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Iraq's Future Government Still Uncertain - 2003-11-25

While attacks are increasing on Iraqis cooperating with Americans, plans are under way for establishing a post-occupation government. There are various ideas across the political spectrum with the understanding that much depends on curbing the violence. A successful government will need peace or something very close to it. VOA's Ed Warner asks some longtime observers of Iraq for their thoughts on the future politics of that now disordered country.

In the continuing violence that plagues Iraq, guerrillas have struck in all areas of the country with the aim of killing Iraqis associated with the occupation.

This slows and can derail the establishment of an effective government, says Gregory Gause, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Vermont. The violence must be brought under control. "I do not think that in and of itself the announcement that we are going to turn over more power to Iraqis, that we are perhaps going to draw down significantly our troops will be enough to make these insurgents lay down their arms. To some extent, it might embolden them. They might think they have the Americans on the run."

So far, coalition forces have responded militarily to the guerrilla attacks and will continue to do so. But there is growing consideration of a political approach. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged a strategy to win over Iraqi Sunnis, the main source of opposition. Under this plan, even members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party would be allowed to participate in the political process and contest elections.

While not going this far, Dan Senor, spokesman for the US-led coalition, says the military dimension is only one aspect of the security strategy. "There is also a political dimension. The Governing Council will be reaching out to Sunni Muslims more and more."

Kenneth Katzman, senior analyst at the U.S. Congressional Research Service, says this policy shift makes good sense. "If some vehicle is created for ex-Baathists, both lower-ranking mid-ranking Baathists to have their views incorporated into a new government or to have some sort of seats in a new government, they might leave the resistance and join a post-Saddam regime. If the Sunni ex-Baathists are completely excluded from a new power structure, then they probably will keep fighting."

Gregory Gause cautions against over-emphasizing Sunni solidarity: “They should not be grouped together in one sectarian whole," he says. “There are many differences among them. There are plenty of Iraqi Sunnis who are happy to see Saddam Hussein go, who want to build a new Iraq and who are not thinking necessarily in terms of purely sectarian identification. But it is undoubtedly true that the bulk of the opposition right now stems from the Iraqi Sunni minority, which to some extent was privileged under Saddam Hussein."

Professor Gause says Sunnis must be approached with a combination of carrots and sticks -- a careful blend of pressures and promises.

Whatever the role of the Sunnis, analysts say the Shias are destined to play the largest part in a new government. They make up at least 60% of the Iraqi population and have shown considerable patience and restraint in dealing with the U.S. occupation.

There is concern about Iranian Shia influence on Iraqi Shias, many of whom waited out the Saddam Hussein years in Iran. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah have moved into Iraq, but so far without creating any disturbance. Mr. Katzman thinks Iran's influence would be limited:

"Most of the major Shiite parties in Iraq do have very, very close relations with Iran however, have not necessarily wanted to be dominated by Iran or do not want an Iraq that resembles Iran. And also the Iraqi Shiite parties have said openly that many of them realize they are really in a multi-ethnic state. They do not seem to be looking to set up an exclusive Shiite-led Islamic state along the lines of Iran."

Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, has a different concern. He is not sure the Shias can effectively govern a united Iraq: "The Shias themselves are deeply fractured. They come in general from the more poverty-stricken part of Iraq. They have no depth in terms of being able to run the economy, no experience in running a government. The Sunnis are able to come together as more of a collective entity and because of that, the Sunnis are much stronger. They will be able to divide and conquer the way they have over the centuries."

Mr. Ritter says because of Shia shortcomings, the Iraqi government could wind up looking much like Saddam Hussein's: an autocratic Sunni control over subdued Shias and Kurds.

So why not divide the country into three parts and let them go their separate ways? Proponents argue that Iraq was cobbled together by the British in the 1920's, and Sunnis, Shias and Kurds have lived uncomfortably within it. They would do better on their own.

That would be a huge mistake, says University of Vermont's Gregory Gause. "There is no three ways you can divide the country. Baghdad, which many people think of as part of the Sunni triangle as the American media calls it, has at least half of its population Shia. Iraqi Shias do not want Basra and its surroundings. They think of themselves as Iraqis within an Iraqi state. So the idea that you can divide Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs territorially in Iraq is just a non-starter."

Professor Gause adds that an independent Kurdish state would be fatally destabilizing to the region. Turkey, already reeling from terrorist attacks and fearful of its own Kurdish rebels, would be moved to take action. "The Turkish government has made it clear that it will not tolerate an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, largely because of its fear of the spillover effect on its own Kurdish minority. You would get opposition also from Iran and probably from Syria as well, which has its own small Kurdish minority. It would have to become an American protectorate, and we would have to protect it the way we have been protecting it for the last ten or eleven years. I am not sure that is a responsibility the United States wants to take on."

Scott Ritter says Turkey, faced with a Kurdish state, might sunder its ties with NATO and the West to shore up its threatened east. "If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, you may see a drive in Turkey to move into northern Iraq and impose its own sense of stability in the region. That would be disastrous because that would lead inevitably to conflict not only with Iraqis, but with Iran and potentially Syria."

One way or another, Iraq must somehow harmonize the competing claims of its various groups, says David Phillips, Deputy Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Iraq is going to reach a fork in the road as they talk about power sharing. Either they are going to come up with a formula through a federal arrangement for decentralizing power and allowing each of Iraq's communities feel as though their democratic aspirations are addressed or that debate is going to turn into conflict, and the possibility of civil war in Iraq and the country unraveling also exist."

Mr. Phillips says the United States must serve as a steward for this process of accommodation.

He and other analysts warn that Iraqis must find their own way to a government that may by no means resemble a perfect democracy, but if it is acceptable to Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, that will be more than good enough.