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Iraq: U.S. Expert Discusses Prospects For Stabilization

Kenneth Katzman being interviewed at RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, December 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kenneth Katzman, a noted specialist on Middle East affairs at the Congressional Research Service, spoke recently with RFE/RL about events in the region. The discussion focused on promoting stability in Iraq and on U.S. relations with Iran.

RFE/RL: Who is supporting the insurgency in Iraq?

Kenneth Katzman: There was a report [in "The New York Times"] that the Iraqi insurgents -- particularly the Sunni insurgents -- have many sources of funding -- oil smuggling, corruption, and various sources. I think some money comes from outside, from the Sunni-Arab states, from private donors. And so they have an ample supply of funds to continue their fight against the Iraqi government.

RFE/RL: And how about the Shi'ite factions?

Katzman: Well, the Shi'a are 60 percent of the country, and they control the security forces. The U.S. has built security forces which are mostly Shi'a. So, actually, the U.S. government has directly given the Shi'a much power and arms. And some of these forces are using these for sectarian violence.

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RFE/RL: There is a lot of talk that there are armed groups within the security forces that are pursuing sectarian violence, but do we have solid evidence of that?

Katzman: I think the U.S. military has sometimes arrested red-handed some of these forces; they found some detention centers that were under the Interior Ministry but were being operated by Badr Brigades [the armed wing of the Shi'ite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)].

Yes, they have found evidence, absolutely. And many of these sectarian groups are using official police uniforms and guns that were issued officially. So, yes, I think they have evidence of this.

RFE/RL: What can be done to prevent this practice from spreading in Iraq? Do you think anything can be done externally, meaning the U.S., the coalition, can do anything? Or does the government have to tackle this problem?

Katzman: Theoretically, the U.S. could do more. The U.S. has been [engaging in] combat against the Sunni insurgents. It is also possible that the U.S. could perform combat against the Shi'ite militias. [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki has prevented it. This is the problem. The government is preventing us from cracking down on the Shi'ite militias. So, it is a one-sided battle. It is the U.S. against the Sunnis, but not against the Shi'ite militias. This is why Iraq is so unbalanced and chaotic right now.

RFE/RL: Many Iraqis refer to a group that they call "former Ba'athists" -- by which they mean the instigators of violence. How would you refer to that group?

Katzman: It is mostly Shi'a who say that. They use that term. Everybody who is fighting is a former Ba'athist. Well, it is not only former Ba'athists. It is average Sunnis who feel humiliated by what has happened -- that the U.S. came in, removed [former Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] and had this election where the Shi'a won all the power. It is not just ex-Ba'athists. It is all Sunnis who feel humiliated and disenfranchised.

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RFE/RL: [Radical Shi'ite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr says that foreign troops should leave the country. Do you think that this position puts him close to former Ba'athists and, in general, Sunni insurgents?

Katzman: Al-Sadr is interesting because, yes, some of his positions are very similar to some things that the Sunnis say -- that the foreign troops should be out. Yet his Al-Mahdi Army has been very much hard-line on retaliating against Sunnis who commit violence against Shi'a. So he's a little hard to figure out.

RFE/RL: As a political figure, could he be a sort of center of gravity if the coalition leaves?

Katzman: It is very possible. He could be a kingmaker. He could be a determining faction leader. Absolutely. That's possible. He has got a lot of support and he is someone that I'm watching as potentially very pivotal if and when the U.S. leaves.

RFE/RL: Since you seem to think that a split among Shi'ite groups is possible, can you foresee any scenario involving armed struggle among those factions?

Katzman: There has already been armed struggle and I think if the U.S. leaves there will be an armed struggle between the Badr forces and the Al-Mahdi Army. Yes.

RFE/RL: Do you think it will be an all-out struggle?

Katzman: It is certainly possible, but the Al-Mahdi Army seems to be more numerous right now, so I think maybe the Badr has suffered a little bit. They've been more part of the government and the Al-Mahdi forces would have, probably, the advantage.

RFE/RL: Lately everyone has been talking about the Iran-Iraq summit in Tehran. What is your view about Iran's position on Iran?

Katzman: I don't think the Iranians are in a position to deliver any positive result to the U.S. government, even if they wanted to.

RFE/RL: What is the Iranian interest in Iraq really?

SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (left) meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman on November 29 (epa)

Katzman: The Iranian interest is to ensure the dominance of their Shi'ite protege groups. That is Iran's main goal -- to have strategic depth in Iraq. Which means to have governance by Shi'ite Islamists who are tied to Iran.

RFE/RL: And what would they gain from that?

Katzman: They gain strategic depth. They gain the ability to operate in Iraq, much like Pakistan had some depth with the Taliban government in Afghanistan. They have friendly territory and a friendly government that they can influence.

RFE/RL: In other words, in their own way, they are looking for a partner to have peaceful relations with?

Katzman: Yes.

RFE/RL: If that happens, do you think it might be a way out of international isolation for Iran?

Katzman: No. I think that if they were to try to dominate Iraq, they would isolate themselves further because the international community wants to see a sovereign government, an integrated government, a unity [government] in Iraq, not one controlled by Iran.

RFE/RL: Do you envision any possibility of a war between the West and Iran?

Katzman: Anything is possible. Iran is not in compliance with its obligations right now to the United Nations. But I don't think war is necessarily the main option that is being pursued now. It's diplomacy and the Bush administration seems to be committed to playing out diplomacy and seeing if it succeeds.

RFE/RL: How has the Democratic victory in the recent U.S. legislative elections affected U.S. policy toward Iran, given that for the next two years George W. Bush will still be president?

Katzman: I'm not certain that it will affect it that much. There seems to be a bipartisan consensus that Iran needs to be contained, at the very least, and that Iran's nuclear program is a threat and that the package of U.S. sanctions needs to be kept in place. There seems to be a consensus, but even in both parties there are people who think that some engagement with Iran might be beneficial.

RFE/RL: What are the hallmarks of any possible bipartisan proposal for a new policy toward Iran, given that historically and traditionally Democrats have favored a pro-Israeli stand?

Katzman: Iran is perceived as a threat to Israel. [Iranian] President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad has made some very, very rash statements against Israel. But it is not really Israel that is driving the consensus. It is the consensus that Iran is a threat to American security and, increasingly, a threat to U.S. interests in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. And Lebanon. And it is motivating Shi'ite movements in the Persian Gulf. So it's broader than just Israel.

RFE/RL: Some observers have said that, despite his rhetoric, President Ahmadinejad has made more attempts than any other Iranian president in the past 27 years to begin a dialogue with the United States. They mention such things as the fact that he has made one trip a year to the United States during his less than two years as president, his meeting with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, writing an open letter to President Bush, and, finally, inviting President Bush to an uncensored debate. Given the radical social base that President Ahmadinejad appeals to and his roots in the Revolutionary Guards, do you think he is reaching out for a dialogue?

Katzman: I would add to that that he has also suggested that there be direct flights between Iran and the United States. But, yes, he seems to at least not fear dialogue. He feels he has a point of view that can at least resonate. But dialogue really isn't the issue.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (left) with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on November 27 (Fars)

The issue is what concrete steps Iran is prepared to take and I'm afraid that unfortunately the pursuit of a nuclear capability is introducing new instability in the Persian Gulf. I'm not convinced that dialogue with the United States would dissuade Iran from pursuing that capability.

RFE/RL: Some have suggested that in order to stabilize Iraq, it would be a good idea to get Iran involved. On the one hand, you have this issue of ending uranium enrichment as a condition for any dialogue with Iran and, on the other hand, you have Iran trying to avoid that and trying to continue enrichment. How can the U.S. move toward a policy of engagement?

Katzman: Well, the U.S. actually has offered direct talks, as you said, with conditions. I think what the U.S. is trying to say is that there is a [UN] Security Council demand. Iran has not met the demand that it suspend enrichment and I think the U.S. position is that once Iran is in compliance with this demand, there could be potentially fruitful talks on a broader package to make sure Iran's program stays purely peaceful. I think there's a sense that going outside into direct bilateral talks when Iran has not met these demands, that Iran will take advantage, will use it's leverage that way and not ever meet the demand of the United Nations.

RFE/RL: So perhaps there will be no talks because Iran is not willing to give up enrichment?

Katzman: There're two talks -- one is broader talks on the nuclear and strategic issues. The other is more narrow talks on Iraq. And that was offered in the early part of the year and there was some movement toward that, but then Ahmadinejad didn't pursue it and now it's becoming a live issue again. But on Iraq, too, Iran does not seem willing to offer any useful developments that would help the U.S. position in Iraq. So I'm not sure what those talks would yield either.

RFE/RL: That was going to be my next question. Even if Iran is asked to help stabilize Iraq, given the fact that it has limited influence on Shi'ite groups and none on Kurds or Sunnis, what could it do for this purpose?

Katzman: That's precisely right. I don't see anything Iran... Iran has some influence with the Shi'ite groups, but it does not control these groups. Iraq's problems are an internal matter and I'm not convinced that either Iran or Syria -- even if they wanted to be completely cooperative -- would be able to stabilize the situation in Iraq for the United States.

RFE/RL: What about the issues that Iran is sensitive to? The issue of a U.S. military attack -- that seems to be off the table now -- but also, the sanctions plus U.S. help for some groups that are trying to destabilize the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is there a new U.S. stand on these issues?

Katzman: No, there really is not. There is no program to assist non-Persian minorities in Iran or to try to destabilize the government. There's been discussion of a regime-change policy in the United States, but really the policy is not regime change. It is containment and preventing nuclear breakthrough by Iran. And so there is no assistance to any minority groups in Iran. There is no effort to use these groups to destabilize Iran.

RFE/RL: You said that Iran has limited influence on Shi'ite groups in Iraq. But, on the other hand, there are two assessments of the kind of role Iran can play there. First, there is a destructive role -- some say that Iran is interested in a weaker Iraq. The other thinks there is a possibility of some positive role there. Why do you think Iranian influence is limited?

Katzman: I think it is limited because the Shi'ite groups have their own constituencies and their own sources of arms and their own money. They don't need Tehran. It is not like Hizballah, which was a small faction that used Iranian help to grow and grow. These factions in Iraq are very large. They have won many seats in the parliament -- 120 seats or so. They have much influence in the parliament, so they don't necessarily need to be influenced by Iran. They have their own motives.

RFE/RL: How different are their motives from Iran's?

Katzman: Some are very different. The Supreme Council faction [SCIRI], for example, has a plan to have a Shi'ite region in the south, and I think Iran is attracted to that idea. But Muqtada al-Sadr's faction actually opposes the formation of a separate Shi'ite region in the south.

Supporters carry a portrait of al-Sadr during a Baghdad demonstration in July (epa)

So his motives are different from Iran. He is more of an Iraqi nationalist. He has less contact with the Iranians than the faction [of SCIRI leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim].

RFE/RL: Some say the structure of the Al-Mahdi Army of al-Sadr and the structure of Hizballah are a lot alike. Doesn't this point toward Iran?

Katzman: It is not the structure -- it is the intent and motivations. As I said, Muqtada al-Sadr is different from Iran on key questions, particularly the Shi'ite region in the south. He has visited Iran a few times, but he has a big constituency in Iraq. He doesn't need to be assisted by Iran.

RFE/RL: If you were in the Iraq Study Group [a bipartisan U.S. group that is tasked with making reccomendations on U.S. policy in Iraq] at the moment, where would your focus be primarily?

Katzman: My view is that the entire political structure of Iraq needs to be reworked. The issue is that the Sunnis feel humiliated, outcast, like second-class citizens. There needs to be more balance between the Sunni and the Shi'a in the Iraqi government. So, I would focus particularly on restructuring the Iraqi government.

RFE/RL: Restructuring? In what way?

Katzman: Well, there could be a number of ways. There could be a new cabinet. There could be autonomous regions -- Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurdish regions. There could be a whole new government structure, a new prime minister, a new president, a new cabinet.

RFE/RL: Some say that if the U.S. tried to do that, it would have to admit that it's democratic experiment in Iraq failed.

Katzman: Yes, I recognize that that is an implication of doing that. But the alternative is to say that the elections of 2005 were the correct way to work and to keep pursuing and we can continue to see the kind of chaos in Iraq that we continue to see. What I'm suggesting is, perhaps, a solution to Iraq, which may mean some distance from the original U.S. statements on democracy in Iraq.

RFE/RL: So, your assessment is that this spin of sectarian violence that we see at the moment actually started in 2005 with this new government in place?

Katzman: It started long before 2005, but the elections solidified the position of the Sunnis as the underclass in Iraq and that has given a lot of impetus to, and accelerated, their sectarian motivations.

RFE/RL: And in terms of Shi'ite sectarian motivations?

Katzman: The Shi'a felt that the elections legitimized their control over Iraq and emboldened them. And they have control of the security forces and many of these security forces are committing sectarian atrocities now.

RFE/RL: Do you think it is reasonable to keep insisting on a unified Iraqi state, rather than a federal system or even a split?

Katzman: I think there could be movement toward three autonomous regions -- Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish. And that might be a solution because then the Sunnis wouldn't feel that they are occupied or controlled by the Shi'a.

RFE/RL: If you were to choose between the three options of "go big," "go along," or "go home," what would you do?

Katzman: I'm not sure those are the only three options. And, as I said, those options don't focus on the political structure. I'm a political scientist and U.S. troop levels are secondary to the idea of getting the political structure of Iraq correct.

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