Iraq's Power Structure Is Stable, Streets Less So

Iraqi politicians recently announced a power-sharing deal intended to end months of political limbo. Journalist Nir Rosen tells Steve Inskeep the new order can't be overthrown by any internal power, but the country is still unstable for ordinary citizens, who deal with daily threats of criminal violence.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's turn to another long-running conflict. In Iraq, there's still plenty of violence, though not as much as there used to be. Now that politicians have finally agreed on a government, we're going to glimpse a changing country through the eyes of Nir Rosen. He's been reporting on Iraq since the war began in 2003 and he's recently written the book called "Aftermath."

Over the weekend, Vice President Biden, as you may know, wrote in The New York Times that, I'm quoting here, "Politics has emerged as the dominant means of settling differences in Iraq."

Do you agree with that statement?

Mr. NIR ROSEN (Author, "Aftermath"): I agree. I don't think it has emerged that recently. I think really that's been the case since the civil war ended by 2008, when it was clear that there was a new order. Shias control the country and Sunnis realized that they had lost and were now sort of marginalized and weak. And then Prime Minister Maliki crushed both Sunni and Shia militias -with American support, of course. And what that led to was the absence of any armed group that could overthrow the system. And you saw saw more and more, just different parties and movements scrambling to grab a piece of the pie.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that for better or worse, the situation is genuinely stable, not just apparently somewhat more stable?

Mr. ROSEN: Stable in a sense that the new order cannot be overthrown by any internal power, unstable for your average citizen in Iraq who deals, on a daily basis, with the threat of criminal violence, mafia violence. So in that sense, I say Iraq resembles, or will resemble, Pakistan or Mexico, and this is kind of the optimistic take. In that you have a strong central regime, authoritarian, brutal, corrupt, inefficient, but strong and stable. And then you have terrible violence in the streets, which affects normal people or government officials, but doesn't threaten to overthrow the system.

INSKEEP: You've spent many of the last several years on those streets.

Mr. ROSEN: Yes, I have.

INSKEEP: I wonder if you could take us, through your words, to some neighborhood in Baghdad and help us understand what that neighborhood was like, oh, seven years ago or so, around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how, maybe, it's changed today.

Mr. ROSEN: Well, we can go to A'amiriya for example, in Western Baghdad, a place I've been visiting since 2003. A very average, middle-class neighborhood, predominantly Sunni, but with a large Shia minority. Because it was on the sort of borders with Western Baghdad, the outskirts of the city, and had a lot of former officers, you began to see increasing resistance attacks in A'amiriya.

And that was the beginning of the civil war in a large scale, you could say. In 2004, early 2005, those Shias that were displaced from A'amiriya moved to East Baghdad. They in turn displaced Sunnis in East Baghdad. And very soon you had no Shias left alive in A'amiriya.

INSKEEP: When you say Sunnis came in and displaced Shias that sounds awfully clinical. In what manner was that done?

Mr. ROSEN: A few ways, depending on how polite the militia men were. They could send a letter, you have 24 hours to leave or else, because you've sinned against God, you're collaborating with the Americans. They could send a bullet.

INSKEEP: Meaning you would...

Mr. ROSEN: Yeah, it would be an actual bullet that would be found on the doorstep and that would be a message, time to go. But very often you would find a teenage Shia boy playing in his yard, somebody drives by and shoots him and kills him. That family leaves. Of course, various other Shia neighbors begin to leave.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask this question then, because you're basically describing an Iraqi government that has stabilized the situation by killing lots of people. And the dilemma with Saddam Hussein, to the extent that anyone felt a dilemma about him, was that he brought stability, but he was unbelievably brutal in the ways that he did so. And the question was whether the stability was worth the brutality. When you look at the stability now, and the brutality that it has cost, is it worth it?

Mr. ROSEN: It's not for me to answer, but I think the suffering has been so tremendously high that we can say Iraqis didn't deserve this fate and in 2003, even those who opposed the war had tremendous hope that they would have some kind of a more stable life, not eight years of civil war, of occupation. And the entire region is now unstable as well.

So throughout the region, certainly we have given democracy a bad name, because people associate that with Iraq. You have refugees pouring into the region, al-Qaida tactics pouring into the region, increased Sunni-Shia tensions in Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere. So the war in Iraq isn't over yet, at all, for many people.

INSKEP: Nir Rosen is the author of "Aftermath." Thanks very much.

Mr. ROSEN: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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