Iraqi Opinion on War Shifts with Sectarian Roots

How has the war in Iraq affected public opinion there? It depends on whether you're talking to a Kurd, a Sunni or a Shiite. Vahal Abdul Rahman, a researcher at the Iraq Memory Foundation, and Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., offer their insights to Linda Wertheimer.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

More than 2,300 American service people have died in the invasion and occupation. Thousands more have been injured. More than 30,000 Iraqis have died in the invasion, in insurgent attacks and now in sectarian fighting; and Iraq now appears dangerously close to civil war.

Vahal Abdul Rahman is a senior researcher with the Iraq Memory Foundation. He joins us here in the studios in Washington. Welcome.

Mr. VAHAL ABDUL RAHMAN (Senior Researcher, Iraq Memory Foundation): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: And Vali Nasr teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey. He joins us from the studios of Stanford University. Dr. Nasr, thank you for being here.

Dr. VALI NASR (Professor, Naval Postgraduate School): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Nasr, let me turn to you first. This week, the new Iraqi Parliament met for the first time, but no one knows whether they'll be able to form a government. More bodies were discovered in Baghdad, victims of sectarian violence. The U.S. began a large scale assault on insurgent strongholds. In your view, how far has Iraq come in these three years?

Dr. NASR: Well, it has come along, obviously, some ways in building new institutions for a stable government for its future. But there is a lot still to be done, and there is a lot of problems with all of the institutions that are supposed to make Iraq work. In other words, the security forces, its government, its Parliament, they are not developing smoothly or rapidly enough to address the problems that are growing on the ground.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that we here in the United States are finally learning that Saddam Hussein is just a hard act to follow?

Dr. NASR: Well, what we're learning is that Iraq was a fractured society, that when 15 to 20 percent of the population in Iraq, which were the Sunnis, were able to rule over the Kurds and the Shiites and were able to suppress them, they did so through dictatorship; and Saddam suppressed, obviously, the Sunnis, as well, and brutalized them as well. But for a minority to rule over a majority, it did take dictatorial ways; and now to make those minorities who are in many ways put at odds with each other during the Saddam years, to work together will take many years of healing of old political wounds, and we really don't have the institutions set up now to make that healing take place quickly.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Abdul Rahman, you're just back from Iraq where you've been working on that very problem. Your memory project encourages ordinary people to talk about their lives before and after Saddam Hussein. What kind of stories are you hearing?

Mr. RAHMAN: We have had many, many compelling stories, and I'll share one with you, where an Iraqi young woman was born in prison. Her mother was accused of being a member of the Dowa(ph) Party, the Party that now Abrahim Joffrey(ph) belongs to. Her mother was pregnant at the time. After she gave birth, she was executed. The little girl was raised by her grandparents. She never knew that she actually had parents who were killed. She thought that her grandparents were her parents.

And after 2003 is when they told her. At this point she was 23 years old. She had graduated from the university. And then they gave her a pair of socks that her mother had knitted for her in prison. And she told us that she wants to one day give her socks to her daughter, if she were to get married at some point.

So we have these kinds of stories from Saddam's era, where even your grandfather did not trust to tell you the truth.

WERTHEIMER:

What's your impression of what people in Iraq are feeling about the last three years?

RAHMAN: That's a very mixed impressions. I don't like to say that, you know, it's by groups. But generally speaking, Kurds are very happy about what happened. I was just in Kurdistan. People cherish the moment Saddam's statute came down. A lot of Shiites think very much the same; however, there are many Sunnis who don't. They think that what's taken place since 2003 has actually brought Iraq back, where under Saddam you didn't get killed just for being on the street, you had to commit a crime or become a political oppositionist. After the recent sectarian violence, has become more popular among even Shiites. They're saying, Well, what is this? You'll get killed for being a Shiite; you'll get killed for being a Sunni.

WERTHEIMER: Or you'll get killed for being in a café.

RAHMAN: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Nasr, U.S. and Iranian officials are planning to meet soon to discuss ways to end sectarian violence in Iraq. How much of a help can Iran be?

Dr. NASR: Iran has a lot of influence with not only politicians in Southern Iraq, but with clerics; in fact, one of the things I've heard of in the past weeks is that Iran played a very important role in containing the Shiite anger right after the Askariya Shrine bombing.

WERTHEIMER: The last three years in Iraq, have they been worth it? Mr. Abdul Rahman, you see this, of course, through the very personal views of the people you've talked to, I assume.

Mr. RAHMAN: Actually it has definitely been worth it, and we have to go back to the regimen sanctions. This was a criminal policy. Close to 1.5 million Iraqi children died of the most stupid diseases like malnutrition and malaria, things that children shouldn't die of anymore in the 20th and 21st century. So removing Saddam was definitely a wise choice. The subsequent policies have been disastrous, and this is not just to blame the Americans. The blame has to go around and most certainly to the Iraqi authorities from the governing consul to Ibrahim Joffrey. However, in America the solution seems to be, Okay, let's begin the process of withdrawal. Most Iraqis believe that an American withdrawal will result in immediate civil war, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Iraqi lives, and then we go back to point zero to building Iraq.

WERTHEIMER: Vahal Abdul Rahman is a Senior Researcher with the Iraq Memory Foundation. He was here at the studios in Washington. And Vali Nasr teaches at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey. He joined us from the studios of Stanford University in Palo Alto. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

Mr. RAHMAN: Thank you.

Dr. NASR: Thank you.

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