R. Garrett Mitchell filed this dispatch for cfr.org.
[NOTE: This is a news report of a November 2, 2005, meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Full transcript will be available shortly.]
November 3, 2005
WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 -
"The Shi'a will have the commanders, and they won't be giving any real power to the Sunni officers. "
The Iraqi interim government's decision to begin recalling junior officers from Saddam Hussein's disbanded army may bolster the fighting capability of the Iraqi armed forces, but it will do little to affect the balance of political power among Shiites and Sunnis, and even less to stem the intensity of the insurgency, according to Middle East expert Vali R. Nasr.
Nasr, a professor of national security affairs at the U. S. Naval Postgraduate School, told a Council on Foreign Relations luncheon in Washington Thursday that the officers will be welcomed back. However, while the Iraqi government will "happily pay their salaries," their presence in the army will have little impact on the political calculus of the country.
"No one speaks for the Sunnis in Iraq. They don't have a Talabani [Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who serves as President of the interim government] or an al-Jaafari [Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite leader and Iraqi Prime Minister], so this move isn't apt to make much difference politically."
Nasr's primary thesis about the politics of Iraq, and of the Middle East region generally, is that "the Shi'a revival must be taken seriously." He argues persuasively that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has created a new political model for Iraq as well as for other countries in the region -- Iran, Lebanon, and Bahrain, among others.
"Sistani is shoring up the regional power" of Shiites by his insistence that they will gain more by going to the ballot box than fighting in the streets. He has offered his followers a new model for governance and for gaining power, arguing that the road to political preeminence lies in pursuing representative democracy and not a theocracy. And this perspective, unique to Islam, has young men and women listening around the Arab Muslim world.
Several key elements in the domestic political situation in Iraq remain unclear: Will the country overcome its significant factionalism to produce a united Iraq? Will the Sunnis willingly participate in the creation of a united country? Will the Shiites continue to provide the leadership for "one country" or will they take their cues from the Kurds and settle for a more autonomous form of federalism? And finally, will Sistani maintain his mantle of authority?
"Everything depends on Sistani's staying in power," according to Nasr. The man that many Americans, including some in the Bush administration, once ignored or treated with casual respect has become the architect of Iraqi democracy and Shiiite revivalism during the post-major conflict period.
The new political dynamic in the Middle East, according to Nasr, is the upward trajectory of an ascending power -- the Shiites -- and the descending arc of the Sunnis throughout the region. And it is important, he says, for American foreign policy to get it right with this new configuration.