Events

Live Webcast: Quo Vadis Iraq? Trying to Look Beyond the Horizon

November 15, 2005 // 11:00am12:00pm

To watch the video of this event, follow the links in the See Also box to the right of this screen.

Amatzia Baram, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Professor, Department of Middle East History, University of Haifa, Israel; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Former Washington Post Baghdad Bureau Chief (April 2003-October 2004).

Amatzia Baram began by relating a conversation he had, prior the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with a Shiite who is now a senior Iraqi official. This person said that, under Saddam, Shi'a were the donkey and the Sunnis the rider. After the fall of Saddam, he predicted that the Sunnis would become the donkey and the Shi'a the rider. While Baram thought this official had probably changed his opinion by now, it reflects the perspective of some in the new Iraqi government.

Baram chose to focus on four aspects of the current situation in Iraq: the insurgency, the move towards federalism, elections, and the future of democracy in Iraq. Providing historical context, Baram reflected on Iraqi revolts dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Despite extreme tactics, the Sunni government had been unable to quell the Kurdish and Shiite revolts completely. The demands of these groups were limited: the Kurds sought autonomy while the Shi'a desired respect and identity recognition. It was not until the U.S. invasion and subsequent fall of Saddam's regime that these revolts subsided. In contrast, the Sunnis today seek a return to power. This very high expectation has little chance for full realization. "We're in for an endless revolt," Baram predicted. High expectations, in conjunction with the military know-how the Sunnis developed under Saddam, leads one to expect a long, violent insurgency. Baram did see a glimmer of hope - the Sunnis have a tradition of pragmatism; if they conclude that the revolt is not going to get them anywhere, they may seek a way out.

Baram recognized the possibility that a symbiotic relationship was developing among the Shi'a and the Kurds. He noted that Shi'a leadership never supported Saddam Hussein's attacks on the Kurds and the Kurds never supported the regime's efforts against the Shi'a. In present day Iraq, the two groups appear to have developed some sort of working relationship, with a Kurdish President and Shi'a Prime Minister. In order for Sunnis to buy into the Iraqi political system, expectations for identity and access to oil revenues must be addressed, Baram said. This must coincide with the realization that the insurgency is ultimately ineffective. "Vladimir Lenin said, 'Communism is Socialism plus electricity,'" Baram recollected, "and what is democracy? Democracy is political freedom plus electricity." If the Iraqi people do not get access to basic services soon, the imminent collapse of the entire political process will be at risk.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran began by citing an evolution in the Shi'a political agenda over the last two years. "At first they wanted a strong center," Chandrasekaran said, "because they thought they could be that center." As the violence continued, Shi'a political groups calculated that a Shi'a dominated Southern region in Iraq might better serve their interests. This change in strategy coincides with a shift in importance from Baghdad to Najaf and Karbala, Chandrasekaran observed.

Chandrasekaran inferred that many Iraqis assume the insurgency is comprised of foreigners. When the International Committee of the Red Cross Headquarters were car bombed in 2003, people at a nearby police station were certain the bomber was Yemeni, he said. They claimed to know this based on the facial hair and features of the bomber. Chandrasekaran said they had no way to know this for sure; it was a reflection of their belief that the insurgency was something coming from outside of Iraq, not embedded in the Iraqi people. The recent hotel bombings in Jordan, carried out by Iraqis, are an alarming development, he said. They suggest that Iraqi chaos may be spreading to the broader region. The panelists discussed the possibility that the insurgency was being radicalized, as dissidents whose original concern was the U.S. occupation, alter their focus into alignment with the efforts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Baram referred to the belief in Islam and Judaism that "once you start doing something, you will do it more and more." This mode of thinking would have dire consequences for the radicalization of the Iraqi insurgency, he said. Chandrasekaran highlighted a recent Washington Post article that discussed the possibility that disaffected Sunnis are thinking about entering the political process. This development, in conjunction with the campaign of Zarqawi, puts many Sunnis in a difficult position. While the radicalization of some members of the insurgency may be taking place, it is far too early to speak of cleavages within the insurgency, Chandrasekaran said.

Concerning the implications of federalism and the upcoming elections, Chandrasekaran described the "slow death of Baghdad." Oil revenue, especially from new oil exploration, is where the money is, he said. If the central government in Baghdad is excluded from this income, its ability to implement and enforce national policies will be hindered significantly. The Kurdish region to the north and the Shi'a region to the southeast will be fairly well off, but Baghdad, formerly a center of trade and commerce as well as government, may decline in significance. Over the long term, Shi'a living in Baghdad may migrate south to Najaf and Nasiriyah to seek employment opportunities. Chandrasekaran and Baram also discussed the renewed attention Ahmed Chalabi is receiving from the Bush Administration. Chandrasekaran suggested it might be a case of "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." He also suggested that although Chalabi has separated himself from the Shi'a "big tent" and possesses only minor political support, he may be positioning himself as a compromise alternative to the other political parties. Chalabi is the brightest politician in Baghdad today, Baram said; he has demonstrated adept political abilities in the past and it would be foolish to count him out now. The panelists concluded by discussing Muqtada al-Sadr's role in the evolving Iraqi political situation. Baram pointed out Sadr's ability to have his people on a variety of the election lists. "That's a guy you have to watch-he's everywhere," Baram said. Chandrasekaran agreed, "I don't see any of the Iraqis trying to put him out of business because the Shi'a parties don't want to force young men on the streets of Sadr City, of Kut, Basra, of the rest of the South, to choose between Sadr and [Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani, or Sadr and [the Islamic] Dawa [Party]."

Drafted by Stephen Hendrickson

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.