STEVE INSKEEP, host:
U.S. military officials say the war in Iraq can only end when there is a political solution. The trouble comes when Iraqis seek political answers by continuing the war.
President BILL CLINTON: There are more and more people who think that they can get what they want by shooting or throwing up these roadside bombs rather than engaging in politics.
INSKEEP: Former President Bill Clinton is among those who think Iraq is in civil war. Whether you accept that term or not, Iraq's political violence calls to mind the aphorism that war is a continuation of politics by other means. This week, we'll examine that war and what it means for the American military.
We start with Vali Nasr, author of a book on the Middle East and a teacher of military officers. He says it's hard to stop the violence as long as Iraq's political factions disagree.
Mr. VALI NASR (Naval Postgraduate School of Monterey, California): We are not able to control events that can keep escalating. We might be able to control the tempo of it, but we cannot easily stop it at this juncture.
INSKEEP: From the point of view of the different political factions in Iraq, is it actually necessary to have a full-scale civil war?
Mr. NASR: It's not necessary to have it, but it's necessary to finalize the distribution of power in Iraq. And without a viable political roadmap, one that the various factions are willing to sit down and negotiate around, increasingly it's evident that the fate of the country is going to be decided by gunmen on the street. And that's what we are increasingly seeing as well.
INSKEEP: What would happen if the United States, as some are now advocating, largely stepped out of the way? What would happen to the different groups inside Iraq?
Mr. NASR: Well, there would be a big battle for power in Baghdad. And also there would be a big battle between the Shiites and Sunnis and ultimately between Sunnis and the Kurds over who gets what and where does each side stand once the dust settles.
INSKEEP: And when you say a big battle?
Mr. NASR: A battle, a much more severe conflict, which then we can actually call a civil war over who gets Baghdad, who gets Kirkuk, who gets Mosul, and where would the ultimate lines between these constituent parts of Iraq will lay.
INSKEEP: If the United States stepped out of the way, who would have the advantage among the three major groups - Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and the Kurds?
Mr. NASR: The Kurds have probably the most advantage because they already are operating like a separate country, and they have a fairly strong military force and they would be capable of defending themselves. There is also a lot of ground for them to make common cause with the Shiites against the Sunnis. The Shiites and Sunnis, neither one is able to really defeat the other one. The Shiites do not want Al Anbar, and they do not have the wherewithal to defeat the insurgency.
The insurgents can inflict pain on the Shiites, but they cannot fight all the way to the south for the oil fields. It really comes down to who gets Baghdad. But at the rate in which Baghdad is being cleansed along sectarian lines, that battle may be pretty much moot very soon as well. In other words, there won't be much to fight about, but there would be a skirmish over drawing the battle lines between the two sides.
INSKEEP: You said the Shiites don't want Anbar, which is the western province where the largest numbers of Sunnis are concentrated. What do you mean they don't want it?
Mr. NASR: Al Anbar does not have any natural resources to make anybody want it. And it is too indigestible. It is too unruly. It's too resistant to Shiite rule. And it's filled with very powerful insurgents that nobody wants to be put in a position of having to subdue them. If the U.S. cannot subdue the insurgents, I'm sure nobody else would countenance doing that.
INSKEEP: Well, why would the various sides not see the American point of view on this, which I may simplify by saying all the different factions in Iraq really ought to try to get along because it's for their own good?
Mr. NASR: Well, that's the principle, and I think everybody agrees, but what is the framework around which they should begin the negotiations? A year ago we presented the idea of a national unity government and power sharing around constitutional renegotiations. A year into the process nothing has happened. It's clear that there is no framework for discussions. There is good intention, everybody wants to discuss, but nobody knows what is it that they in practice will be discussing.
INSKEEP: Now, what do you mean by nothing has happened? Because when we listen to American officials, they will point out there've been elections, a government was seated, a government is in power, there are ministers, there's a parliament, people are active, people talk a lot. What do you mean nothing has happened?
Mr. NASR: Well, the Sunnis agreed to join the political process at the end of 2005 on the condition that the key provisions of the constitution would be renegotiated. None of that has actually happened. No renegotiation has occurred. And therefore you have a political process in Iraq, but we haven't moved forward in a direction of realistic power sharing that will make Iraq work.
INSKEEP: I'm not sure this is widely understood. You're saying that Sunni Muslims, who are seen as behind the insurgency in Iraq, or one slice of it, agreed to join the government on condition that their grievances be dealt with, and all these months have passed and no one has even begun to deal with their grievances?
Mr. NASR: That's true. I mean there are two problems here. One is that we assume that the Sunni politicians who are going to come in would actually be able to deliver on the insurgency, and there is no evidence of that at all. But secondly is that they did join, they did take some ministries, they did take some important positions, but there has been no renegotiations in Iraq over power sharing and who will get what in the future of that country.
INSKEEP: A few weeks ago we got a chance to speak with Ann Garrels, NPR's correspondent, who's been in and out of Baghdad since before the war, and we asked her about the motivations of the people currently in power in Iraq. And here's how she responded.
ANN GARRELS: Iraqis, I think, are fighting for their own - I mean the people in the government, for the most part it's quite venal. I mean they're fighting for power. They're fighting for money. It is highly corrupt. There is no sense of national unity. People are not working together for the betterment of the greater whole. Far from it.
INSKEEP: Vali Nasr, are Iraqi officials by and large going after their own fortunes before their own country?
Mr. NASR: Well, they're like politicians all over the world. It is not useful for us to try to imagine Iraqi politicians somehow as altruistic and selfless individuals. But rather we have to find ways in which the idea of national unity would be in their self-interest and that can only happen if we present a framework in which they can see their interests preserved. And also we bring to bear pressure from all of their masters around the region to force them to sit at the table and negotiate.
INSKEEP: Is it the right time then for the United States to even try to impose some kind of settlement on Iraq? Are the parties anywhere close to a point where they could move toward a settlement?
Mr. NASR: Well, the United States cannot impose its will on Iraq through its military capability on Iraq. What it needs is a new political process that is credible enough to every side that would bring them to a negotiating table. We discuss the issue of troop numbers in Iraq these days in the U.S., but we're missing the point. Troop numbers and security is only half the picture. The other half of the picture is a political roadmap for the future of Iraq.
And we in the United States are not talking about that, and that is what we ought to be talking and debating.
INSKEEP: Well, Vali Nasr, thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. NASR: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Vali Nasr teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School of Monterey, California. And you can find some of his latest writings at npr.org. This is the beginning of a series of conversations, and tomorrow, we'll describe one way forward in Iraq, as described by President Bush.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The success of the Iraqi government depends on the success of the Iraqi security forces.
INSKEEP: So we will speak with an American whose job is to train the trainers.
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