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Author Examines Impact of Iraq's Sectarian Violence


Professor Vali Nasr is the author of the forthcoming book THE SHIA REVIVAL: HOW CONFLICTS WITHIN ISLAM WILL SHAPE THE FUTURE. He teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and he joins us from Stanford University, where he's currently a visiting professor. Welcome back to the program, Dr. NASR.

Dr. VALI NASR (Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Last summer, you said on this program, and I quote, "The larger battles within the Shias and between the Shias and the Sunnis have not yet been fought in Iraq." Are they being fought now?

Dr. NASR: They're beginning to be fought now. I think we're at the early stages of both communities now trying to array their forces in confronting one another and in the big battle for who will control Iraq's government in the coming years.

SIEGEL: Are you using forces and battle conceivably figuratively, or do you mean they're going to fight it out?

Dr. NASR: They could be fighting it out. In other words, the calm that came after the attack on the Askariya shrine is not holding totally. We're seeing dribbling of violence. We're still seeing provocation on both sides. And I think the fact that Iraq still does not have a government, that its Prime Minister is in question, it leaves the door open for who really will control Iraq and who will end up with how much power in Iraq.

And so long as these questions are not answered, they will have to be fought out. They could be fought out in the Parliament, but conceivably in the streets, and even more seriously in terms of outright sectarian confrontation.

SIEGEL: But to the perhaps too simplistic litmus test question, is Iraq now in a state of civil war, you would say yes or no?

Dr. NASR: I would say it is right on the precipice, depending on how we define civil war. We are definitely in the level of low-level violence, where the two communities are identifying along identity lines to an increasing extent, the blood has been spilled, there are grudges, and there is a real game of power. There's something for them to fight over, which is to fight over territory, power, resources and control of a major Arab country.

And I think if we went by that definition, the struggle is on. What distinguishes it from a full-fledged civil war is the intensity and level of the struggle, not the struggle itself, and the fact that we really still do not have demarcated territories and clear-cut militias that are facing one another across a line of battle.

SIEGEL: One of Washington's aims in Iraq is that the Iraqis create a government of national unity, and that would mean that Shia parties that did extremely well in the election should include Sunnis and Kurds in the government. You've written that Iraqi Shias see that American aim as an example of coddling the Sunnis, whom they would see as unfairly privileged to begin with.

Dr. NASR: Well, because the aim of the insurgency from the very beginning was to show that it can continue this fight indefinitely, and it will eventually force the United States either to leave or to begin to force the Shias to give in a lot more to the Sunnis. And the open way in which the United States began to pressure the Shias and began to try to woo Sunnis, some of whom don't have a clean record as far as the insurgency is concerned, can be construed by the Shias that the U.S. has not changed its strategy. It actually believes that it cannot defeat the insurgency, and it's rewarding force and bad behavior. And if that's the case, then the Shias will also come to the conclusion that rather than continuing to work with the U.S., if bad behavior is what's going to be rewarded, that they will also resort to that as well.

SIEGEL: Well, what's something the United States can do to either avoid further alienating the Shia community or try to repair the degree of alienation we've already experienced?

Dr. NASR: Well, it all comes down to how do we handle the formation of the government, and how do we handle the constitutional revisions that are on the table. And a lot of it is also management of our public image. In other words, the U.S. has to be very careful that it does not appear publicly to be in some ways rewarding the insurgency, coddling the Sunnis, or pushing the Shias too hard for them to compromise. And we have to come to terms that publicly that this is now a Shia country, that its government ultimately will be Shia, and that, you know, the rights of the minorities have to be respected, but the constitutional framework has to accept the majority role that the Shias have in Iraq.

SIEGEL: Well, Vali Nasr, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. NASR: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Professor NASR is the author of the forthcoming book THE SHIA REVIVAL: HOW CONFLICTS WITHIN ISLAM WILL SHAPE THE FUTURE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.