The Sunni Vote in Iraq's Elections

Steve Inskeep talks with Michael Rubin, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Last month, Rubin met with seven Sunni leaders in an attempt to learn what Sunnis are thinking as the Iraqi parliamentary elections approach.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Any plan to end the war in Iraq depends in part on Sunni Arabs who dominate the most violent areas. In the weeks before the election, one expert tried to learn what Sunnis are thinking. Michael Rubin used to advise the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He's now with the American Enterprise Institute, and last month, he met with seven Sunni leaders. It wasn't safe for an American to meet them in their home provinces, so they came to Jordan. And in time, they introduced him to an insurgent leader. In Rubin's view, they all had unrealistic expectations.

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (American Enterprise Institute): They wanted the former army reconstituted. What these guys would say, especially the former Iraqi military officers among them, `What we really need is a former Iraqi military officer to take charge, that we should put off elections and so forth.' So we talked about elections next. And they said they were all planning to vote this time. Many of them were planning to vote for Ayad Allawi, who seems to be the official candidate.

INSKEEP: Ayad Allawi is the former prime minister in the transitional government.

Mr. RUBIN: He's the former prime minister, but he's also a former Baathist and many of the former military leaders feel that he's the best of all the bad candidates. The other message these guys had, though, was about the Iranians. They argued that perhaps the United States was secretly aligned with Iran.

INSKEEP: Does the fact that these tribal leaders are willing to participate in the elections mean that they have bought into the Iraqi political process?

Mr. RUBIN: It's a start. One of the major problems, though, and this is where the danger continues in the future, is while Arab Sunnis are perhaps 15 percent of Iraq's population, they honestly believe they're about 50 percent of the population. It's going to take time for some of these Arab Sunni leaders to discover they would never have the position they once had.

INSKEEP: Is it fair to summarize your point of view this way: You met with a bunch of Sunni Muslim leaders who, in your opinion, had inaccurate facts, unrealistic demands and a lot of conspiracy theories on their minds.

Mr. RUBIN: Yes.

INSKEEP: Does this suggest something ominous for the future of Iraq if even the people who are participating in the political process don't seem to have a very good grasp on what they can achieve.

Mr. RUBIN: No, I don't. I think it's a sign that democracy is a process and it takes time. We've seen a lot of significant improvement in their attitudes towards the ballot box and also, at the same time, I think many of the other Iraqis have been quite generous making sure that they have an inclusive government.

INSKEEP: These Sunni Muslims ended up introducing you to an insurgent leader. What were the circumstances in which that happened?

Mr. RUBIN: What basically happened is we ended up meeting well into the night with this gentleman who was about 50 to 60 years old. He was an unrepentant Baathist. From the course of the conversation, it was also clear that he was in the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence under Saddam Hussein. The thing that surprised me was some of his misconceptions about the Americans. He strongly believes we're all doing it for oil. What also surprised me is I asked him whether he had ever been outside of Iraq before, aside from this trip to Jordan, and he said no. So I asked him, `How do you know about the United States?' And he said, `Well, I learned about it in school in Iraq,' which means there's still a corps of people who have all their education from what they learned under Saddam Hussein. We have not been effective at getting on the radio, getting out in newspapers and explaining just exactly what we are planning to do to these people, some of whom have become resistants.

INSKEEP: It's been suggested by US officials that just the process of going through elections will weaken the insurgency because it would add legitimacy to the Iraqi government and perhaps encourage people to come into the political process and vote rather than being outside the political process and setting bombs. Do you think the insurgent that you met sees the choices in that way?

Mr. RUBIN: I think the Sunni tribal leaders see it that way. I don't think that the insurgent leader sees it that way yet. Is any election going to be the breaking point? No, although I see, in the long term, the process as important.

INSKEEP: Mr. Rubin, thanks very much.

Mr. RUBIN: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and he is the latest voice we're hearing this week as we discuss Iraq's election which is scheduled for tomorrow. You can find more analysis of the vote by going to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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