With sectarian violence on the rise and a stable government nowhere in sight, things are not going well for Iraq at the moment. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Iraq expert Marina Ottaway about chances for government legitimacy, how to establish stability in Iraq and why the police force in Iraq is a fiction.
Marina Ottaway is a specialist on democracy and post- conflict resolution with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is also the senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project which analyzes the state of democracy across the globe and looks closely at efforts by the United States to promote democracy. She is currently working on a book about the political transformation in the Middle East and on reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This interview with Ms. Ottaway took place in Berlin at a symposium sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung on the chances and risks of exporting democracy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Headlines from Iraq seem to be getting progressively worse. Not only are suicide attacks and bombings a daily occurrence, but particularly after the February attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra -- a Shiite holy site -- deadly sectarian violence has increased. Are we witnessing a country falling apart?
Marina Ottaway: At this point in Iraq, you do not have a central government -- so you don't have a legitimate authority running the country. You don't have a government with the power to establish or maintain order. What you have is a nominal government that can only stay in power because the Americans are there. The government is supposed to have derived legitimacy from the constitution and the elections. But I think the government we end up with, won't have much legitimacy either.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why not? After all, the Iraqis went to the polls and chose their representatives. That seems pretty legitimate, does it not?
Ottaway: It is now almost three months after the elections and there is still no government. The Iraqis continue postponing the opening of parliament because according to the constitution, after they open parliament, they only have two months to form the government. They don't think they can form a government that quickly. A government that takes over five months to form is not a government that is going to have very much legitimacy in the end. The country has already collapsed. Now the challenge is figuring out a way to deal with this fact.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The idea, of course, was that the United States was going to help the Iraqis with security until they could help themselves, hopefully providing an atmosphere in which the Iraqis could build a democratic state. What went wrong?
Ottaway: The process the United States envisaged for putting into place a new legitimate government -- a government that has both authority and power -- is not working. The power component -- training a new military and a new police force -- is not going well. Even the government is now admitting that the police force is not a national police force. Rather it is riddled through and through with the militias and it is fragmented and divided. It's a similar situation with the military. Some of the troops also have split loyalties. In some of the Kurdish units, for example, you have troops who are not only wearing the insignia of the Iraqi army on their sleeves, but also the insignia of the Peshmerga -- the Kurdish militia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: We have heard a number of conflicting reports about how well the training of the Iraqi military and security forces is going. Is there any hope that the Iraqis may eventually be able to take care of their own security?
Ottaway: The Americans have discovered that there are very few Sunnis in the military and the police force, so they are trying to speed up the recruitment of Sunnis. That effort, in my opinion, will ultimately fail. The last of three groups of recruits -- they take in classes of about 1,200 men -- have been predominantly Sunni; the last one almost completely Sunni. There is a great danger that, rather than creating a more balanced national police force, this will create a Sunni militia alongside a Shiite militia that for all practical purposes already exists.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean to say that the Americans are essentially in the process of training soldiers for an eventual sectarian civil war?
Ottaway: That's a real risk.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a clear dividing line between the military forces trained by the Americans and the militias?
Ottaway: During the congressional hearings at the beginning of 2005, the US government said there was a high degree of combat readiness in the Iraqi military. Three months later, though, that readiness had dropped. You have to ask yourself, 'well, what happened?' There is a great danger -- and I have no proof but there certainly is a lot of circumstantial evidence -- that people who have been trained defected, or their officers defected, and that they are now in fact working for the militias. People don't become untrained.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Given such fragmentation, how can power and authority be created for the Iraqi government? Where do we go from here?
Ottaway: We need to start thinking about things radically differently. Rather than trying to impose our own view -- or the American vision -- of what Iraq should be like, it's time to seriously consider doing what was done with Bosnia in the Dayton Accords. The Dayton Accords were not an attempt to impose an American or a European solution. It was an attempt to take into consideration what the various groups wanted. At that point, what they wanted was to not have anything to do with each other -- but the treaty more or less salvaged Bosnia. The time may have come to do the same in Iraq.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there not any hope that the current way of doing things will bear fruit?
Ottaway: There is absolutely nothing we can do to stop what is currently going on in Iraq and I don't believe that there is really anybody who disagrees on this point. You can't, for example, convince the Kurds to give up on the dream of an autonomous region. That is just impossible. The Kurds have been essentially autonomous for the last 10 years. They are very well armed -- they have probably the strongest militia force in that country. Nobody is going to force the Kurds to do something that they do not want. And convincing the Sunnis and the Shiites to stay together? I'm really not sure about that. The real question is whether an agreement can be reached on a decentralized system without descending into civil war.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A lot of people think that we are witnessing a civil war already.
Ottaway: It depends on what you mean by civil war. One type is the civil war we know from the United States in the 19th century or Bosnia in the 1990s where factions fought against each other with actual armies in the field. Then you have the civil war that we see in many African countries -- more wars of disintegration. These are fought in a disorganized way where the lines between the government troops and the militias are very unclear. If you accept that as a form of civil war, then Iraq is experiencing civil war.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which is exactly what the United States wants to avoid. Has the American project of building a democratic country in the Middle East been reduced to preventing an all-out eruption of sectarian violence?
Ottaway: Not really. The United States is trying not to intervene in the conflicts flaring at the moment. Following the blowing up of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and the retaliatory attacks against Sunni mosques, American troops were pretty much confined to barracks. This led to a lot of complaints, but the position taken by the United States was that it was not going to step into the middle of these sorts of conflicts. The American role is to build up the Iraqi national forces so that they can provide security. The problem is, as we said, that the national police force and national military -- but particularly the police force -- are to a large extent fiction.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the US continues to rely on this strategy. Why? Is it naivety?
Ottaway: It's not naivety. We have never understood the political situation in Iraq. And don't forget that the American policy in Iraq was driven almost completely by the military. It was not designed by experts on the country. And frankly I'm not sure anybody else could have done better -- it is an extremely complicated situation. There was an honest attempt by the United States to create a new Iraq. But it has failed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Meanwhile, attempts to create a government in Iraq continue. Might they be successful after all?
Ottaway: I don't doubt that they will be able to put together a government of sorts. But will that government really have legitimacy in the eyes of most Iraqis? US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad wants the Sunnis to be over-represented in the hopes of pacifying the Sunni insurgency. The danger is that he will make the situation worse. There is a real chance that the Sunni insurgency will ignore the government as mere puppets of America -- and that Khalilzad's strategy will alienate the Shiites. That would lead to an enormously dangerous situation. One of the reasons why the United States is still in Iraq is because the Shiites have continued to tolerate their presence. That could change, and at that point the American occupation would be in serious trouble. And the whole of Iraq would be in serious, serious trouble.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the Americans have to stay?
Ottaway: Whether you believed in the war in the first place or not, at this point, a sudden American withdrawal would result in a mess. Americans should perhaps not be there, but now that they are there, they cannot just pick up and go.
Interview conducted by Charles Hawley