10 Questions: About The Road Ahead In Iraq

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com.
With Katie in Iraq and Syria this week, those of us holding down the fort back home have been eagerly anticipating her reports. Too restless to wait for the Evening News, we've been talking with analysts and experts for their take on the U.S. presence in Iraq.
(Reza Aslan)
Reza Aslan is a Middle East analyst for CBS News and smart as a whip. Iranian-born, raised in the United States, he's the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" and is currently working on his next book, "How to Win a Cosmic War."

Since Katie's away, we decided to roll up our sleeves and tackle the 10 Questions format on our own -- and toss the questions to Reza Aslan.

1.The origins of the schism between the Sunnis and the Shiites began with a disagreement over who the proper successor to Muhammad was. How relevant is that now?

When Muhammad died, he left no instructions regarding who should succeed him. His clan believed it should be someone from his bloodline, his nephew and son-in-law, Ali. Ultimately Ali would become the caliph, but not until three other people took the job.

But Ali was initially passed over. From that moment on, the Shi'it Ali, or the partisans of Ali -- shortened to Shia – have seen themselves as a righteous but persecuted minority, denied their proper place as leaders of the wider Muslim community.

What's relevant is not who took power after Muhammad died, but this sense of persecution, this sense Shiites have carried through for centuries of being the righteous oppressed.

2. Are there any elements of religion left in the schism between the Sunnis and the Shiites, or is it all about power?

It's only a tiny, tiny, miniscule portion of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq for whom it's a religious fight – they're affiliated with Al Qaeda and they're primarily Saudi. They're puritanical Sunnis, they believe that the Shia are apostates and must be wiped from the earth.

The sectarian division between Sunni and Shia has almost nothing to do with religion or doctrine. The notion that they're killing each other over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago is like saying that Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were killing each other over the Pope.

The division has to do with power sharing, with revenue sharing, with the lack of security, with the fact that if you're an Iraqi, the only police force that can be trusted is your own sectarian militia.

3. Shouldn't this sectarian divide have been foreseen by the U.S. before we entered Iraq, in March 2003?

The divisions were not inevitable. Was it a possibility? Of course. Countless scholars and analysts had warned the administration.

But you have to remember that the Sunni and the Shia have been living side by side for generations. They fought against the British in the 1920s. They fought together as a nation against Iran in the 1980s. And right after the U.S. invasion, the vast majority of Iraqis deliberately eschewed the sectarian identity. That lasted until the Army was disbanded, and there was no more security to speak of.

This civil war did not start in 2003. It began with the sectarian militias, with attack after attack of the Sunni against the Shia. The Shia did not retaliate for some time. When they did, that's when the ethnic cleansing and retaliation began to take full force.

There's also Shia on Shia violence, and Sunni on Sunni. It's a lawless country, people are aligning themselves with whatever group or party or sect can keep them alive the longest.

Three years ago, if you met an Iraqi, he or she would probably not have identified himself or herself as Sunni or Shiite.

4. How would they have identified themselves?

By tribe. And these tribes are far more fluid than we think. There was intermarriage between Sunnis and Shia and Kurds.

5. In his trip to Iraq this week, Bush went to Anbar province — – where Iraqi tribes are working with the U.S. military to fight Al Qaeda -- not Baghdad. Does this signal a shift away from a focus on the central government in Baghdad?

I think it signals that the administration is recognizing that the idea of creating a unified, federated, democratic Iraq is becoming less and less of a possibility. It may be a shift in their agenda, in their measurement of what success could be, that a measure of success in Iraq may be more fractured but stable provinces.

6. Fractured and stable? The two don't necessarily go together…

If Iraq were fractured along tribal and sectarian lines, the regional consequences could be catastrophic.

It would essentially formalize the civil war. It would be less random acts of violence and tit-for-tats, but more or less state-lets at war with one another for control over land and revenue. It's important to recognize that while Anbar may be stable, there's no oil in Anbar. Partitioning Iraq is going to lead to all-out war because the Shiites and the Kurds own all the oil. The Sunnis aren't going to put up with that.

Partitioning would also bring in regional powers. There's no question that Saudi Arabia would flood the Sunni area with money and arms; Iran would do the same for the Shiite region. There's no question that the minute Kurdistan declares independence, Turkey and Iran would invade. They each have their own marginalized Kurdish populations. Kurdistan and Turkey are our two greatest allies, and we'd have to choose.

7. What role is Iran playing in Iraq now? What sort of Iraq would Iran like to see emerge?

The irony is that in many ways what Iran wants in Iraq is what the U.S. wants. Iran is perfectly happy to continue the democratic experiment, it serves their interest to have the Shia in power.

Two, they absolutely do not want to see Iraq partitioned into three state-lets. It would be an all-out war right on their border, with refugees flooding into Iran. And they'd be poor Shi'ites, not the richer Sunnis who went to Egypt and Jordan and Syria.

Three, they don't want Iraq to be a safehaven for Al Qaeda and jihad.

And they want Americans out.

So there's plenty of room for cooperation between the two countries.

That said, Iran wants to make sure that Iraq is just unstable enough, so they're engaged in lots of meddling, sewing discord, and causing chaos. They want America's plans to fail, those plans being the dramatic refashioning of the entire Middle East. Iran is country number two on the U.S.'s larger plan for the "axis of evil." Iran knows that, and the only way to keep America from going to step two is to keep them on step one. It's a fine line Iran is walking, and I'm not sure they're sophisticated enough to keep the balance.

8. You're an Iranian-American, born in Iran, grew up in America. You straddle both perspectives, and you say you've spoken with Iraqis about the current situation.

I think the problem is that we in the U.S. have a tendency to think of ourselves in an exceptional manner that keeps us from seeing other nations' perspectives.

We talk about Iran's meddling in Iraq, but Iran sees America's meddling. There's shock and horror that the Iranians are arming the Shi'ites, but the U.S. is arming the Sunni.

Iran sees an existential threat from the U.S., it's literally surrounded by the U.S. military, in Qatar, Dubai, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

Another thing that I think is very important, and I've talked with Iraqis about this. The impression in the Arab world is that of the U.S. as a superpower that can achieve anything. If you can go to the moon, then you can turn the lights on in Baghdad. If the lights aren't on, it's not ineptitude, but part of a conspiracy, that America doesn't want the lights to be turned on. In the Arab world, they can't believe that America wouldn't have thought ahead, that we wouldn't have seen that the Shi'ites would align with Iran.

9. Where does the U.S. go from here?

We are going to get out. The only question is how we leave. What Iraq looks like five years from now will have everything to do with how we leave.

At this point it's fairly likely that Iraq will partition into state-lets. A new administration may have better luck in bringing the international community on board.

Negotiations have only one purpose: to help withdrawal. That is a conversation Iran would be willing to have, Syria, Sunni insurgents, Shia militias would be willing to have. If what we're dangling in front of them is the withdrawal of American troops, that could be the foundation for diplomacy, a somewhat peaceful transfer of power.

I think especially the Sunnis recognize that the Shia are going to unleash a genocide on them, that the Americans are now the referee in the middle keeping the two sides apart. The average Iraqi on the street is torn between the desire to be free of occupation versus the fear of what would happen if the Americans left. There has to be a responsible withdrawal that brings all the people into the discussion.

10. In Baghdad, Katie interviewed a family of five; the wife is a veterinarian, the husband is a radio reporter, they have three young children. Fears about security keeps them housebound, where they have inadequate supplies of water and electricity. They said they'd leave if only they had the money. Who's leaving, who's staying?

If you have the means to leave Iraq, you do so. The people who are there are the ones who can't leave.