Scholar Ajami Reflects on Trip to Iraq

Fouad Ajami, director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, recently visited Baghdad. He shares his observations of the current political atmosphere in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We'll hear next from a man who supported the war in Iraq. He then wrote a book on why it went so wrong, and he keeps returning in search of signs of progress. Fouad Ajami is a writer who sometimes advises the White House. And in his latest visit to Iraq he focused on the city where the war may be decided.

Mr. FOUAD AJAMI (Author, "The Foreigner's Gift"): I stayed in Baghdad. This is my seventh trip to Iraq.

INSKEEP: Did you get out into the city much?

Mr. AJAMI: Yeah, I did. But I do have to say that I did have a fair amount of protection. I did have bodyguards and drivers who were armed and knew their way around the city.

INSKEEP: And did you get a sense that things were improving?

Mr. AJAMI: Yes, absolutely. There is a tremendous sense of optimism, some hope invested in this security plan. And some hope invested - to be honest with you - even in the arrival in Iraq of General David Petraeus.

INSKEEP: Our correspondents in Baghdad have basically said three things about the security effort in Baghdad so far. They suggested that suicide bombings blamed on Sunnis have gone right on and perhaps even increased; that sectarian violence blamed on Shias seems to have abated, that violence has moved elsewhere; and on balance Baghdad might feel a little bit better now. Is that about your impression?

Mr. AJAMI: I concur with them for the most part. But there's something else that's happened and it's a brutal truth, I think, which people haven't really been willing to say. The Sunnis have lost the battle for Baghdad. And if you talk to their leaders behind closed doors, clerics and politicians alike, they will tell you that they have lost this battle. And their old argument that the Americans have to pack up and leave has subsided and has been replaced by a desire to see the Americans stay and to see whether their own leaders, the Sunni leaders, could cut a better deal for them. This is a very, very monumental change in Baghdad.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that's a brutal truth because what has happened over the last - more than a year now, is that Shia militias have gone out and displaced Sunnis and killed Sunnis by the thousands?

Mr. AJAMI: Well, I don't want to say this because I think this just sort of takes the story and, you know, it tells it right in the middle. What happened is that there was a steady and relentless attack on the Shia, daily bombings of the Shia. They came back to retaliate against the violence inflicted on their people, and certain things happened. The Sunnis don't have the numbers. And another...

INSKEEP: There we go. I mean there are certain things that happened. I mean granting what you said, that the provocation has been there, that the provocation is still there and will probably still be there tomorrow - the bombings continue.

Mr. AJAMI: Sure.

INSKEEP: Shia militias have gone out and reduced the numbers of Sunnis in Baghdad.

Mr. AJAMI: Well - no, there is no doubt, they've reduced the number of Sunnis, but something else happened, which is even more important than what these militias have done. Remember, the Sunni middleclass in Baghdad was the one with the money. If you take a look at the numbers, we understand there are a million Iraqis in Syria; there is 700,000 Iraqis in Jordan; there are tens of thousands of Iraqis in the United Arab Emirates, in Egypt, etc. Those tend to be, for the most part, Sunnis because they were the ones who were able to leave.

INSKEEP: So if Baghdad is a little quieter now, and if that's bought some time for Iraqi politicians to pursue a solution to their problems...

Mr. AJAMI: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...have they made use of the time?

Mr. AJAMI: One problem of the Sunni Arabs is that while the Kurds are represented in the government by the true forces in Kurdish society, and while the Shia in the government are also drawn from the real powers in the Shia world, the Sunnis are not represented in the government by people that they consider truly reflective of themselves. It's the dilemma that the Sunni Arabs have placed themselves in. They placed their faith in the insurgency, and now they have to turn to leaders who are in the mainstream, who are in the political process, who have pledged themselves to the political process.

INSKEEP: So when Shia leaders, who you see is legitimate, and Kurdish leaders, who you see is legitimate, sit down and gather around whatever Sunnis are in the government at the time, are there any Sunnis in the room who could actually, in effect, deliver peace or deliver anything from the Sunni Arab community at large?

Mr. AJAMI: I really don't know the answer to this one. There are many, many Sunni leaders in the inner circles of power. The problem is the Sunni street, so to speak, quote-unquote, I don't like the expression but it offers itself, it's handy. The Sunni street will turn around and tell you that these people don't represent them, that they are quislings, they are instruments of the Shia. I personally think that the Sunni Arabs are now coming around to a recognition that these Sunni leaders in the government and in the parliament, in the inner councils of power, are the ones who will best represent them and will best serve their interest.

INSKEEP: I wonder if what you end up there with then is signs of hope that you see in the government, signs of hope that you see in the security situation, but still a fundamentally flawed situation.

Mr. AJAMI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: It's almost like you have a better mechanic but the car is still totaled.

Mr. AJAMI: Yeah. I don't disagree with you. You know, there is everything in Iraq - from education to health to the oil sector, to literacy - has been wrecked. The human pain, the hurt of Iraq, is very deep and very profound.

INSKEEP: Fouad Ajami, thanks very much.

Mr. AJAMI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's at the School of Advanced International Studies and wrote "The Foreigner's Gift."

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