Sectarian Violence Shakes Iraq in Wake of Attack The attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a spasm of sectarian violence in Iraq. Some Sunni Arab groups suspended talks with Shiite and Kurdish parties and none of this bodes well for U.S. hopes of a new government that represents all sides.
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Sectarian Violence Shakes Iraq in Wake of Attack

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Sectarian Violence Shakes Iraq in Wake of Attack

Sectarian Violence Shakes Iraq in Wake of Attack

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From NPR News in Washington D.C., I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

After years of carnage in Iraq, the most damaging attack may prove to be the one that caused no casualty, the bombing last week that destroyed the golden dome of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Vali Nasr is a professor at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California.

Dr. VALI NASR (Professor, Naval Post-Graduate School): I think what at the Askariya mosque was a major turning point, from which it would be very difficult to step back. And I think Iraq is much closer to, not only civil conflict, but also unraveling of the commitment to its center.

CONAN: Iraq on the brink of civil war. Plus, our Opinion Page, writer Ahmed Rashid on why the United States and Pakistan cannot capture Osama bin Laden

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

An unprecedented three-day curfew gave all sides in Iraq a chance to step back from the edge of civil war. Today, after the curfew lifted, there was a bomb attack on a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, but for the most part, the country was relatively calm. Last week, more than 200 died after bombs destroyed an important golden dome of an important Shiite mosque in Samarra, violence that raised critical, and thus far, unanswered questions for Iraq and for the United States.

Can Iraqi forces assume responsibility for security and allow U.S. forces to leave? Will Iraqis trust government forces, or turn to outlawed sectarian militias? Will Iraq's neighbors intervene to support one side or another? When will a new government emerge and can it be strong enough to withstand cycles of tit-for-tat retaliation? Can the center hold?

Today, a look at sectarian violence in Iraq, and its implications for the Iraqi people and for the American occupation. Later in the program on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page, journalist Ahmed Rashid argues that the U.S. and Pakistan have bungled the search for Osama bin Laden. But first, sectarian violence in Iraq. If you have questions about the origins or the implications of Iraq's sectarian violence, or what the Iraqi government and the American military should do about it, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Email us,

Joining us now is Bobby Ghosh, a senior Baghdad correspondent for Time magazine. He's with us by phone from Time's bureau in Baghdad. Good of you to be with us this evening.

Mr. BOBBY GHOSH (Senior Baghdad Correspondent, Time Magazine): Any time, Neal.

CONAN: What's the mood like in Baghdad right now?

Mr. GHOSH: Well, it's a bit edgy today. This was the first day that, the first time in five days that there wasn't a daylight curfew. But they were very, most people chose to stay indoors, very few people using their vehicles in the street. I think there's definitely a sense that we haven't seen the end of the violence. And in fact, no sooner had the sun gone down when the violence started up again. And that has very much been a pattern here in the last few days. Most has taken place after dark.

Today, there was attack on a Sunni mosque west of Baghdad. And then about an hour ago, there was an absolute rain of mortars that came down in several locations in the east of Baghdad, including the middle of (unintelligible)

CONAN: And how are people reacting? Are people fearful of their neighbors at this point?

Mr. GHOSH: In this part of this country, yes, they are. We've had reports over the last few days of several instances where neighbor ratted out on neighbors. And when a Shiite mob came into the neighborhood, the Shiites from that neighborhood pointed out Sunni homes, and vice versa. So, something fundamental has broken the fabric of this country, and it will be a long time before it can be fixed.

CONAN: There have been over the past several years any number of, evidently, sectarian attacks, mostly on Shiias, bombings, and that sort of thing. Up until now, the Shiia people and their leaders have largely advocated patience.

Mr. GHOSH: That is correct, they have. But I think the leaders have been warning for a while now that patience was running thin among the community, particularly among the Shiia militia, they're armed, and dangerous, and very much at large. Over the last few months, many members of the militia have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces. And at least, over the last couple of days, their loyalties were brought into question. And in some instances they failed, they either let mobs carry on their rampaging, or in some instances, they actually joined in.

CONAN: We heard last week that President Bush called several important leaders in Iraq and asked them to make statements to quell the violence. And has that had any effect?

Mr. GHOSH: That has had some effect. The trouble is that the political leaders we spoke with fall into broadly two categories. The majority of them have absolutely no leverage on the mobs that were responsible for most of the violence. The few of them who do have some leverage over the mob, they were speaking with (unintelligible). On one hand, when they were speaking to TV cameras, and presumably to President Bush, they were talking about peace and the need for calming down the situation. Whereas, on the other hand, they were also making, when talking to their own constituency, they were making inflammatory remarks that were certain to make the situation worse.

CONAN: The man believed to be the most important cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, made a statement that could be interpreted a couple of different ways.

Mr. GHOSH: That is right. The Ayatollah Sistani has shown himself to be the one man capable of bringing most segments of the Shiite population under control. But I think he too recognizes that the patience of his flock is running thin, and he's responding to their wishes as much as anything. He called for a period of mourning. He called for demonstrations throughout the country, many of which have done violence. He called on, he did say somewhere in his statement that he would like people to be restrained. But on the other hand, he also said that if the government was unable to protect the Shiite holy places, then the believers should do so. Now, to the many ears, but particularly those among the Sunni community, that sounded like an incitement to violence, that sounded like Sistani was saying that people should take the law into their own hands.

CONAN: We should say, and your article this week in Time magazine points out, people have said that we've been at the edge of the abyss before.

Mr. GHOSH: Yes, we have. Each time we get ever so, ever so much closer, and each time, it seems, it takes a lot longer for this country to draw back from that edge. As I said at the top of this program, something fundamental has happened this time that is different from all the events of the past. In past, it's usually been the case of insurgents, or terrorists, or militias attacking ordinary people. That was still mostly the case in the last few days, but the main difference was that there were instances where ordinary people were turning on their neighbors and friends and people with whom they do business. That might seem like a small difference from the distance, but when you live in a country, when see how many of the neighborhoods here are mixed Shiia and Sunni, when you hear then that people are willing to give up their neighbors to the mobs, that tell us something has gone terribly wrong.

CONAN: In the midst of this, did Iraq's armed forces, the government forces, did they act as neutral preservers of the peace? Or did they take on sectarian roles themselves?

Mr. GHOSH: For the most part, they did almost nothing at all, which is a big part of the problem. And there were some instances, as I've said, where we've heard reports, particularly involving the police force, where the police joined among, with the lynch mobs, and participated in the violence. I, myself, traveling around Baghdad have seen police vehicles and Iraqi military checkpoints that weres flying the colors of Muqtada Sadr, who leads one of the militias. Like I said, many of the militias have been absorbed into the Iraqi police and military forces, and we've wondered for a long time who they would listen to when the push came to shove. And for many of us, we got the answer this past week and it was not a comfortable one.

CONAN: And where does that leave the Americans, and, of course, the other foreign troops in Iraq?

Mr. GHOSH: It leaves the coalition forces between a rock and a hard place, frankly. The big difficulty now for the U.S. is that it has absolutely no leverage with the people who could potentially push this country into the civil war. The U.S. has no leverage with the Sunni insurgent and terrorist groupsm, and the U.S. has no leverage with the Shiite militias, or the leaders of the Shiite militias. Perhaps the key man in all of this is Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite leader.

Only a couple of years ago, the U.S. was painting him as a murderer and his soldiers, his militia were fighting American soldiers, and killing American soldiers in the streets of Iraq. Now, he's a key figure in the new Iraqi government, and he's a key figure in whether or not this country turns into Lebanon, and the U.S. finds itself in a very uncomfortable position of having to do business, having to plead and parley with a man whom they only a couple of years ago would have wanted to see dead, or at least behind bars.

CONAN: And, Bobby Ghosh, is there any progress reported on at least a return to negotiations for the formation of a new government?

Mr. GHOSH: There is. There has been more talk recently in the last 24 hours about a return to these negotiations. The Sunni parties that had stormed away from the negotiations after the reprisals of violence that took place last week, have now said that they might be willing to come back. But they have said that they have terms, and most of the terms have not yet been announced and I suspect when negotiations begin, both sides, the Sunni politicians and the Shiite politicians, will use the violence that took place last week to try to harden their positions.

Their argument is going to be that our people will not tolerate our making any concessions. And both sides, I suspect and I believe, given their previous record, will indulge in a political game of I'm more grieved than thou. And I suspect that that is not going to be very constructive for the situation here.

CONAN: And as you also say, there doesn't seem to be any end of the tit-for-tat.

Mr. GHOSH: Not at all. In fact, we are hearing more and more reports today of Sunni insurgent groups coming into Baghdad from the West of the city to protect their fellow co-religionists and to retaliate against the Shiite militias. We've heard of neighborhoods forming armed watches of their own. I've spoke to many on both sides of the sectarian divide who say they've been preparing themselves, they've been keeping, they've been cleaning up their guns, they've been stocking up on ammunition, and waiting for the mobs to come into their neighborhoods. This is not, this is not, this is a tender box at the moment and I worry what it would take to spark it off.

CONAN: And finally, we just have a minute left, but you raised the even scarier prospect in your article this week, that Iraq's neighbors might decide to try to intervene to assist one side or another.

Mr. GHOSH: Absolutely. If there is a civil war here, almost every one of Iraq's neighbors will be involved. We can expect to see the Shiite majority, Iran, to come in on the side of the Shiite, in fact there are already indications that they are doing that. We can expect to see Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria, all of which are Sunni majority countries, to come in on the side of the Sunni insurgency and terrorist groups. And that would lead to a region-wide crisis which will be the exact opposite of what the United States has been trying to achieve here in the last four years.

CONAN: Bobby Ghosh, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Mr. GHOSH: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Bobby Ghosh, Senior Baghdad Correspondent for Time Magazine joining us by phone from Baghdad. We're talking about Iraq and sectarian violence. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, our e-mail address is When we return from the break, we'll talk with Adeed Dawisha, author of Arab Nationalism in the 20th Century. I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week's bombing of the golden mosque in Samarra, Iraq, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites led to violence between Sunnis and Shiias which left some 200 people dead and raised the specter of Civil War. Today we're talking about sectarian violence in Iraq and its implications for Iraq and for the American occupation.

If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, or send us an e-mail,, and we turn, as so often we have, over the past two years to Adeed Dawisha, Political Science professor at Miami University of Ohio and an Iraqi-American. He's with us from the studios of member station WMUB in Oxford, Ohio. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ADEED DAWISHA (Political Science Professor, Miami University of Ohio, Author, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair): Hey, good afternoon.

CONAN: Are we being alarmists or is this as serious as the situation in Iraq has been?

Mr. DAWISHA: No, no, no, I think it's very serious. I mean, I think that this latest incident and the events that happened afterwards certainly are of a different qualitative nature than what has happened before. Before it was all kind of, a lot of isolated incidents where some area would be bombed, or somebody would be killed, it would be followed, generally speaking, as your reporter had correctly said, by the Shiite clerics counseling caution and patience. This time it has been different in the sense that these clerics no longer are counseling patience and the Shiites seem to have just had enough. They've had this kind of thing for about a year, a year and a half, and there's a limit to anybody's patience when you get consistently being attacked.

CONAN: And are people at this point trying to evaluate whether their interests lie in continued effort to form a national government and continue the process with the democratization, or at this point, are people looking for more survival, let's put it that way?

Mr. DAWISHA: You know, it's, I think that the next two, three weeks would be pretty important, even consequential for the future of Iraq. It seems that the political leaders had learned something from what had happened. And they have certainly drawn back from the brink. For example, the Sunni Islamic, Iraqi Islamic party which had walked out and said that's it, they're never going to negotiate again with the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite main party, has re-evaluated.

Today they were saying we're going to meet again, this is important because if we don't meet, we don't talk, and if we don't form a new government that would be the end of Iraq as we know it, so it's absolutely essential that we'll do that. So, that at least there's some kind of rationality creeping in that suggests to me that, at least at the leadership level, probably some re-evaluation is taking place. The problem with these kind of situations is that at some point, rationality no longer becomes the mainstay, what you begin to see is an overtaking of emotional upsurges that begin to have their own momentum, and that's what worries me about what's happening in Iraq.

CONAN: Yeah, I remember a phrase from covering Northern Ireland, the politics of the latest atrocity.

Mr. DAWISHA: Yes, yeah. And if you covered Lebanon, or any colleague of yours who covered Lebanon will tell you the elation that people had every time political leaders kind of drew back from the brink, you see them all walking hand in hand, locking arms, and everybody is very happy, and then within two, three weeks, the whole thing deteriorates again.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, it's 800-989-8255, or e-mail And we'll begin with Chris, Chris calling us from Jacksonville in Florida.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRIS: What I'd like to say basically is that when it comes down to the creation of Iraq, if you go back to the British, it was devised to be an internally divided state. I mean, they did not want a strong nation. They wanted a nation full of different ethnic groups that would fight against each other. And I think that, I mean, when you look back at the creation of nations based in Europe after World War I, divisive ethnic groups really don't show a lot of promise. It's really hard to force people to live together when they don't want to and even though you can say rationally, you know, you can't blame all of your problems on the other group, there will always be people who can take that stance.

CONAN: Adeed Dawisha, of course Iraq was comprised of three Ottoman provinces, and is Iraq at this point better off returning to those old Ottoman lines, if you will, or those divisions, or is it better off trying to make it as a unified country, which it of course has been for quite some time?

Mr. DAWISHA: Well, two points. First of all, the Iraq that was created from three Ottoman provinces did exist as one unit for over 80, 85 years, and there was no doubt that if you look at the way it progressed from 1921 right through to about the early '80s, there was a greater mixing of the various groups, that the Shiites were beginning to be brought into the political process as well as the economic process and so on and so forth.

So that there was a concerted effort to create a unified Iraq and I would have thought that if an observer looked at Iraq then, he would have come out with the contention that Iraq seems to be a reasonably successful project. It's then when, during the last 20 years of Saddam's rule, an especially sectarian rule, that you begin to see these divisions occurring in Iraq. That's the first point. The second point is that as far as Iraq is concerned today, you can't actually have a united country, but a federalized one, even a very loosely federalized one, where the various groups can have their regions. And it depends on whether these groups can see their interests being enhanced by being as part of one, part of a united Iraq or not. It's on this question that you're going to see whether Iraq remains united or not.

CONAN: Chris, thanks, go ahead, I'm sorry.

CHRIS: I'd just like to make, you know, one point in opposition to that. I mean, when you take a look at say Kurdish vote returns that were recent where something along the lines of 98 percent of the people voted for independence. I mean, if we really want to stress personal responsibility in democratic action throughout the world, doesn't it seem that we should actually take account of these feelings and say, if you want to be independent, be independent. We should not force people to live in a country that is an artificial creation.

Mr. DAWISHA: All right.

CONAN: Go ahead, Adeed Dawisha.

Mr. DAWISHA: I was just going to say I absolutely agree. I'm just saying that it will depend, therefore, on the groups themselves, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds to decide whether their own interests are enhanced by being in some kind of a loose federal structure within Iraq, or not. And in the final analysis, the decision is going to be theirs, whether this decision is articulated through the electoral process in a peaceful manner, or unfortunately, and sadly, and hopefully not, through some kind of violent outbursts.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's bring another voice into the conversation now. Stephen Biddle wrote a critique of the U.S. military strategy in Iraq in the March issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine and he's with us here in Studio 3A. Stephen Biddle, thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And of course, the United States finds itself in the middle of all of this.

Mr. BIDDLE: Yeah, we do, and we find ourselves in the middle of it in an environment where I think most people in this debate are drawing the wrong analogy.

CONAN: And what is that?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, oddly in a debate where people disagree with each other as much as they do over this one, they all share this underlying common assumption that the way to succeed in Iraq is to re-fight Vietnam the right way this time. The administration strategy is right out of the Nixon administration playbook from 1969, when hearts and minds turned the fighting over to the locals.

The anti-war movement thinks we've already lost the hearts and minds of things hopeless and you ought to get out. Critics of the administration say we're not re-fighting Vietnam the right way yet, we should use late war Vietnam tactics and not early war Vietnam tactics. The problem with all this tendency of Americans to think of any insurgency as Vietnam, is that Vietnam was a Maoist's people's war. Iraq is already an inter-communal civil war. People want to talk about how if we don't play our cards right, Iraq may become a civil war. In fact, it is now, it has been for a long time, it's just civil war.

CONAN: One could debate the definition of when it crosses the line from communal violence to civil war, but all right, we'll take your point.

Mr. BIDDLE: Yeah, I mean it's a civil war who's tactics at the moment are car bombings and assassinations and not Picket's Charge, but nonetheless, the underlying dynamics of this conflict are those of a communal civil war and not a Maoist people's war and the problem is the strategies that you would use to resolve a communal civil war are in many ways exactly the opposite of the strategies you would choose if you thought you were engaged in a people's war insurgency.

CONAN: You don't try to win hearts and minds?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, I mean, I think it's less that you don't try and win hearts and minds. I don't think its gong to be as decisive in this conflict as it might have been in Vietnam. I think the biggest problem has to do with the military end of the equation. The military heart of our strategy in Iraq right now is Iraqification, hand the fighting off to the locals, the quick and train program. And that makes sense if you're engaged in a Maoist's people's war. The trouble is in a inter-communal civil war it throws gasoline on the fire.

The Sunnis perceive what we understand to be the national Iraqi military as essential Shiite-Kurd militia on steroids, and they've got a point. In a communal civil war, if you want an effective military unit, it's going to have to be communally homogeneous. It's going to have to be mostly Kurds and Shiites. And understandably, the stronger we make this Kurd-Shiite militia on steroids, the more it scares the Sunnis, and in a war that at the end of the day is about communal self-preservation, the harder they're likely to fight back.

NEAL CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Don, calling us from Abbington, Pennsylvania.

DON (Caller): Yes. About the point this gentleman just made, if the Kurds and the Shiites did join together, wouldn't that bring in the rest of the Sunnis in the area from other countries that are majority Sunni? And also, what choices do we really have as a military? And also, where is the rest of the world? Where is the U.N.? Where is our diplomatic relations with other countries to try to quell this problem? Thank you. I'll listen.

CONAN: Okay, Don. Thanks very much for the call. Well, what are the U.S. options now at this point, do you think, Stephen Biddle?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, I think the option we need to think about taking at the moment is to slow down, not speed up the transfer of military responsibility to Iraqi armed forces.

CONAN: Don't withdraw as quickly as we thought we might be able to.

Mr. BIDDLE: That's right. And moreover, don't strengthen this force any faster than we have to, because at the moment, it's not a national military and can't be if we want it to be effective. The stronger we make it, the worse we make the underlying problem, not better. The way you solve an intercommunal civil war is you need some sort of a constitutional power-sharing deal that makes all parties involved feel safe that the others can't oppress them. If you create this Shiite-Kurd militia on steroids before you've got the constitutional deal, you turn the constitution into a fiction.

If the real military power in the country is all Shiite and Kurdish, the only thing standing between the Sunnis and the atrocities they fear is what looks to them like a piece of paper. So, it undermines the prospect of getting the stable constitutional deal that at the end of the day is the only way to resolve the real problem in the conflict.

CONAN: Adeed Dawisha, I wonder what you make of that?

Mr. DAWISHA: I think that there's a lot of logic in what's being said. The situation in Iraq is today such that the political leadership who are supposed to come up with this constitutional agreement have not even decided that they want to form a government. The idea was that there would be a national assembly that will then elect a constitutional committee that would modify and rewrite the constitution within four months, which then will have either a referendum or just a vote in the assembly.

This cannot happen until a government is formed. Now, the national assembly should be meeting very soon for the first time in which it will elect a president. So, the argument about a constitutional bargain that would somehow create the environment for a united Iraq hasn't even started. In the meantime, we have violence. And somehow we've got to think in terms of how to stop this violence, because it, in and of itself, can actually torpedo any political bargain that might occur amongst the group. I think that's kind of the problem that we're facing at this present time in Iraq.

CONAN: We're talking about the prospect of a civil war in Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Paul. Paul calling from Providence, Rhode Island.

PAUL (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

PAUL: My question is, when I read Steven Colls' book about Afghanistan and the ghost wars, it seems to me there's an analogous situation in Iraq where nobody can control the funding, and it's in danger of turning into a proxy war with the Sunnis funding the Sunnis, the Shiia funding the Shiia, the whatever Kurdish money can come in, and then you have the Syrians who are a Baptist state with ties to the old Baptist regime, and then Turkey is sort of the wildcard because it says if Iraq becomes too unstable, then they'll come in and stabilize Kurdistan for their own self-protection.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

PAUL: And I'm wondering what your guests think about that.

CONAN: Why don't we turn to you first, Stephen Biddle.

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, one of the reasons why the stakes here are so high is because the interconnections through the region are so tight. All the neighboring countries involved see big stakes in this conflict, and if things go south and this civil war escalates from car bombings and assassinations up to Pickett's charges, you could easily imagine that they would get involved in a much more aggressive way than they are so far. Sending money is one thing. It could get a lot worse. That's one of the central reasons why it's so important that the United States play, and the actors in Iraq, play their cards right to cap the escalation of the conflict, and preferably to resolve it so as to avoid having this become a regional war throughout the entire Mideast.

CONAN: Adeed Dawisha, these actors have certainly been involved already.

Mr. DAWISHA: Yes. Absolutely. Whether it's from Iran or whether it's from Syria. I doubt very much whether these countries are so rational as to think in those terms. I mean, I think in many ways it's a zero-sum game as far as they're concerned, that if the Sunnis lose in Iraq, it's lost for them, and vice versa. And this is why it seems to me that rather than putting the cap on what's happening inside Iraq, there is at the minimum a great encouragement and incitement even by the outside powers. That's certainly true in the case of Iran, which publicly says one thing, but all the indications are as if Iran's hands are very, very obvious in the support that it renders to the Meddi(ph) army and the Bedter(ph) group, and interestingly enough, even to the Sunni insurgents, in order to create the kind of environment that would probably bog the Americans down, and, in a sense, improve the position of Iran in the area.

I don't think it's in Iran's interest at the moment, as they see it, to put a cap on anything.

CONAN: We are talking with Adeed Dawisha, a political science professor at Miami of Ohio University. He is with us from WMUB out there. And also with us is Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. If you'd like to get in on our conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is

And when we come back from a short break, we are also going to take a look to President Bush's planned trip to Pakistan and talk with journalist Ahmed Rashid about what he says is a debacle that the United States and Pakistan have wrought since the war in Afghanistan, and why they have not been able to capture Osama bin Laden. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: Right now, we're talking about sectarian violence in Iraq, and how such violence affects prospects for a unified government. Our guests are Adeed Dawisha, author of Arab Nationalism in the 20th Century: From Triumph to Despair, and Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. 800-989-8255, if you would like to join us, And let's get another caller on the line. This is Matt. Matt calling from Martinsville in Virginia.

MATT (Caller): Hi, yeah, I was just wondering if someone can speak about the differences that are underlying these political divisions in Iraq, you know, culturally, historically. I mean, what is actually separating these three groups, and how different are they?

CONAN: Adeed Dawisha?

Mr. DAWISHA: Well, very quickly, what separates the Kurds from the rest of the Iraqis is that they're an ethnically distinct group. They're Indo-European, whereas, of course, the Shiites and the Sunnis are Arabs from a Semitic background. So, there's an ethnic division. Between the Shiites and Sunnis, there is a kind of a religious, very esoteric, religious difference that traces back itself right through to the very beginning of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

And this has, in a sense, grown over the centuries to become a pretty major divide. The thing that you need to understand is that this is not a Protestant-Catholic division in the sense that only ten percent of the Muslin world is Shiite. But the Shiites are concentrated in the area that we are interested in in this program, basically, the Gulf, of course, Iran and Iraq, and much of the Gulf States. And of course, because of the oil, that makes it a very important division between the two.

I had argued in many articles before that the division between the Kurds and the Arabs is much deeper and certainly steeper, as one of your callers correctly said. The Kurds do want independence. Whereas, up until recently, the Shiite-Sunni divide has been one over political power and a redistribution of resources. You've never heard any Shiite asking for autonomy, let alone independence. It's only recently that you're beginning to hear these kinds of voices.

CONAN: Matt, does that help?

MATT: Yeah, but what about culturally? I mean, I understand the religious division, but what about culturally? Are they two distinct people?

CONAN: Same language, same ethnic group, isn't that right, Adeed Dawisha?

Mr. DAIWSHA: That's right. They are Arabs. They are the same ethnic group, the same language. The only difference is the fact that they have a different interpretation, slightly different interpretation, which have, through the centuries, become very pronounced, of Muslim doctrine.

MATT: Okay. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks, Matt. And turn now, let's go to Brian. Brian is with us from Franklin in Michigan.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. I really enjoy your program, as usual. But I have a question. It seems a pretty elementary kind of a question. There was a successful state prior to the last two wars in Iraq. Whatever you think of Saddam Hussein, he ran a successful state, occupying a territory, military and all the rest of it. What I don't hear much in this discussion is the possibility of applying a kind of a military model of a structure that might have existed during Saddam's time to maintain and perhaps control, deal with some of the sectarian differences that your guests are talking about right now in the military. To what extent is the old order, lessons from the old order about a successful military, to what extent could those be applied in Iraq today?

CONAN: Stephen Biddle, what do you think?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, the war at the moment is all about preventing exactly that. I mean, that's what the Shiites are most afraid of, in fact, is the imposition of a Sunni tyranny, and likewise for the other groups. The difficulty is less that we don't want a unified state with some strong stable state apparatus and military at the center. The problem is, none of the three ethnic groups trust either of the other two at the end of the day to run a government like that, in a way that wouldn't slaughter thousands to tens of thousands of them. And that's why they're shooting each other.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Adeed Dawisha?

Professor DAWISHA: Yeah, the big dilemma, on the one hand, you start from the premise of self-determination and the right of people to live in peace and to have their own say in the political order that they want. On the other hand, you have a state that itself actually propagates terrorism. I mean, when we talk about Sadam having had a successful state, it was successful in the sense that it was able to terrorize the entire population into submission. That was the limit of its success. And it's very difficult to, for me to sort of say this is a better solution than the one that we're having now, even with the kind of chaos that pervades Iraq.

BRIAN: May I follow up?

CONAN: Go ahead, Brian.

BRIAN: Yeah, I was going to add two things. This is a factual kind of a question, I don't have the answer to it. To what extent prior to Sadam were Shiites represented in the military? And then secondly, again without any apologies, to what extend does a state have a right to utilize some kind of force to maintain its existence? And that's certainly doesn't justify what your guests are calling terrorism, but even in the history of the United States, during our civil war period, I guess you could call some of the acts of both sides terrorist acts, with an effort to try to maintain a centralized state. And I'm really kind of curious about the factual part of the first one, and then comments on the second one.

CONAN: Stephen Biddle, do you know that?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, with respect to Iraqi military and of the Bathists, the regular army tended to be Shiite in the enlisted ranks. The non-commissioned officers and the officer corps tended to be disproportionately Sunni. The republican guard tended to be disproportionately Sunni. But Sadam was actually quite clever at trying to buy off Shiite interests buy seasoning the senior officer corps with selected Shiites as a way of both cross-watching, so that the prospective loyalty bonds forming in a way that might kick him out of government is diminished, but also as a way of buying off opposition. And in fact, there were all sorts of separate security organizations and military organizations in Iraq with very different ethnic balances, but by and large, the Shiites tended to be most heavily represented in the regular army.

CONAN: And all of these groups tended to watch each other.

Mr. BIDDLE: Indeed.

CONAN: Indeed. Brian, thanks very much for the call.

BRIAN: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Stephen Biddle, from whom we just heard, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. BIDDLE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Stephen Biddle is senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on foreign relations. He joined us here in Studio 3-A. Adeed Dawisha, always a pleasure to speak with you.

Professor DAWISHA: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Adeed Dawisha is a political science professor at Miami of Ohio, author of, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair.

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