The State of Iraq

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Dec. 9, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: The latest fear in a long list of fears about Iraq is that the elections there will result in a government dominated by the majority Shiites. And a greater fear is that they would usher in a Shiite (search) theocracy, like Iran’s rather than an Islamic democracy, like Turkey’s. So how great are these dangers? How serious is the Iranian meddling, if any?

For answers, we turn to Professor Noah Feldman of New York University, whose most recent book is titled, "What We Owe Iraq." He joins us tonight from New Haven, Connecticut where he’s now visiting professor at Yale.

Professor Feldman, what about this situation? Presumably, the Shiites being the dominant, just in terms of numbers, group in Iraq. Is this going to be a government heavily Shiite, dominant Shiite? Isn’t that inevitable? And if so, how likely is it that it will end up like Iran’s in your judgment?

NOAH FELDMAN, PROFESSOR/AUTHOR, "WHAT WE OWE IRAQ": Welcome to democracy. The Shiia are more than 60 percent of the population. They want to vote in a way that seem to correlate not just with their ethnic identity, or their denominational identity, but also with their religious beliefs. And they’re going to elect a government that is certainly to be a plurality Shiia and very well might be a clear majority Shiia.

That raises the question of how Islamic an Islamic government it will be? And you can guarantee that it will be fairly Islamic. The major parties are seriously committed to religion. They’re going to want to have Islam governing family law. And they’re going to want to have Islam as the official religion. On the other hand, so far they and their leaders are saying that they want a democracy with an Islamic character, not a theocracy like Iran where the ultimate decisions are made by a single, un- elected, supreme leader.

HUME: Now, Jordan’s King Abdullah (search) was here the other day. And he let go a comment suggesting that as many as a million Iranians may be flooding in to the country to influence the election. That seems like a very large number. How great are you — how concerned are you about Iranian influence on this election?

FELDMAN: There have been talks about votes by Iraqi citizens who are living outside of Iraq. That might be some who are living in the U.S. But there are by some estimates, there are as many as a million such Iraqis living in Iran. And they are mostly Shiia. And if they vote in this election, as they indeed may, that’s already one mechanism for Iranian influence.

Beyond that, you’ve got to realize that some of the leading political players on the Shiia side, who are in the list of Shiia politicians who are going to run for office, have been based in Iran for most of the last decade. They were dissidents from Saddam. They couldn’t live safely in Iraq, so they lived in Iran. And they still have close ties to the Iranian political scene.

Sometimes they’re more moderate, by the way, than the mainstream in Iran. But nonetheless, they’re closely tied to Iran.

HUME: Of course, if they were to vote and the Shiites get in, as the Shiites no doubt will, that of course, as you suggested in your earlier answer doesn’t mean that Iran would necessarily gain a tremendous amount of influence. Does it?

FELDMAN: It doesn’t. You know, first of all, Iran is going to have some influence on Iraqi government no matter who it is, because they’re a neighbor and they’re a large and powerful neighbor.

However, you have got to keep in mind that within Iran there are lots of different movements. And there have been reformers who have mostly lost to the hardliners. Interestingly, a lot of the major, Iraqi, Islamic politicians who are Shiia are on the more moderate side of the Iranian political spectrum. If that makes any sense. In other words, they might influence back on Iran a direction of a more moderate type.

Still, I think there is no way around the basic the fact that we’re going to see significant Shiia participation in this election, probably a Shiia government. And that government is going to have to open ties with Iran in a serious way. No way around that.

HUME: Another question here. The Kurds, who live up in the north, are geographically to some extent isolated from the rest of Iraq. There seems to be widespread agreement that they will be able, to some extent, enjoy some autonomy and not terribly troubled by the Shiite domination of the southern part of the country.

But what about the Sunnis? They’re obviously the ones who are participating so heavily in the uprising that’s going on now, or at least the attacks that are going on right now.

What is your view of what danger they may pose to this government and this election?

FELDMAN: The choice of the Sunnis to join this election or not is $64,000 question. I think the future of Iraq to some extent rides on that question. If the Sunnis participate; and there’s some indications that some of them might be ready to give up the insurgency and come into the process, then we might see a negotiated outcome where the Shiia acknowledge that even though they are a majority, they are not going to run everything with an iron fist. They’re going to give the Sunnis a chance to participate in politics. But that’s the best-case scenario.

In the worst-case scenario, the Sunnis boycott the election or the security situation makes it impossible for the Sunni to participate. Then you elect a government that’s overwhelming Shiia without Sunni participation. And that government thinks it can run roughshod over Sunnis. If that happens, we are well on our way to a serious and ongoing civil war. And the danger that that might happen might be a reason to delay the elections.

HUME: I understand. But let’s assume, for example, that the Sunnis remain for whatever reason recalcitrant and unwilling to participate. More because they don’t want to, than because they can’t because of the security situation. And they’re what? About 20 percent of the country. So the Kurds and the Shiia rule and the Sunnis continue to rebel.

The likelihood would it be that in pretty quick order that rebellion would be put down rather brutally, would it not? And that would be the end of this insurgency, would it not?

FELDMAN: The question is who would do the putting down? You know, right now, the U.S. military with its tremendous military might and its well-motivated and well-trained troops is trying to put down that insurgency. And we have not been able to do it, despite the fact that for example, we went into Fallujah (search) and asked everyone to leave. And then more or less destroyed Fallujah, which is the humane way to do it. But we did more or less destroy Fallujah.

So it is not clear that the Shiia and the Kurds would do any better than we do, even if they took off the gloves and fought in a less honorably way than we have fought. There’s no indication that they would do that either.

HUME: Well, if there is a civil war, you wouldn’t anticipate that the Shiites would lose, would you?

FELDMAN: I think it will be a close thing. I think without U.S. intervention on the Shiia side, and that of course would be the legitimate government, and I think the Shiia expect that we will intervene, I think the Sunnis might be able to make a serious run for it because there is — remember, there is no army in the country, since we abolished the army after our invasion.

HUME: Yes. There’s getting to be one, but it is taking longer than anybody wishes, I suspect.

FELDMAN: I think that’s right.

HUME: And I guess that’s one of the reasons we are concerned. Yes.

Well, Professor Feldman, thank you very much for taking the time. It was a pleasure to have you.

FELDMAN: Pleasure to be with you.

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