On Violence in Iraq

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

February 24, 2006

WHITFIELD: The intensity of Shiite-Sunni violence in Iraq appears to have caught many, including the Bush administration, by surprise. But the president today seemed to brush aside fear of civil war, saying he remains optimistic about the Iraqi people sorting out their problems. Ken Pollack is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He joins us from the Saban Center at Brookings. Good to see you, Ken.

KENNETH POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Thanks, Fredricka. Good to be here.

WHITFIELD: Well, do you think that a civil war is eminent given what has transpired?

POLLACK: Well, I think we need to be careful about that question. You certainly have low-level internecine and conflict going on in Iraq. And, frankly, Fredricka, this has been going on for 12 or 18 months. You can make the argument that that’s the start of civil war right there.

The more important point though is that it’s still at a low enough level that it’s possible to imagine how you could turn it back. In other words, we haven’t yet reached the point of no return. And I think that’s the key issue.

WHITFIELD: Well, what do you suppose is at root of the problem? You can look and say perhaps history has dictated this, but perhaps we also can look at the recent power struggles as they form a new government.

And under all of that people don’t have the basic necessities since this war again, right — electricity, power, water, security — any of those things. Do you think those things have helped to percolate things to this level?

POLLACK: Absolutely, Fredricka. I think you’ve put your finger on it. I think it’s a real mistake to simply say oh, these are groups of people who have hated each other forever. The fact of the matter is that Shia and Sunni have actually lived together much better than say, Catholics and Protestants did in Europe for most of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries.

And in Iraq, you have huge numbers of mixed marriages, highly integrated neighborhoods. Most Shia and Sunnis live together fine. The problem is exactly what you’re talking about. On April 9th, 2003, the United States created a power vacuum in Iraq.

And we’ve seen these kind of power vacuums before. It’s exactly like what happened Yugoslavia after Tito’s death. It’s similar to what we’ve seen in Lebanon and Congo and elsewhere. Inside these power vacuums, people don’t have security. They don’t know who to trust.

There are always extremist groups who want to use violence. And when these extremist groups start using violence, it drives the average person, who really just wants safety and a good job and clean water — it drives them to seek refuge with their own extremists.

WHITFIELD: So it’s not necessarily just the top level people involved here. But, you know, in terms of trying to figure out how to get to the root of this problem or try to solve the problem, it really means looking at the bottom and working your way up in terms of all of the problems that ordinary Iraqis are dealing with.

POLLACK: Exactly. And I think that’s one of the mistakes that we have made so far in Iraq is that, you know, it is a lot easier to focus on the top of the pyramid. You know who those people are. You can sit down, you can meet with them.

But what we have seen from these kind of reconstruction, these nation building exercises over the past 20, 30 years is when they work, they work from the ground up.

And what we really need to be focusing a great deal more attention — and there’s certainly some within the Bush administration and some within the U.S. military who understand this and are trying to move in this direction.

We need to start by providing basic safety and security for the Iraqis. That’s what they’re complaining about. Read the newspaper articles. That’s their biggest complaint right now.

And then once we have created secure environments, provide them with jobs and electricity and water, and when you have got that kind of a situation in place, now you can start to think about building a political system and building a new economic system.

WHITFIELD: And you did an extensive report recently, and your recommendation is that 2006 — this is the year to really make things happen or else, there really is no point of return.

POLLACK: That’s right. Right, I was the lead author of a group of nonpartisan experts. We looked at this. We issued a 142-page report, and what we focused on in particular was exactly this point, that the Iraqis have really been frustrated.

It’s been almost three years since the fall of Baghdad and they really expected to have a much better life than they do now. And the problem we have is if the U.S. and the new Iraqi government don’t start to delivery this year, I think you’re going to see increasing numbers of Iraqis just souring on the whole process and saying the Americans, the Iraqi government, they can’t do it, so maybe somebody like Muqtada al-Sadr can.

WHITFIELD: And what does this mean for all of these recent efforts to form this new government involving Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, all that on the back burner now?

POLLACK: Well, certainly — no, I don’t think you can ever put that on the back burner. It’s certainly the case that that needs to go forward, although it’s obviously going to be even harder now.

I think the bigger issue is that we can’t let formation of the national unity government stand in the way of many of these other basic reforms. We need to be providing the Iraqis with security and jobs and clean water and electricity now. And we can’t just assume that some Iraqi national unity government, whenever that comes into existence, that it will do it. Because, frankly, even if that comes about — and we all have to hope that it will — they’re going to still have a tremendous amount of difficulty providing those things because they don’t have the resources to do so. Only the U.S. does.

WHITFIELD: Ken Pollack at the Saban Center at Brookings, thank you so much.

POLLACK: Thank you, Fredricka.