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Iraq Scholar Calls Elections First Step in Long Transformation

Iraq specialist Phebe Marr sees federalist future for Iraq

Washington -- The January 30 elections in Iraq are only the first step in an extended process of establishing an effective, functional state with a government that enjoys broad popular legitimacy, according to Phebe Marr, author of The Modern History of Iraq and senior fellow at the United States Institute for Peace. Marr addressed the World Affairs Council in Washington January 13 in a forum entitled "Countdown to Elections: An Assessment of the Situation in Iraq."

Speaking about the many ideas, agendas and identity issues competing for space in the Iraqi political arena, she said, "Iraq is undergoing a fundamental transformation…. It's going to take a decade or two, a generation to sort these fundamental issues out."

"This is going to be a very long and bumpy road," she said.

With this in mind, she said, it is important to keep the elections in perspective. She did not dismiss the importance of the upcoming vote, however. "Despite all of the negative things that are being said about this election, it is a real political process," she said.

She said that although the elections are not likely to solve the legitimacy problem of the Iraqi government, they would certainly help. "The new government will be a government chosen by the people rather than selected by the United States," she observed.

Marr explained that legitimacy does not simply flow from elections. "It also comes from other things -- the capability of a government to govern, to provide security, to get the electricity turned on, economic improvement and so on," she said.

She said that the "really hard work" would begin after the elections, and added that the most important issue would be whether the parties elected to the Transitional National Assembly (TNA) would be able to make compromises and to reach out to groups that may be underrepresented in the new legislative body. The ability of different groups to work together and accept compromises while drafting the new constitution would be the key to forging a cohesive Iraqi state, she said.

In particular, she cited the need to incorporate the Sunni Arabs into the political process even if they are not able to vote. "[The insurgency] certainly doesn't include all Sunnis. There are many Sunnis who may want to vote," she said. "But I think one of the foregone conclusions is the insurgency is so bad in their area, that it is going to be very difficult for them to do so."

She noted that the Kurds, the Shi'a and the Sunnis have very different social, political and religious concerns.

Marr suggested that a federalist governmental structure would be the best way to address all of the competing interests. This would leave a significant portion of the taxation, legislative and administrative authority at the local and regional levels and protect the disparate communities from unwelcome social and cultural norms imposed by a strong central government.

"I think under any future we can imagine after the election, we are going to have a weak central government… with very strong regional authority," she said.

She said that in her observation of political developments and in her visits to Iraq, she has seen positive signs that the leaders of the major ethnic and religious groups are approaching the political process with an attitude of moderation.

"I've been rather pleasantly surprised, within this complex of groups that are competing, at the ability to compromise so far," she said.

Marr said that she views the elections as a positive development, but added that they are only a small part of the difficulties that lie ahead.

By David Shelby
The Washington File
U.S. Department of State

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