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Debating the Form of Iraq's New Government

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

With Monday's deadline looming for Iraqis to come up with a draft constitution, several major issues remain unresolved. One of the most contentious is this: Should Iraq be a unified country with a strong central government, or a confederation of three largely autonomous regions, one for Kurds in the north, another for Sunni Arabs in the center of the country and a third for Shiites in the south? This is the federalist approach. Fueling the debate, the head of a powerful Iraqi Shiite group today demanded a large, autonomous Shiite zone that would encompass half the country's population.

We're going to hear two views now on the future shape of the Iraqi state. Leslie Gelb joins us. He's president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and he favors a decentralized federalist approach.

Welcome, Mr. Gelb.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations): Hi.

BLOCK: And also, Judith Yaphe, senior research fellow at National Defense University, an advocate for a strong central Iraqi government.

Thanks for being with us.

Ms. JUDITH YAPHE (Senior Research Fellow, National Defense University): You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

BLOCK: Les Gelb, I want to start with you. You think that what would amount essentially to some kind of partition of Iraq into three autonomous is a good idea. Why so?

Mr. GELB: Well, there are two points that I would make. One, I think, the paradox is that the only way I can think of to keep the country together, keep it one country, is to make it as decentralized as possible. That's the only thing the three major groups, I believe, in the end, will tolerate.

The second reason is a federal plan with decentralized power is the only way I can think of now to work out a peace deal among the three major parties, because in the end, no one of them is going to let the others dominate it. But if you let each group legislate essentially for itself, I think they'd buy into a united Iraq and to that constitution.

BLOCK: Judith Yaphe, with all of these competing interests in Iraq, why do you think a strong centralized government can bring them together?

Ms. YAPHE: There are some things that Les and I agree on and I think that's the end point, which is not a partitioned Iraq. But I disagree with what comes before that, because I don't think this will make Iraq more secure nor will Iraqis feel more secure and happy.

Now I will argue on two points that Les made. First of all, do the--the Sunnis don't want partition. I'm not sure that the majority of Shia do, either. They identify federalism and this kind of decentralization with virtual partition and that's not something that I've heard Iraqis want. Arab Sunni, Arab Shia--they don't identify themselves in those strong sectarian terms except for the extremists in the south around Basra, who--the one cleric who did is head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which leads me to my second point. Would this make Iraq safer? No. If you have decentralized government in these provinces, it's going to make them more open to foreign manipulation.

BLOCK: Les Gelb, Judith Yaphe there mentioned foreign manipulation. Isn't there an argument there, that if the state is divided into three zones, strength in unity is gone and the neighbors--Turkey, Syria, Iran--could all be nibbling at an Iraq that's divided into parts?

Mr. GELB: Sure. Judith made all good points, and I start from the point that the situation in Iraq is very dire and it's getting worse and we have to do the best we can, which isn't going to be very good. I think if we tried to stuff all these three groups into an Iraq with a strong central government, they wouldn't buy it and Iraq would end up splitting apart in a civil war. I don't want that. That's why I say I think the paradox is the only way to keep them together is to decentralize as much as possible.

BLOCK: Judith Yaphe, isn't the idea of a unified Iraq really something of a historical artifact? This country was cobbled together by the British back in the 1920s. Why should that be the model for what we should do now?

Ms. YAPHE: Well, I've always been upset when I hear that term because I think it ignores much of the history. Many of these places were under the Ottoman Empire. At one time, France and Germany and Italy were cobbled together, weren't they? So why do we make a major point of that for Iraq when we haven't made it for anyplace else? These were provinces as part of the Ottoman system that lived together and worked together, and many Iraqis had a very strong sense of nationalism going back to the World War I period. This is not something which was just created anew by Saddam or invented by the Brits; it was there and it still is.

BLOCK: Leslie Gelb.

Mr. GELB: Yeah, I just didn't see much of Iraqi nationalism in my trip there or in my conversations with Iraqis over the years. Now when I ask them what do they think themselves to be, most of them answer, you know, Arab Sunni or Shia or Kurd, much more so than they say Iraqi.

Ms. YAPHE: That is interesting, Les. I'm glad you said that. You're right. When one talks to Iraqi Kurds, they're Kurds first, Iraqi some place second and...

Mr. GELB: Yes.

Ms. YAPHE: ...religion the last identifier they would think about.

Mr. GELB: Yes.

Ms. YAPHE: But when I talk to the Arabs of Iraq, Sunni or Shia, and I ask: `Who are you?' Iraqis. That's what I hear from the Iraqis I talk to. And when you find out--`Are you Sunni or Shia?'--that comes a little bit later down the road.

BLOCK: Just one last question for you both. If this issue of how to formulate the new Iraqi state is left vague in the Iraqi Constitution because they can't figure out how to resolve it, what then? How do you come to terms with this? Judith Yaphe.

Ms. YAPHE: The issue is that the Iraqis have a document that they can agree on at that point, which gives them a baseline start and they move from there. You're not going to have all of these things--right now they know what the state looks like; they know their external borders. Internally, they have to decide do they want 18 provinces, five, three, whatever? Do they want some form of federalism or not? How do you divide up the powers or not, the resources or not? All of those issues. They're going to have to do some hard trading if they want to avoid civil war.

Les is right. The situation is terrible. It is dire. But I do have a little bit of hope against my Iraqis and your Iraqis. But the point is that they're talking and trying to find some resolution. And they've suffered so much that I think they want to move ahead, so I have to be a little bit optimistic.

Mr. GELB: Yeah, I agree with Judith. I think we have to give them a little more running room, but I think they are going to have to resolve most of these issues within some weeks or some months. Otherwise, this is going to break out into civil war.

Ms. YAPHE: Yeah.

BLOCK: Two views of the future of the Iraqi state from Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Judith Yaphe, senior research fellow at National Defense University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.