trying to monitor both this bottom-up and top-down political activity occurring in Iraq.
On the bottom-up thing, I quite agree with Amatzia that it is significant there was a change of heart in the Sunni tribal areas and that we have now newly empowered some of the municipal-level authorities. This is not all being driven, directed, manipulated, if you will, by outside actors–the United States–but some of it is spontaneous and authentic on the part of Iraqis. The problem is with the empowerment of these municipal and provincial-level figures: How do they relate? How do we make sure that they see a central government in Baghdad as a meaningful institution in their lives?
There is this danger that we have created a sense of autonomy at the municipal and provincial level and that they are not organically linked enough to politics in Baghdad. Amatzia mentioned that jobs are one way to connect the dots and allow people serving in municipal-level gendarmes and security forces to join national-level institutions. Another approach would be to have some of these municipal figures actually run for parliament. We are, after all, only a year and a half away from new national elections in Iraq so we might see some turnover, or at least encourage some of the people who have become important players in particularly the Sunni provinces, but also in other parts of Iraq as well to compete for national office. Maybe some of the good experiences that they have had at the local level can be transferred to Baghdad.
We’re watching a lot of bottom-up activity; we’re feeling reasonably positive about it. The score for top-down activities is considerably weaker than the bottom-up; and people do still worry and fret that the national institutions have not coalesced and that we are not yet seeing them achieve some of the benchmarks that both Congress and the Bush Administration set for them.
But let me walk through a short list of some of things that would give us a more nuanced appreciation of what’s happening in Iraq. The first is on Prime Minister Maliki. You will recall a year or two ago there was very strong criticism of him, of whether he was up to the job and whether he was in fact behaving as a sectarian actor, had very little cross-sect appeal, and was not functioning very effectively as a national leader. People are taking him more seriously, they think he has learned on the job, and he is seen as a more credible figure and remembers now when he speaks in public that he is prime minister of all Iraqis and not just someone who by luck–or bad luck–emerged as the candidate of a compromise Shi’i political process. The national figures are learning on the job and performing at a higher level of effectiveness.
The second is the effectiveness of parliament. Amatzia spoke of our need to differentiate between just whether they passed a law or not and to look at it in terms of executive authority: Are these issues being dealt with effectively? I do think the distribution of oil revenue on a population basis has proven to be relatively stabilizing. I don’t hear as much turmoil among the Kurds or other groups that they are not getting their fair share. I do think they have worked around, if you will, the impasse in the parliament. And I quite agree with Amatzia that we have to be careful in our expectations that this be harmonious, consensus-driven politics. If that’s not the test case elsewhere why should we be having a higher test for the Iraqi parliament? The fact that they came up with some political package that dealt with the deep divide over these three issues is at least partial progress.
One thing I worry a little bit about is when the next elections come we could see a lot of turnover and be starting all over again with brand new parliamentarians who have no experience. So there’s a tradeoff here between the learning curve this first Iraqi parliament has gone through and the likelihood that Iraqi voters will throw some of these members out. I think that Iraqis in general like the fact that they have a constitution that’s real and credible, but don’t necessarily like the politicians. So there is a real chance for a large turnover. So you’re constantly having this phenomenon of freshmen members who don’t necessarily know how to work together.
A third issue is the chronic tension within the Shi’i community, and this is the big battle for the future of Iraq. We don’t yet know who will prevail in defining the majority community’s political complexion. Muqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire has given us a reprieve. We’ve been living in a lull. But I am perhaps more worried than Amatzia that the flare-up in Basra and the immediate reaction in Baghdad augurs poorly for what Sadr is up to, that Sadr in the end is the adversary of Maliki and of the Shi’i political coalition in Baghdad more than any other factor. We could still see an intra-Shi’i war that maybe the Sunnis will sit out, maybe Kurds will sit out; but there is still a contest for the dominant Shi’i political culture. I am worried that Sadr still has a lot of resentment, and his followers are young people prepared to do something about it.
The U.S.-Kurdish romance is in a slightly different phase now. Not just because of Turkish policy but because of the Kurds perhaps overreaching a bit in their demands and their expectations. I’m a little bit worried that we’ve been counting on the Kurdish north being the most stable, prosperous, predictable part of Iraq, and I just want to put a question mark there. We’ve managed to delay a battle on the Kirkuk referendum, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet on what the Kurdish politicians are going to demand.
Last, I would say that in Washington the discussion that “isn’t the real requirement here for a brand new political bargain?” is still being heard. You hear people introducing what I think is a crazy notion that we should somehow drag Iraqis to some safe locale where we make them rethink their political bargain. I personally think that it’s way too late for that to occur. The Iraqis have a constitution, they have a political culture now, and it’s not the role of outside actors to try to start all over again.
David Mack: I might just say something on the question that Amatzia raised about what’s happening in Basra. I tend to take a slightly darker view of it as not being simply a reassertion of central government authority in the region, but part of a more long-term struggle for power between the two dominant Shi’i parties in the coalition–the Da’wa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq–against other claimants on the loyalty of Iraqi Shi’a. They pretty much won the battle against sectarian claimants for the loyalty of significant parts of the Iraqi establishment–or at least they won that for now–but they clearly have not succeeded in making great inroads in the populist support from the less privileged classes of Shi’a that go to Muqtada al-Sadr. They clearly have not expanded the zone of their influence beyond the elite in the Shi’i religious community to include the various tribal elements and they clearly face a determined resistance in Basra, in particular from the Fadhila, a breakaway Sadrist movement with its own view of how power should be divided in the country.
I think we have to face the prospect that however much we may prefer an assertion of Baghdad’s sovereignty over southern Iraq, that it will mean greater influence not only for the central government parties but also of greater influence in that area long-term for Iran. I think the Iranians have hedged their bets; they have basically been trying to support all groups, but they have more reliable centers for influence within the current government and within the Islamic Supreme Council, the militias, and the Badr Brigades than they do from this varied group of claimants jousting for political power not only in Basra but in the rest of southern Iraq.
Barry Rubin: I agree with Ambassador Mack and I’d just like to extend it very briefly to the pessimistic side. First of all, everything said about Iraqi government cohesion is extremely fragile, can break down at any time. It’s not institutionalized either in terms of institutions or in terms of attitudes, and therefore it could prove to be extremely temporary. In fact, there are reasons one could argue it is temporary. Second, it rests on extremely high levels of American forces there, which, without getting into American political developments, is not something that can be taken for granted permanently. And it’s not clear to what extent the Iraqi system has improved or to what extent the kind of results you point to come from the high level of American forces. So obviously while the situation looks better, I’m not sure it’s changed that much in a structural way and in a way that is likely to be lasting. And while the southern aspect is the clearest, to that you can also add–we’ll hear more on this in a moment–the Sunni and tribal aspect. I don’t see any irreversible change.
Ronen Zeidel: I’d like to talk about Sunnis at a crossroads. I think there is a danger to one of the most dramatic outcomes of the April 2003 invasion, namely the construction of Sunni identity in Iraq. Sunni identity has not always been there. Sunnis have not always embraced the identity that characterizes them right now, but this identity–which was a success until about a year and a half ago–now faces some serious challenges.
The most serious challenge comes from tribalism, the phenomenon of the Sahwa. Tribes are a real challenge to all those trying to form a cohesive Sunni identity.
The second challenge comes from al-Qai’da. It is more marginal than the first one, both because the activities of al-Qa’ida are highly resented by a great majority of Iraqis. It establishes minor local Islamic states and tries to form some sort of relations with the local population, unsuccessfully, but still, it is a challenge to all those trying to create a cohesive Sunni identity.
The third danger comes from the waning star of the Sunni politicians. Sunni politicians were seriously engaged in this process, and for a time they were quite successful. But now they are disillusioned, almost depressed by the state of things. And this is another danger to Sunni identity.
The fourth danger is the indecisiveness of the Association of Islamic Scholars, still not in or out of the political process.
And another challenge is the growing and significant number of Sunnis who would rather be called Iraqis and shed the sectarian identity altogether. More Sunnis adopt this kind of identity than others, certainly more Sunnis than Kurds and more Sunnis than Shi’a. And it is a significant number of Iraqis. You must remember that not all Sunnis voted for sectarian parties in the 2005 elections, and a large number of them voted for Iyad Alawi’s party, the Iraqi List; and Iyad Alawi of course is Shi’a.
Still, a great majority of Sunnis continue to manifest a sectarian pattern of political behavior, as shown by the many polls. Now if you want conciliation and stability, a coherent Sunni community is needed and not all those challenges and dangers–some perpetuated by the Americans. The Kurdish camp is quite coherent; the Shi’i camp, despite its problems, is more coherent. Sunni identity is more brittle than all the other identities because it is relatively new.
Paradoxically, by empowering Sunni tribes U.S. policy in the past two years greatly contributed to weakening Sunni identity and community. This is perceived by the leading Sunni politicians and by many other Sunnis as well.
While in the short-term and in some areas this policy is responsible for the diminution of terrorist activities, in the longterm, it threatens to suck the Americans in. They have two allies–the Iraqi government and the tribal Sunni element–which are rivals. This is the catch: a misplaced confidence that these internal differences can be reconciled. Yet there is the real danger that the minute the U.S. presence has gone, these two will clash. These internal problems will eventually have to be solved by the Iraqis themselves, but by putting oneself at the nexus of this internal conflict, U.S. policy makes the Iraqis more dependent on itself, making it harder to leave successfully.
What will happen when, say, Maliki will not be able to carry out his decree of allowing 18,000 tribal people into the military service? He has already been severely criticized for that promise. What will happen then? The tribal people will blame the Americans. Maliki will blame the Americans as well. And his critics from within the Iraqi government will also blame the Americans. It will happen. It will happen in the short-term.
Now, ironically, what the Americans are doing unwillingly, I would say, is what Saddam did willingly after the 1991 intifada, namely, empowering the tribes in order to weaken sectarianism. However, you the Americans need those sectarian feelings. You need them in order to have a coherent camp in future reconciliation talks.
Amatzia Baram: But the main complaint of the Anbar tribal groups, the Sahwa, the leadership, is against the local government in Anbar. That local government was elected, democratically I would say, in the election campaign, but they correctly state that they did not participate in that election campaign. So they didn’t have their input, and they don’t trust these guys in Ramadi because they say that they are taking all the money. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but this is a problem.
So you have here different interests pushing people in sometimes opposite directions. Is it not a bad thing, for example, that they turn to Maliki and say, “We want you to recruit some of our people to the government, to the national army, to the national police, and so on.” And he agreed. However, when he agreed, look what happened. The main objection came from the minister of interior, who is Shi’a, because it looks to him like it endangers the center if you strengthen the province too much. But it also angered the minister of defense, and he is a Sunni and a member of the religious Islamic coalition. He is worried lest such an infusion of Sahwa men into the armed forces would weaken his own control and his party’s clout as representatives of the Sunni community in Iraqi politics.
Ronen Zeidel: A former officer of Saddam Hussein.
Amatzia Baram: Yes. So he is against it. More important than being a former officer in Saddam’s army, he is a member of a Sunni coalition which now has 44 members in parliament. It’s not a lot out of 275, but 44 is still something. It’s the largest Sunni party. He feels that the more of these guys you get into the military, the less power his Sunni coalition will have in the center. You have a Sunni-Sunni argument, and both of them are turning to the prime minister, who is a Shi’a, to be some kind of an arbiter. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know.
Is it bad, for example, that Muqtada al-Sadr’s group is for a stronger central government? They don’t like at all the idea of all nine Shi’i provinces uniting into a mega-Shi’i zone or region. They don’t like it, but the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), today called the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)–controlled more or less by the Hakim family and including the Badr Brigade–actually does want this kind of mega-Shi’i conglomerate of provinces. Is it bad that Muqtada al-Sadr–aside from his violence and Taliban-style treatment of women–has a deal with the Sunnis who don’t like the idea of a mega-Shi’i area, so they have a common cause? So having a common cause between a Shi’i faction and many or most of the Sunnis against another Shi’i faction–is that a bad thing? Having a common cause between a certain Sunni faction–it will be perhaps a party–and the prime minister, who happens to be a Shi’a, against another Sunni party–is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.
I’ll just say, Ronen, I can see the point you are trying to make about the need for sectarian coherence, and it makes sense. But I think it equally makes sense to say: “Wait a minute! Don’t we really want cross-faction, cross-sect, bridges?” I think we do.
I’ll just end by saying something about the elections. In the last election campaign, many people did not participate, and that was a problem. Some of them participated but they didn’t know exactly what they were doing. I believe that the next election campaign, which will be in less than two years from now, is going to be fascinating. Even before that, in October 2008, there will be a provincial elections campaign. What Ellen said about new faces coming to parliament in two years is absolutely correct and could be very confusing. But still I think it would be much better. Why? First of all, people will know better what they are doing. Some experience has been accumulated. Second, everybody will participate this time around. People learned the hard way that remaining aloof is damaging their interests. Provincial elections too could be very important. At least in Anbar you will have a group that will define itself as Sahwa; they’ll form a party, they’ll run, and they’ll win. And the Muslim Brothers (the Islamic Iraqi Party) and their coalition will run and will win. You’ll have a much more balanced result and again, nothing wrong with that.
I’m a bit pessimistic about what’s going to happen in the Shi’i area, whereas regarding the Sunni area, I’m not really worried. I think it’s going to be more or less democratic, and the elections will be supervised. He who participates–or she who participates–will have their input. In the Shi’i area, I see a development that is a bit worrisome, and it may explain what is happening in Basra today. According to my information, in seven out of nine Shi’i provinces in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement is far more popular than the rivals, the Hakim group, and the Da’wa. And this, in my opinion, is not so good.
The Da’wa and especially the Hakim family are better educated and much better organized and are working hand in glove with the Americans now. But they are also in the Iranian pocket. So we have here a very depressing paradox that those who work with the Americans and don’t shoot at them are also closest to the Iranians, and they are religious fundamentalists too. If in elections you could have seven out of the nine Shi’i provinces controlled by the Sadrist Movement, who are more Iraqi-oriented but also far more anti-American and equally radically-Islamic, is that good or bad for U.S. interests? It’s definitely bad for the Hakims. And it may explain what they are doing now in Basra and Sadr City, trying to destroy the Mahdi Army and thus create a new reality under which people will vote for them, but the results are uncertain. Maybe the best solution is to embark on organizing the southern tribes and help them form local parties. Religiously-speaking the tribes are considerably less fanatic than the religious parties. Equally important, they are far less attached to Iran. Some tribes are even hostile toward Iran, and getting them into the parliament next time in significant numbers may provide Iraq with a stable, non-fanatic patriotic-Iraqi element that is, so far, represented there by only very few members.
Ronen Zeidel: I wanted to say it took me a great effort to say what I said about sectarianism in Iraq, because personally, as an Iraqi citizen, I would be in favor of Iraqi national identity all out, without having this sectarian layer in between. I guess many Iraqis would agree. It’s just that reality does not always go our own way. I think Iraqi national identity is in the process of being renegotiated after April 2003, and the new version, once it’s out, would certainly have to find more space for the sectarian layer that exists within every Iraqi citizen–sectarian and ethnic layer to include the Kurds here. We cannot be back into blurring sectarianism altogether, forbidding it. Millions of people go to Karbala every year for Ashura; you cannot forbid these parades and marches altogether just because you have to go back to the old version–not a good one–of Iraqi national identity.
Now I must go back to the longterm and say that if we do encourage this deconstruction of all common denominators, like deconstruction of the Sunni and sectarian identity, Iraq will end up like Somalia. There is already a very weak central government with lots of tribes running or ruling the countryside, each with conflicting interests and nothing understandable–true chaos. Whether it is good in the short-term, I don’t know, but in the longterm it could be really destructive, and many Iraqis fear that. Iraqis are strongly suspicious of federalism; most of them are in favor of a strong central government and centralization, along the lines of what the Iraqi state looked like for 83 years.
Noga Efrati: I was asked about the question of Iraqi society and where it is heading. The answer is a complex equation with multiple variables.
I would like to address three aspects that are less often discussed. First, I would like to highlight an important aspect of the Iraqi constitution. The constitution tried to resolve many tensions in Iraqi society through the idea of federalism. It allows different areas to have different legislation on matters that are in conflict. But this solution is problematic. An example is religious/secular tension in the country and the conflict over the adjudication of family matters. From the beginning of the war, Shi’i clerics endeavored to abolish Iraq’s Personal Status Law, which contained interpretations of Islamic law that put men and women on more equal footing in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
The conflict between supporters and opponents of the law erupted as early as December 2003 revolving around Resolution 137. This conflict continued to the final moments of the drafting of Iraq’s permanent constitution. The constitution eventually determined that “Iraqis will be free in commitment to their personal status according to their religions, sects, beliefs, or choices.” It clearly secured the religious option but did not secure the preservation of the Personal Status Law nor did it clearly guarantee a secular option. At the same time, however, the constitution did not designate personal status matters as among the areas to be decided by the central government. In other words, it allowed Kurds, Shi’a, and Sunnis in their respective areas to have separate family laws. The Kurds can still settle family matters according to Iraq’s Personal Status Law while the Shi’a can erase it from the books. The different laws determining family matters will greatly complicate intermarriage among Iraq’s different factions (Sunni-Shi’i, religious-secular, etc.),so this is one point.
The second point is America’s new policy of relying on tribal leaders. It opens the way for differential treatment of tribal and non-tribal Iraqi citizens. I am especially concerned about the acknowledgement of tribal custom officially or unofficially. Tribal law has its own set of rules that are inconsistent with both Islamic law and modern legislation. For example, according to tribal law, men and women can be forced to marry within their family. Women can be offered in marriage to settle disputes, and honor is a legitimate ground for the killing of both men and women. People are treated as tribal possessions rather than as citizens of a modern state. Now, the Iraqi constitution tries to prevent such eventualities: while promising to “uphold the noble human values of Iraqi tribes,” it also says that “the state shall prohibit tribal customs that are in contradiction with human rights.” Still, since the beginning of the war, we see that tribal courts are operating, and disputes are being solved in a so-called tribal way. With the strengthening of tribal leaders and their possible entrance into parliament, we should not be surprised to see demands that the state acknowledge tribal law and/or legislation similar to the British Tribal Criminal and Civil Dispute Regulation.
The last aspect concerning the future of Iraqi society is the demographic aspect. There are two important and interrelated facts. First, it is estimated that 40 percent of Iraq’s population are children under the age of 14. Second, women represent the majority of Iraq’s adult population. We don’t have exact numbers but this was already evident in the 1997 census, which reflected the toll Saddam’s war and persecutions had on the male population (women in several age groups were around 55 percent). The ongoing violence since 2003 has strengthened this trend. If we look, for example, at the statistics provided by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq concerning civilians killed by violence in the second half of 2006, we find that out of the 3,000 and more deaths per month, usually less than 200 were women.
So what does this mean? It means that there are a lot of women who are the sole providers for their households. Or in other words, single mothers raising Iraq’s next generation. Lately, the acting minister for women’s affairs, Narmin Othman, estimated the number of women who are sole providers at 2 million. These women are not being looked at as a resource, as leverage for future reconciliation, but rather as a burden on the state’s budget. They are being referred to now as “women without providers.” And in order to promote legislation that would attend to their needs, they are being depicted as a social time bomb and as easy recruits for militants. Funds from the international community, however, should be directed to them not because there is a risk that they would be recruited by al-Qa’ida–although we have seen an increase in female suicide bombers–but because of their potential to rebuild and restabilize the country. The security threat might come from their children, Iraq’s next generation, who under the American occupation have literally seen their mothers reduced to prostitution.
Ronen Zeidel: Regarding that American presence, of a large number of soldiers on Iraqi soil, it creates both sectarianism–with Sunni and Shi’a competing to portray themselves as victims–but it also of course encourages a strong sense of national identity. In a recent poll, 75 percent of the Iraqi population was in favor of an immediate American withdrawal. This is a popular feeling deeper than what the politicians say.
A large U.S. presence in Iraq, both civilian and military, could bring a return to the scenario of the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s, when deep-seated anti-British sentiments prevailed in large parts of the Iraqi population that eventually led to the 1958 revolution.
David Mack: Well, I don’t view the large American civilian presence as being nearly as onerous to Iraq as the large military presence and the prospect for permanent military bases that is from time to time discussed. It all depends of course on the role played by a future large American political presence. Quite honestly, I believe that the size of our diplomatic establishment, the size of the compound chosen for our embassy, was way beyond the kind of relevance that the United States is going to have in Iraq’s future.
In this connection, I might just note a couple of points about the very thoughtful presentations of Dr. Zeidel and Dr. Efrati. To a certain extent I felt both of you were advancing ideas for how U.S. policy should adapt in light of the analyses that you have made, analysis that in general I am in agreement with. But I would suggest that some of the issues that were raised, particularly by Dr. Efrati, are issues that the United States is going to have increasingly less interest in and will have increasingly less relevance if it tries to exert its influence. I would say that on social status issues, for example, when Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad pressured the Iraqis into putting some language into the Iraqi constitution favorable to women and non-sectarian secular interests, we were already well beyond the point at which our influence was either appreciated or very effective. Now Ambassador Khalilzad was doing that on instruction from Washington, where I believe the political establishment was still in a little bit of a time warp that the Iraqis should be so grateful to us for overthrowing Saddam Hussein that they would do what we wanted regarding some of these sensitive cultural and social issues.
On the issue of relevance, however, I think there will be some issues that will be very important for American diplomats to press for and press for very hard. I think what’s needed here is some kind of political glue that would allow the very fortuitous emergence of a Sunni Arab nationalist leadership in Anbar province and to some extent Diyala and Nineveh provinces–something that frankly occurred for reasons more related to al-Qa’ida in Iraq and other foreign elements overplaying their hands and in part because of a reaction against what was seen as being the pro-Iranian coloration of the government in Baghdad. The emergence of those provincial leaderships is potentially very important, but it has to be somehow institutionalized in a way that will make it possible to have national reconciliation that would include the Sunni Arab population. And for that purpose I think we have to continue pressing and pressing very hard for meaningful provincial elections that will allow some of these figures to gain some kind of political recognition for the very real sacrifices that they have engaged in.
Ellen Laipson: I wanted to add to Ronen Zeidel’s list of challenges the out-migration of Sunnis, and I do think we have to worry about enduring shifts in the demographic balance that will make it even harder for the Sunnis should their identity issues coalesce or resolve themselves to be a significant factor in Iraqi politics. I have not seen any good statistics on the breakdown of the migrants, of the people who are now in Jordan and Syria, but I do think there is a long-term cost of the Sunni disillusionment, disaffection, despair that could well result itself in disproportionate migration by Sunnis. And so then you have even less moderate Sunni leadership to try to take a more constructive approach to Iraqi politics.
I actually feel conflicted about your point that more sectarian consciousness will help reconciliation, but I want to offer just a small vignette to validate your argument. I was in Iraq last spring in a group of parliamentarians of all the parties, and one of the Iraqi ministers said that she had been taken to South Africa by the United States to meet with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions there to hear about what the South Africans went through. And she said that when the Iraqis came home they were very depressed because not only did they not have their own Nelson Mandela–who presumably would be a Shi’a–but they didn’t have a de Klerk who would be an authoritative Sunni who could apologize and who could repudiate the past. My own view is that we shouldn’t think of this de Klerk figure as necessarily a Sunni, but it has to be a Ba’thist; you have to have some accountability, and the execution of Saddam has in a way taken away one opportunity for some more formal act of apology that could trigger a process of reconciliation.
So that would validate your point, at least in part, although I do think it’s a very tricky thing for the United States to be promoting sectarian consciousness, because in the end what we do want is for parties to start to group themselves on shared interests, not strictly on sectarian identity. And I think to some extent the weakness of the Sunni alliance in the parliament and the Shi’i alliance in the parliament is a good sign. The fact that these coalitions from the early elections are starting to fragment, in my mind, could be a good thing in the long-run.
On the women’s issues, I appreciated very much what you said. What I heard from women NGOs in northern Iraq is that they are deeply, deeply worried about how a majority Shi’i government will implement the constitution’s ambiguous language on invoking Islamic principles; that even though in the final analysis of constitution-writing they avoided anything determinative about Islamic law prevailing, the secular women’s organizations are deeply worried about selective imposition of Shari’a-like provisions.
And your point that tribalism is only another set of things that would be very, very troubling to the modern women of Iraq who are perhaps not a majority but still an important percentage–women who have already been educated and who have more modern expectations of their status in a modern state. So I think you’ve touched on something that’s very important, and I think the anxiety is very deep. I also worry whether that too will be a trigger for migration, that women are leaving in part because they don’t feel comfortable in Iraq anymore.
Amatzia Baram: The 1997 census in Iraq said there were about 9.5 million men and 9.6 million women in Iraq. Some women activists are saying that women are 65 percent of the population, which is not accurate. Even if the gap has widened somewhat, it is not all that large.
Regarding tribal law, the more the tribal shaykhs and tribal groups are influential, the more they press for recognizing tribal law. And tribal law is even less favorable to women than the Islamic Shari’a. What can America do about it? I have to go with David Mack on that one–it cannot do very much, maybe on the fringe, but not very much. This will eventually have to be up to the Iraqis.
Noga Efrati: Of course there is nothing America can do now regarding the personal status issues, but secular women expected that option of turning to the Personal Status Law would be secured by the constitution. I am not sure I agree with you, Ambassador Mack, regarding what Khalilzad was trying to do, and in any case, the deal that emerged allowed the Shi’a to go their way and the Kurds their own. The point is that the deal directs Iraqi society away from unity and not towards it.
Regarding tribal law and the problem with strengthening tribal leaders, it is crucial to realize that tribal law is not a problem unique to women. It will be the problem of the state, since it divides citizens among citizens. A tribesman, unlike any other citizen, for example, would be allowed to kill another man because the latter married his cousin without his consent, or for reasons of revenge. Concerning women, I still think international and American funds should now be directed toward helping women help themselves.
Finally, Ronen I find it problematic that you’re talking about encouraging sectarianism in Iraq instead of talking about encouraging nationalism and unity.
Ronen Zeidel: I wanted to add something more about the implantation of tribal policy, and I think that one of the failures of the Americans in this regard is taking and borrowing the model and implementing it in other areas without being sensitive to major regional differences between these areas and Anbar. Anbar is a tribal province, almost entirely Sunni. Very few people who are not tribal live there. Diyala, on the other hand, is a different story. Diyala is a mosaic of ethnic groups, sects, Shi’a, Sunnis–it’s almost like Iraq, only the Sunnis have a higher percentage in Diyala than they have in Iraq, which makes it even more complicated. So when you implement this model on Diyala you end up with problems; you end up with Sahwa shooting Iraqi police, Iraqi police shooting Sahwa, al-Qa’ida shooting both Iraqi police and Sahwa, and the Americans should be sensitive about adjusting policies in light of these differences.
Amatzia Baram: I support 100 percent the policy adopted over the past year or so regarding working with the tribal leaders and tribes in Anbar. I think the results are quite impressive. I agree with Ronen; it has to be applied to other parts very sensitively and carefully–you can’t just copy everything and do it everywhere. But it has yielded very positive results.
However, what Noga mentioned is also true. By turning to the tribes the United States is riding on the back of a tiger. Well, sometimes you have to ride on the back of a tiger; there is no horse. But they should also be very wary of the risks involved and make every possible effort to try and avoid those risks. Yes, their ability to do so today is much more limited than five years ago, that’s obvious, but I think they can and will do much.
To go back to Ronen’s theme: I am not still fully convinced, Ronen, and I’ll tell you why. Sunni Arabs in Iraq know that they have certain common causes. Some examples: Look at the laws that have just been adopted: pensions for those who cannot be reemployed (ex-Ba’thists and so on); jobs for those who can be reemployed (ex-Ba’thists and so on); amnesty, which is now being discussed, which is very important mainly for the Sunni Arabs. They are against a very strong super Shi’i region–the nine provinces joining together–so you have clear-cut Sunni interests, which I would say nine of every ten Sunni Arabs would support.
At the same time, they can try to build coalitions with Shi’a and with Kurds, so I don’t think this is an either/or proposition. In the end, I believe in their logical, rational thinking, and they will choose their partners in the next elections. I am perfectly certain that the Iraqi Islamic Party will still be strong, even if reduced. Other Sunnis will build other coalitions. In the end you’ll have three or four Sunni coalitions in parliament that will have united causes but will also have some differences, and they’ll look for other parties to work with. I think this is the essence of democracy, and actually, I don’t view this as a serious problem.
David Mack: In discussing U.S. policy I’ll be starting, if I may, with a couple of premises that are very familiar to Barry and others who know the United States quite well, but that sometimes get lost in the analysis of even extremely well-educated and well-informed foreign commentators on U.S. foreign policy.
The first premise is that there is very little taste among the broad American public for imperial adventurism and imperial grandeur. Outside of Washington and New York, and you will find very few Americans who feel we have a great interest in the Middle East or are very tolerant about the idea of U.S. involvement in problems of the region, which appear to the average American to be endemic and not ones we can hope to change in the short-term. Americans always want quick answers. They are not in for the longterm, as Saddam Hussein himself concluded when he looked at the history of U.S. foreign policy.
The second premise is that no national security strategy that requires major sacrifices in terms of either our military personnel or financial commitments or even the focus of attention of our national leaders, that no such strategy is sustainable for a long time without strong public support. And that usually requires some kind of bipartisan support, for example, that which existed for U.S. support for NATO during the Cold War or for U.S. support for Israel’s security.
The Bush administration preferred to take a bold gamble not widely supported by the American political class even though it was able to carry Republican Congressional support, with some significant dissents from a number of Republican politicians. Now, to a certain extent, this was a gamble on the surge in the numbers of the military, plus a dramatic change in the Rumsfeld strategy that had been discredited. But let’s note that what we call the Rumsfeld strategy today was the Bush-Cheney strategy for several years, and nobody should be in any doubt about that.
But on the purely security front, there has been some significant improvement, as Amatzia laid out in his opening remarks. Now, one can quarrel with some of those figures, and for example, I’m sure that Dr. Zeidel is well-aware that the decrease in the number of Iraqis killed through political violence in Baghdad in particular had a great deal to do with the fact that many mixed neighborhoods were ethnically cleansed. In fact, during the first months of the surge, the process of ethnic cleansing actually increased. You end up with a lot of the sectors of Baghdad where it’s true, you don’t have Shi’i death squads killing Sunnis because you don’t have Sunnis any more. And you don’t have the easy access of Sunni suicide bombers into Shi’i areas either–in effect, a group of gated communities. But leave that aside.
There have been improvements on the ground. The question is, has there been sufficient political progress to justify that to the American public? Any plausible outcome is going to look like defeat to the rest of the American political class and the American public, even if the president is able to postpone some outcome until after January 20, 2009. And that’s delayed the need to educate the American public on the real costs both of continuing with our very heavy, nearly unconditional involvement in Iraq or of beginning the process of disengaging. What would be the cost to U.S. national interests of disengaging too abruptly?
In fact, of course, there has been significant, what I would call, mission crawl-back in what Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus have been doing on the ground in Iraq. And I think they are to be commended for the very skilled way they have adapted to circumstances, very often developments outside their control like the Sahwa, the truce declared by Muqtada al-Sadr, and so on, and they’ve adapted extremely well to that. And a lot of what we see as a bottom-up strategy has been developed by them to take advantage of these kinds of circumstances.
At the same time, there has been, beginning in January 2007, a reformulation by the National Security Council of our strategic goals, and they took out that word victory in effect. They said that our strategic goal was “a unified, democratic, federal Iraq that can govern itself and can sustain itself and is an ally on the War on Terror.” Now, what does that really mean? It really means Pakistan without nuclear weapons. Now, however much that will disappoint the supporters of President Bush, we’re very far from reaching even that modest level.
So what would the other candidates do? Senator John McCain was a strong advocate of the surge that was announced in 2007. He’s very closely identified with the success of the current strategy. However, he’s shown ability in the past to cut his losses. In 1983, he advocated the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon. He’s likely to be far more influenced than the Bush administration by the views of career military professionals. And he’s stated that he is going to be more influenced by the views of our allies.
As for Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, they initially were very cautious about how they formulated their views about the withdrawal of military forces. But under the pressure of this prolonged and very difficult primary election campaign they have tended to become more and more extreme in talk about withdrawing military forces. They have no stake, of course, in the Maliki government, but they will have worked themselves into some corners. Now fortunately, both camps have some very senior, very seasoned, and experienced advisors. To a certain extent the advisors of Hillary Clinton are more establishment, more prepared to go along with what I think are Senator Clinton’s own instincts in terms of supporting a continued major U.S. military presence in Iraq, whereas the advisors of Senator Obama are more likely to take rather innovative approaches, such as cutting our stake on the ground in Iraq and trying to control the Iraqi fallout by strengthening our alliances and positions in countries on the periphery of Iraq.
I think if we too radically and too abruptly retrench from Iraq and withdraw not only military forces in a way that greatly cripples our potential political influence in the country, it will impact very negatively on the other countries that we value; I think they will all be damaged if we handle this badly. That’s certainly not the intention of Mr. Obama, who has made it very clear in his public statements that he thought we went into Iraq too rashly and we have to be very, very careful in how we get out. However, these things can have a momentum of their own.
In point of fact, the implications of what has happened since 2003 have been to build up the power and influence of one state in the region, and that state is Iran.
Ellen Laipson: I’d quite agree with David that obviously I don’t think that any of the candidates wants to do something that makes the situation worse. I think they’re trying to respond to domestic imperatives and what they think would be a kind of more balanced U.S. engagement in the region. So there is the possibility that at the two or three-year mark of the next president you would have a reallocation of American resources and attention in the region that could include more foreign assistance to Lebanon and Jordan. I do think that if the next president turns to the professional military for advice on how to realign our presence in the region, you could see a renewed interest in security ties to moderate Sunni governments in the region.
Barry Rubin: There’s one more element that should be added and that’s of course the nature of the U.S. relationship to the adversary countries, namely Syria and Iran. The question is: Would the kinds of measures you talked about be accompanied by a major attempt to make concessions or rapprochement with those states? What I know that we understand, but many people perhaps don’t understand, is that American rapprochement with Syria and Iran could be interpreted in Iraq and more moderate Arab states as possibly abandoning them so they have to make their separate deal with Iran, and in Lebanon that they have to deal with both Iran and Syria, and so on. One simple example is that after the invitation to Syria to come to the Annapolis Conference, within less than 48 hours the Lebanese government and its supporters abandoned the position they had sustained for months and accepted the Syrian candidate for president. Unintended consequences are an added factor.
David Mack: Well, just very briefly on the subject of U.S. policy toward Iraq, I think you can be assured that any of the three potential presidents is going to base his policy on how he defines hard U.S. interests. There’s not going to be any more campaign for democracy, or human rights, or, I’m sorry Dr. Efrati, gender empowerment. That’s off the table.
And second, responding to the question that Barry raised about the attitudes of potential future U.S. presidents toward dealing with Iran and Syria: It’s really noteworthy that only a couple of months after the Iraq Study Group report came out advocating that, the president, after initially rejecting it, agreed to do it in a very moderate and controlled manner. And I think that’s what you could expect from any of these three candidates. That they’re going to approach a country like Iran with particular wariness. I think with Syria you might see more likelihood of an opening.
Ellen Laipson: I don’t see a breakthrough in Iraq’s reintegration into the Arab world. I think we’ve got a sort of long-term standoff, in part because politics is very personalized in the Arab world. They don’t trust these new Shi’i politicians. Leaders of other Arab states don’t know them and don’t seem to be making much effort to build these relationships. I see the relationship between Iraq and its Arab neighbors is likely to continue to be brittle. And this is quite regrettable. I think the international community has said in a thousand different ways that the regional piece of this is sort of underdeveloped, so we are leaving this new and awkward Iraqi political entity more reliant on Iran than it should be. Now, I’m not suggesting that the neighbors can have a completely transformative effect, but these are neighbors that are so deeply negative or ambivalent at best of what has happened in Iraq. I don’t see all the badgering, and all the meetings in Sharm al-Shaykh, and all the entreaties by the donor community and others. I don’t yet see any breakthrough.
Dr. Noga Efrati is head of the Iraq Research Group at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University. She has been studying Iraq since the mid-1990s and earned her doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Haifa. She was awarded a Young Truman Scholars Fellowship. Her forthcoming article, “Competing Narratives: Histories of the Women’s Movement in Iraq,” will appear in the International Journal of Middle East Studies (August 2008).
Professor Amatzia Baram is a professor emeritus at the Department of the History of the Middle East and founder and director of the Center of Iraq Studies at Haifa University. During the years he has been an advisor to the Israeli and United States governments as well as European governments dealing with topics of Iraq and the Gulf. Presently, Professor Baram is completing a new book, Mosque and State in Iraq: 1968-2007. His article, ‘Saddam Husayn: Between his Power Base and the International Community,‘ appeared in the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal (MERIA), Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000). His Op-ed article “Winning the War in Iraq: One Tribe at a Time” appeared in the New York Times on October 28, 2003, and contains the outlines of the tribal policy that was embarked upon four years later by the United States in Anbar.
Ellen Laipson is the president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center in Washington, DC since 2002. She worked for 25 years in the U.S. government. She was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. She has been the acting director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production. She has also been the special assistant to the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. She has published numerous articles and book reviews in leading publications. Her latest articles are “The Prospects for Middle East Security Sector Reform” in Survival (2007) and “Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Future” in the Journal of Middle East Policy (2006).
Ambassador David Mack is the deputy director of the Middle East Institute, where he has worked since 1998. He served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs from 1990-1993, directing the conduct of relations between the United States and 12 other governments, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. He has provided political support for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and promoted U.S. business interests in the Arab world. He also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1986-1989 and has held diplomatic postings in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, and Tunisia.
Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of MERIA Journal.
Dr. Ronen Zeidel teaches Iraqi history at the Hebrew University and Haifa University. He is a fellow of the Iraq Research Team at the Truman Institute and the Center of Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa. His article, “A Harsh Readjustment,” appeared in MERIA Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 2008).
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