Key Iraqi Political Players Wary of Central Rule

Analyst Phebe Marr of the U.S. Institute for Peace is back from a trip to Iraq. She spent much of her time in the Green Zone, getting to know new players on the Iraqi political scene. She found the Shia majority fractured, disorganized and distrustful of central power.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

In Iraq today, insurgents carried out more attacks on Iraqi security forces, religious leaders and civilians. Kidnappers said they've killed a Japanese hostage and authorities reported the assassination of a Sunni Muslim cleric. Sunni and Shia leaders met again today to try to defuse the growing sectarian strife. When we want to try to make sense of what's going on in Iraq, we often turn on this program to Phebe Marr. She the author of "The Modern History of Iraq." Ms. Marr just returned from more than three weeks in Baghdad and Basra.

Welcome back to our studio.

Ms. PHEBE MARR (Author, "The Modern History of Iraq"): Nice to be here.

LUDDEN: You traveled as a fellow with the US Institute of Peace, and your goal was to assess Iraq's new leadership. Let me ask you first, what do you make of the new leaders there?

Ms. MARR: Well, they're trying to find their way. For many of them, this is the first time that they've been in power. The big winners in the election, of course, was the Shiite ticket. Many of them are in religio-political parties. A number of them have spent many years in Iran. They've been in opposition for years, and now they find themselves in power for the first time.

LUDDEN: So how are they handling it?

Ms. MARR: Well, they're handling it fairly pragmatically. They're distrustful of the central government, and given their orientation, many of them would prefer to have a weak central government and strong provinces. So I think one of the things to keep our eye on as this constitution-making goes on is federalism and how they're going to decentralize power. The Kurds, of course, are very interested in keeping their decentralization in the north, but we're finding now that provinces like Basra in the south, which have been neglected and are indeed very poor, might want to unite with a couple of neighboring provinces and move ahead to develop themselves. And you may find other blocs of provinces doing the same. So one of the interesting things is going to be perhaps a spread of more democratic institutions into the provinces. Now whether these institutions and the leaders are going to be able to deliver on services--electricity, security--the capacity that is needed in the central government, I think, is the big question.

LUDDEN: We're always gauging the violence there, basically asking is it civil war yet. How did you find relations between the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds?

Ms. MARR: I actually sat in the lobby and watched the delegates in the National Assembly assemble, talk and so on, and I can definitely report that they are talking. But I also have to report that in ministries where new Shia leaders have come in, there has been bureaucracy underneath that is more tied with the former regime, the one that was in before this new election. The distrust is really quite deep. It's going to take some time for these people to trust one another.

LUDDEN: Now you spent most of your time in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Ms. MARR: Alas, I did.

LUDDEN: You got out to the south to Basra, which is the biggest Shiite city in the south of Iraq. How are things there?

Ms. MARR: Well, the majority of the population in Basra is Shia. There's a substantial Sunni population, and for the most part, Basra was quiet, but at the same time I found Basra quite rundown. It has really borne the brunt of many wars, and Basra, I think, is thinking of development. And interestingly, when they look at Baghdad, they see a government that they want less of. `Get the government off my back. Let us take the initiative to develop,' and I think that's going to be the interesting thing to watch in Iraq, that as the insurgency kind of isolates Baghdad, cuts it off, that the peripheral regions in the south, which are quieter, may take the initiative and want to develop on their own, and that might not be such a bad thing economically and socially, to develop initiative, to develop decentralization. But I think we want to be careful that it doesn't sort of lock into an ethnic and sectarian bloc as well, so that we don't have Basra and the Shia areas going one way, the north and the Kurdish areas going another, and the center and the Sunni areas going in a third way.

LUDDEN: Phebe Marr is a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace. Thank you once again.

Ms. MARR: You're welcome.

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