Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East

Mar 26, 2010

1.9 million Sunni Muslims have been forced into exile following the Iraq War, says Deborah Amos. What impact is this having on these people's lives, on Iraq, and on the region's delicate balance of power?


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for joining us.

Today it is my pleasure to welcome back a voice that may be familiar to many of you, especially if you listen to National Public Radio. Our guest, Deborah Amos, covers Iraq for NPR News, and her reports can be heard on its award-winning programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Deborah is a veteran journalist who last spoke at the Carnegie Council in December 2003, upon returning from a fact-finding mission in Iraq. A lot has happened since that time. This afternoon she will be sharing her views on Iraq and focusing on the mass exodus of Iraqis.

The plight of these refugees is documented in her new book, The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East. This powerful book will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today.

Since 2003 over 4 million Iraqis have been displaced or dispossessed. At least 2 million of them have left the country, which caused a demographic shift from a Sunni-dominated state under Saddam Hussein to one that is now dominated by the Shia. This exodus has had far-reaching consequences outside of Iraq as well, as this migration has also created a vastly new dynamic in Jordan, Lebanon, and especially Syria, causing resounding resentment across the region.

Despite the overall reduction in violence since the surge, few who fled the country have returned. Whether Iraqis remain in exile as a destabilizing population in the region or return home to help rebuild a multicultural country may not be known until the final results of the parliamentary elections are in, which should be soon.

It is hoped that if a more sectarian government comes to power, perhaps many of those displaced may choose to return. After all, it is this exiled population who are essential to the creation of a modern state and are needed to rebuild their country.

Deborah Amos is no ordinary journalist. After most other reporters moved on following the early years after the Iraqi invasion, she stayed to trace the fallout, spending most of her time with Iraqis who were forced to flee and now are in exile. Having spent many years in Amman as an NPR foreign correspondent, she is intimately familiar with the people, the politics, and the culture in the region. Accordingly, she is the perfect person to tell the story of a rich Iraqi culture whose violence created a new global diaspora which may have consequences for years to come.

Please join me in welcoming our guest today, Deborah Amos. Thank you so much for coming.


DEBORAH AMOS: It is so heartening to see such a large crowd, because when you cover Iraq you feel like you are now covering the forgotten war. It is what people used to say about Afghanistan. It is very clear with the number of journalists who are still in Iraq. You can now see them on one floor of a hotel, where we used to be spread across the city. But now most of the people who covered Iraq have moved on to Afghanistan.

It is true, I did stay behind. I did want to see how it came out. I have been intimately involved with both the Middle East and Iraq for many years. I used to call Iraq "the Super Bowl," because how Iraq turns out will affect the rest of the region.

I hope that you will kindly bear with me while I tell you things about my book, but afterwards we can have a Q&A. I'm a radio reporter, and that is the best way to convey information. It is also the best way for me to know what you want to know.

What I want to start by talking about is the title of this book, Eclipse of the Sunnis. When Americans see that title, it is a little puzzling. Some of them think maybe it is a play on words. And when they look at the picture, it is a picture of a troubled man. He looks a bit anxious, weary. But Americans don't read a whole lot into that cover.

When Middle Eastern readers see that cover, that title is as frank as a slap in the face. Eclipse of the Sunnis makes Iraqis, Jordanians, and Syrians wince. Many of them say, "Why did you choose such a provocative title?"

I was emailing today with a friend, and I said, "I hope this book shows up in Beirut, but of course no one would dare put it in the front window of any bookstore in the downtown part of that city."

What Middle Easterners want to know is: Who is that guy in the picture? Is he an Iraqi? Is that what you are talking about? Is he a Saudi? And they try to read all the social clues in what color his kafia [headdress] is, what his face looks like, who are those two guys behind him.

It is a real cultural divide in the way that Middle Easterners take that title and Americans do. I will tell you here is why they react so strongly.

That is because for centuries Sunni Muslims have dominated the Middle East. They are the majority population in Saudi Arabia, in Turkey, in Jordan, in Syria, in Egypt, and in the Gulf.

Shia Muslims are a minority in the Middle East. You can say that they are the majority in Iran. But Iran is not the Middle East; Iran is another empire, one over.

You can find small communities of Shia in Saudi Arabia. You can see them in Syria. They are an aggrieved minority around the region—except in Iraq. That's where Shias have been an aggrieved majority for centuries.

In 2003 an American invasion toppled a Sunni tyrant and empowered, for the first time in history, in Arab Shia majority in Iraq. What this book is about is about power. It is not about religion. It is about a new power in the region and how the region is going to deal with that.

By choosing this title I also wanted to highlight a topic that has been missing from a lot of the narrative about Iraq—overlooked, maybe even misunderstood—and that is this divide that was kicked off in Iraq has now seeped into the social fabric throughout the region. I see it everywhere I go—Lebanon, Jordan, Syria. It is a topic of people to talk about.

But again, it is not a religious topic. This is principally about power. The whole region has been in turmoil since 2003.

Of course, what my book is about is Iraqi civilians. That is another thing that I think has been missing from so much of the coverage. So much of Iraq was about us.

It was a response to September 11. It was our way to deal, as Dick Cheney said, because Afghanistan wasn't enough.

I thought that a narrative about Iraqi civilians was missing, and that was my task, even in 2003, when I first arrived in Iraq then, and I made it my business to not be embedded with soldiers—not that there is anything wrong with that kind of coverage, but there were plenty of people to do that. I wanted to know what Iraqis thought about this historic moment in their country.

What I was able to document, both then and in this book, is the price that they have paid. Of course they paid a very high price during Saddam's time. But when you go and you sit in small, dingy rooms in Arab capitals outside of Iraq, you will hear that nearly everybody has an account of kidnapping, of torture, of extortion, of rape, and of death threats that forced them out of the country. Most of them have seen relatives killed before their eyes.

They have witnessed a transformation in their capital city. It is now a city that is divided by walls. This is a city where the physical structure of the city reflects the social divisions of the city. In some ways it has broken the social connections in Iraq.

I want to read to you a blog from an Iraqi as he was considering departing from the country, which he eventually did, and also say Iraqis aren't the kind of people to go abroad. That's what the Lebanese do—a small country, good education system; they expect to go abroad and send money back home.

I think of Iraq sometimes like Iowa. They are in the middle of the region. They have sort of the values of farmers. It's a lot about family and it's a lot about social connections. Iraqis really don't go into exile. They expect to stay home. So these kinds of writings really reflect how painful this exile has been.

What he writes is:

One of my friends keeps berating me about how I should love this country, the land of my ancestors, where I was born and raised, how I should be grateful and return to the place that gave me everything. I always tell him the same thing: "Iraq as you and I knew it is lost. What is left of it, I don't want."

Up to 2007, Iraqis were leaving the country at the rate of about 2,000 a day. One in six Iraqis had become a refugee or had become displaced.

At the times when I was in Damascus, as that last border was closing in 2007—at the request of the Iraqi government, I might add—there were sometimes between 4,000 and 15,000 Iraqis. It was a remarkable exodus if you were sitting in Damascus. There were whole neighborhoods where you didn't hear a Syrian accent. It was all Iraqis coming in. The equivalent number, if this happened in the United States and we all had to flee to Canada, would have been about 50 million Americans, men, women, and children.

But here is a statistic in this exiled population that has also been underplayed, and that is 60 percent of the refugees by the UN count are Sunnis. So this is a disproportionate displacement of a particular population.

Fifteen percent of them are Christians, about 3 percent of the prewar population, perhaps a little less—it's unclear when Christians started leaving Iraq.

Now, when you interview these populations, you will find Mandaeans, Yazidis, there are secular Shiites who left, there are Kurds in that mix, there are families from mixed marriages.

After 2003, it just wasn't appropriate to be in a mixed marriage anymore. Nobody even used that term before 2003. Baghdad elites married each other and they didn't really ask. This was a very secular city and nobody asked who was a Shiite and who was a Sunni. But once the sectarian divide hit with a force, you could be rejected by both your family and his family and you were on your own to take care of your children. So many people in mixed marriages left the country.

What I write in this book is they still reflect this unresolved sectarian divide, something that you could see in the elections, something that now is a festering problem in Iraq, and nobody really quite knows how to solve it.

So many of these exiles remain outside of the country—not because Iraq is unsafe, although that does weigh on their minds, but because they don't feel there is any place for them. It is unfamiliar now to them. They don't know how to navigate in this new Iraq.

Sunnis are in contact every day with their relatives. Mostly they are deeply insecure. They are largely excluded from power at every level. What they are waiting for is to see if this Shia-dominated government shows signs of political reconciliation.

So I argue that the refugees raise a fundamental question about Iraq's identity.

I want to remind you that the idea of the surge had both a tactical and strategic goal. The tactical goal was to make Baghdad safer, which it did. The strategic goal was to allow space for political reconciliation, which it didn't. So it is a strategic failure, a tactical success. So Iraqis are still living with that failure today.

For those who are in exile, there are too many reasons not to return.

As I said, the Sunnis are waiting for a place in their country.

Iraqis who worked for Americans as translators, both in the military and in the media, they are waiting for the death list to disappear. Those lists are still in operation.

There are still Iraqis who worked as translators for both us and the military who are in hiding because they are afraid for their lives.

There are secular exiles who want to know where Iraq will stand in the continuum of a religious state or a secular state. In a state that is as diverse as Iraq, being a secular state really matters, because if you are a Christian, you want to be sure that your rights are guaranteed.

Couples in mixed marriages don't go home.

Most of these exiles have been kicked out of their homes. In 2007 it was the militias who were engaged in sectarian cleansing. Quite often you would be kicked out of your house, so often that there are a million homes in dispute in Baghdad. So even if you do want to go back home, you can't really live in your house because there is another family in it, almost always from another sectarian group. There have been some programs to try to undo this, but we are talking about a million homes. It is possible to be the wrong kind of Muslim in a neighborhood in Baghdad.

So what you hear from these exiles is they fear that the country has been transformed in a way that they no longer recognize it, that the Iraq they knew has been erased.

That is probably true. We are in a historical moment. We are in a new Iraq. The question that the exiles have to face is: Can they find a place for themselves and can they go back home?

There is no precedent for this middle-class population, no precedent for an exiled population like this. They are mainly from Baghdad, about 70 percent of them are. These are the teachers, they're the doctors, they're the engineers, they're the civil servants, they're the entrepreneurs.

I often say that these are the people who would be giving money to NPR if they lived here. They are like you and me. They share our values. They want their kids to go to college.

It was such a remarkable brain drain when they left. To lose them will actually be a loss to the country. There are ministries where people don't really know how to write contracts. Those people are in Damascus. Scientists left. Half of the middle managers from the oil companies left. If they don't come back, Iraq has to build a new middle class, and it takes a while to do so.

Now this is the political science part of my book. I wanted to build a context for understanding these individual stories, because you can't write a narrative book unless you set out a context for why you should care about these individual stories and what it means.

I wrote a narrative account. I chose specific individuals so that you would have a sense of someone's life and how it worked for them.

I wanted you to know what happens to people in the turmoil of war. Of course, I also included a heavy dose of sex and television and food.

I wrote about exiled television producers and prostitutes. There was a time in my career where I thought that was the same career path. [Laughter] If there are any television producers in the room, I apologize.

I also tried to include a great deal of humor in the book, because these are real people and they do get up in the morning just like you do, and they actually can sometimes laugh about their predicament. They are all making the best of some very bad situations.

I wanted to share some of the stories that I wrote with you tonight.

One of the chapters that I wrote about was Iraqi Christians, because they were the first population to leave Iraq. They were caught in a terrible dilemma. Christians don't have militias, it's not what Christians do as a population, so when Iraq broke into tribal affiliations and militias, Islamist groups, the Christians were left out. And politically they were particularly left out, because in Mosul they found themselves trapped between Sunnis on one hand and Kurds on the other who are arguing about borders and Kirkuk, and so voting really matters. So they were tugged between these two forces with no one really to protect them.

They were also targeted by al Qaeda. It was seen that the Christians were Western simply because of their religion. Al Qaeda came after them in a terrible, terrible way.

It didn't really help that early on in the American invasion American evangelicals arrived in the country and appeared to be bent on converting the population. Billy Graham's son, who has called Islam an "evil" religion, arrived, which only added fuel to the fire of al Qaeda—"You see, this is everything we said about the Christians. Their people have arrived and they are here to convert Iraq."

Their dilemma begins in 2004, when there is a series of bombings across the country and they are targeted. It is a particularly rich community. Christians can sell alcohol, they can sell gold, and these were big professions for them under Saddam's time.

So they had the money to leave. They could go to Christian communities in Syria and in Jordan and in Lebanon.

I think in the beginning they actually believed that they would have a better chance at resettlement, that Europe would be more willing to take them than Muslims who were leaving the country. That turned out not to be true. They were left to sit for years in these exile havens, as well as everybody else.

I wanted to read a little bit about the story of Paulos Rahho, who was the archbishop in Mosul. It is quite a remarkable story about what happens to him. This happens in 2007. I think that the archbishop thought that the surge actually was going to protect him. But it didn't, and he paid a very high price for that.

He was abducted after leading the prayers at the Church of the Holy Spirit. Three people with him at the time, a driver and two guards, were killed by the kidnappers. The defenseless archbishop was bundled into the trunk of a car. Remarkably, in the dark, alone for probably for the last time until his death, the 65-year-old archbishop managed to get out his last cell phone call. He was determined to deliver a final message to his congregation, instructions that would ensure he would never be released alive. He begged them not to pay a ransom for his life. He knew from bitter experience how futile such payoffs were. Bishop Rahho had been making them for years. It's not clear when the archbishop began to hand over the alms he collected at Sunday Mass to the Sunni militant insurgents who menaced his congregation. The details emerged only after his death. The men who had come to him said they were al Qaeda and demanded protection money. It is a tax as old as Islam, levied on Christians and Jews, but in the modern context of Mosul it was administered like a Mafia shakedown. Archbishop Rahho paid for protection he didn't get. The militants continued to kidnap priests, demand thousands of dollars in ransom, and victimize the community, even as the Christians of Mosul continued to pay. The payments were financing the militants that were killing the Christians and the Christians were digging into their life savings and sweetening the money pot with thousands more dollars in international donations. The archbishop must have been convinced that if he didn't pay, the violence would have been much worse.

Now, even today the Christians of Mosul are threatened. In the weeks leading up to the recent election, hundreds of Iraqi Christians fled Mosul because of violence specifically directed at their small remaining community. Even the Pope called on the Iraqi government to protect them.

But I have come to wonder whether there will be Iraqi Christians left in the country. It's one of the oldest communities in the world. Nineveh Province is named after the first Christian empire.

As the population there dwindles, as the Europeans actually do favor taking Christian exiles over Muslims—and the Iraqi Christian community has begged them not to do it, but they have pledged to take 10,000 exiles into Europe—this community could dwindle into nothing. It would be a tragedy for Iraq.

Another subject that I wanted to tackle was prostitution, because I think that it is a sign of how desperate this population is in exile.

At least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqi exiles in Syria have turned to the sex trade for survival. In fact, the UN calls it survival sex.

Now, nearly every war brings prostitution, so that is not a big shock. But what is troubling in Damascus is that you see girls as young as 12 who are forced into the trade by their parents, fathers and mothers who make deals over their girls and live off the proceeds.

Now, officially refugees are not allowed to hold jobs—and that is not just a rule in Syria; it is a rule in every place that refugees turn up in the Middle East. In Syria their own unemployment rate is at 25 percent, so to allow refugees to work would be incredibly unpopular with the local population.

What it means is it forces refugees into the gray economy. A lot of times you see kids working. They will be the one who puts the little charcoal in the nargila [aka hookah or water pipe], or they get jobs in factories, because mom and dad are not qualified to do those kinds of things.

But many mothers did turn to prostitution, because about one-quarter of the refugees registered by UNHCR in Damascus are female. These women are widowed or divorced and they have children to support, and they had no marketable skills. So sex was often the only thing that they could do.

It took me a long time, but I finally met a woman. I was introduced by an Iraqi translator whom I knew from Baghdad who happened to be in Damascus. Once I had the entrée, I could then go back and visit and get to know about her life. She actually opened the door for me to meet other women who were in the trade, and eventually took me to a nightclub.

The night that we went, Um Nour picked me up at about midnight. She was completely transformed. The first time I met her she had her hair up in a ponytail, she was in a track suit, with runny makeup, 11 o'clock in the morning. When she picked me up at midnight, she looked stunning. She had long fingernails, red lips; her hair was brushed; she was well dressed.

We went to a club in one of the exile neighborhoods. It's a nightclub like any nightclub you would recognize. Somehow, one of those balls always has to be up on the ceiling with all those lights. A singer. The women get to go for free and the men pay a cover charge. Alcohol on the tables. You see how the trade works. There are families sitting at the tables. They have their daughters with them.

Um Nour was a little disappointed in the way that I dressed. I usually don't bring my prostitute uniform when I go on the road, so I tried to make my gym clothes as alluring as I possibly could.

Um Nour told the people at our table that I was a Ukrainian, which would explain why I didn't speak Arabic. She hissed at me, "Don't you speak English in here because you will get caught."

She decided that what I couldn't make up in cleavage I could make up in mascara. So off we went to the bathroom. I took whatever I had with me, all the great mascara that I carry around on the road. I met a lot of Iraqi women who were middle class, college graduates, who were all preparing for their evening. I want to read you this little section of that part of the book:

'I will never dance until I get so drunk,' said a woman in a pink latex jumpsuit with clear-plastic shoulder straps that kept the tight fabric in place. She was bent toward the mirror in the ladies' room applying eyeliner, next to a line of Iraqi women in the same pose. It was an utterly familiar female ritual: women gathering in front of a public bathroom mirror. I could have been anywhere, but for the outfits of tight fabrics, silver spandex revealing tactile, soft, full breasts served up for inspection. Clinging fabric over ample round backsides. Long skirts, split to the thigh, bellies exposed. Gleaming black hair. High-heeled boots. Young faces. Curvaceous bodies. One last look? Enough eyeliner? Another pat of powder? Anxiety also filled the room, because of the deals that would have to be concluded later in the evening. . . . As we all prepared for the night ahead, the Iraqi women chatted, traded names and phone numbers. They flipped open cellphones and showed the pictures of their young children. Lingering together in this comfortable female place, homesick, they were preparing to live off their bodies.

By the way, I did get sold that night, but I didn't take the deal.

The latest quarterly U.S. government report on Iraq states that 1.9 million Iraqis remain in exile. I use these figures because there is terrible dispute inside Iraq and outside Iraq about how many people are outside. It is to everybody's advantage to say high or low. Arab governments want to put the numbers up because they want international aid. The Iraqi government wants to put the numbers down because they want to say it's not a crisis. So when I need to use a number, I use the U.S. official number, which is 1.9 million Iraqis in exile.

And, the U.S. government says, there have been no widespread returns. And more than 2 million Iraqis remain displaced.

Now, I argue that this shift in population is a huge loss to Iraq, it is a vast problem to neighboring governments, and it is a collective tragedy for all those who are caught up in it. It is also a significant indicator of the future health, stability, and viability of Iraq and the Middle East.

Most of these people had never sought exile. Actually, only 10 percent of them have applied to be considered for resettlement to the United States, Europe, or Australia.

They are in touch with home. This is a virtual population. They all have cell phones. I now think that a cell phone is a human right. I don't know a refugee that doesn't have one. They will go without food to have a cell phone. As I said, this is a middle-class population. It's what you would do and it's what they do.

They are at Internet cafes at night talking to home. They watch Iraqi television incessantly. They are still part of the fabric of the country. They are in this virtual Iraq.

Now, I don't know how long that will last. Many of them voted in the last election, and 42,000 voted in Syria, 23,000 voted in Iran, 30,000 voted in Sweden. So they still are engaged with the country. But who knows how long that will go on?

I argue in this book that there cannot be stability in Iraq until there is political reconciliation and these exiles return.

I think that is what the rest of the region is waiting for too. The rest of the region is watching. These exiles are the canary in the coal mine, and governments around the region are watching.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I want to just go back to the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted some ten years. What was the political dynamic of the Iraqi Shia in that war? Were they pressed into the war against Iran, basically fighting other Shia, or did they more or less back the Saddam Hussein effort on a nationalistic basis?

DEBORAH AMOS: That's a very interesting question, and one I asked myself a lot when I got to Iraq in 2003, because I had been there during the Iran-Iraq war. It was Rami Khoury who gave me the best explanation of this, because in fact during the Iran-Iraq war Shias were nationalistic Iraqis, they were Arab Shia Iraqis, and they did fight, they fought in the army against the Iranians.

Rami said to me: "Look, identity is a dial. It goes up and it goes down. In times of stress we tend to go back to more ancient identities."

So under Saddam you could feel as a Shia—there were more Shiites in the Baathist party under Saddam than there were Sunnis, simply because Shiites are 60 percent of the population. Sunnis will tell you that they were 60 percent of the population, but they were not.

In 2003, when the country fell into chaos, people did fall back. That dial did move off the nationalist point to secular identities, tribal identities.

It can dial back up, and there are some moments in this election where it looked like it was, that people were seeing themselves again as Iraqis.

But the problem with Iraq right now is there is no agreed-upon national narrative. People are still in their sectarian identities and can be moved back into those identities with just a little bit of a scare, as we saw right before the election. A Shia-controlled government body blackballed 500 candidates, mostly from the more secular nationalist lists.

The campaign for a few weeks was all on "the Baathists are coming," "Saddam is coming back," "these people are coming back"—which was ridiculous. Saddam is dead. The Baathist party has been decimated. But you could move people in that way.

And so I think the answer to the question as far as I have been able to discern—and I have asked a lot of people about this—is the dial was high on the nationalist side during the Iran-Iraq war and it has moved to the secular side today.

QUESTION: You made a remark that all these people by and large share Western values. What was the position of this Sunni group—there are mostly Sunnis, I gather—during Saddam's long years? Were they in opposition to Saddam? Were they Baathists? Were they somehow against?

And then, what would it take for them to go back? I mean most populations—the Jewish community in Iraq left definitively and never went back.

They would like to.

QUESTIONER: The Jewish population in Egypt left definitively many, many years ago.

You spoke of the Christians here as well as others. What would it take for them to go back?

DEBORAH AMOS: Let me say it's not that they have Western values. They have human values. They share our values about what they want out of life and what they want for their children.

Sunnis were favored under Saddam. As time went on, that circle got smaller and smaller, and it was Saddam's family that was favored under Saddam. It was a mafia regime. Many Sunnis will tell you that at the end nobody was favored, everybody was in danger.

I think that this government—and I certainly indict Prime Minister Maliki in this book—always believed that the exile population were all Baathists. This was confirmed to me by Ryan Crocker, who was the former ambassador in Baghdad. He said, "Maliki sees Baathists under every bush."

There was no way we ever could convince him that this big refugee population weren't Baathists. Some, yes, certainly. Many of the top military people had moved on to Jordan, and there are Baathists in Syria, that is true.

But 1.9 million, they are not Baathists. They are middle-class Iraqis who were doing the best they could under Saddam, trying to make a living, trying to stay out of trouble, trying to stay alive, trying to protect their families during ten years of brutal UN sanctions that we backed.

These days it's very interesting to talk to Iraqis. They have two searing memories, sanctions and 2003, and they are just about equal. You know, you talk to some people in Damascus and they will say, "Bush the father starved us and Bush the son drove us out." Those were very tough years.

But I think the Christians may be like the Jews of Iraq without a place to go, and that community could dwindle.

Although I have to say that almost everybody I talked to in Israel, and even in Iraq, say that Iraqi Jews are the most nationalistic people that you will ever meet. There were some people who crossed the border from Israel and went to Jordan and voted in 2005. I'd be interested to see if any of them did it in 2010.

But it was the biggest Jewish community in the world in the 1930s and 1940s. If you read the old historical books, Jews were completely integrated.

I had heard a story from a London man, who said that if you were a wealthy Iraqi in the 1960s and 1970s and you were getting married, you took the whole family to London because that's where the Jewish musicians were. It was the thing to do to have your children get married and have the Jewish musicians come because that's what you would have done in Baghdad in the 1920s and the 1930s. As generations went on, of course, that practice died out.

When you talk about the brain drain from all these people, how much of an awareness is that or an issue for the people now in Iraq, that "we're going to do better if they come back"? Is it a very small amount of people thinking it or is it an idea that has some weight to it?

And also, Allawi, what kind of influence do you think he will be? What is the movement there to a more human, civilized—

DEBORAH AMOS: Allawi is such an ironic figure now, because here is a guy who is a secular Shia who is leading what is becoming the Sunni party. His strength comes from Baghdad north. Maliki's strength is Baghdad south. That is not a good prescription for how this country is going to move forward.

There were people from Allawi's party who went to the exile community and campaigned. They campaigned in Damascus. They campaigned in Jordan. They hope that that vote may make a difference. It just might. A quarter of a million exiles actually voted across all 16 countries. We'll see where they put those votes.

But the people that back him want him to do something about these exiles and want to open the country to bring these people back. It is known certainly in the exile community and among politicians in Baghdad that Maliki stands in the way, that if he is the prime minister again it will be hard to get movement on that issue, unless Allawi pressures him.

But, look, for all that you are reading now about who is winning and who is losing, it doesn't matter. Nobody has enough seats in parliament to actually form a government yet. There are 365 seats. You need—I can't do the math—more than 150 to actually have a majority, to not have to form a coalition.

So all we're knowing now is who gets the first shot at trying to form a government. That's all we're going to know with who wins between Maliki and Allawi and the other two major coalitions. So there is such a long road to go before we know what the government of Iraq is.

QUESTION: You haven't mentioned the Kurds. How are the Kurds faring in this division, let's say, between Allawi and Maliki?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, their role in the past has been the king makers, because when you have to make a coalition, who are you going to make it with? And everybody's got some hard choices, because almost the entire political landscape—the major parties all said, "I will never be in a coalition with him." So they have all boxed themselves into corners. That's why the Kurds are the attractive partner. You could bring your seats up enough.

Here's Allawi's problem. Allawi is backed by Sunnis, and Sunnis and Kurds are in a fight over Kirkuk. So can Allawi actually make a coalition with them and keep his Sunni backers? That will be difficult. Kurds don't like Maliki because he has been on the other side in Kirkuk. So they both have some problems with making alliances.

Now, here is one other complication that we are going to see this time in Iraq. Up until now, the constitution called for three presidents. That was great because you got a Shia, a Sunni, and a Kurd. You are always going to have now a Shia prime minister—that's because it reflects the demography of the country.

In this election, in this new government, there is only going to be one president. That's why I refer to this coalition building as it's like three-dimensional chess and vicious musical chairs. You know, somebody is going to get left out.

And, I think, even more important than knowing who the prime minister is is knowing who the president is. Is it going to be a Sunni or is it going to be a Kurd? That negotiation is going to be one of the toughest. That's why you won't see it for months, because it's all a package deal and everybody is going to have to line up and see what they get for coming into this coalition.

The Kurds are going to demand a very high price, and that is: "We want a census and we want it in Kirkuk and we want to know where the line is. Is Kirkuk on our side of the line or is it on the Sunni side of the line?" That is going to be tough.

QUESTION: With all your fabulous contacts and interesting ins and outs over there, I was wondering whether you have ever run into anybody who straddles these two, that seems able to deal with both of these groups. Is there anyone you have interviewed or anybody—

DEBORAH AMOS: The Americans.

QUESTIONER: But, I mean, it almost seems to be begging for somebody who can overcome this divide.

DEBORAH AMOS: Oh, you want a Mandela basically?


Well, you know, those are just rare historical moments, and we just have to accept that it is not often that somebody rises. We've never had one. So far, no. It's difficult.

Now, as I said, Allawi is an ironic political figure, because he is a Shiite who is ultimately going to be leading what looks like the Sunni coalition.

A couple of other interesting things happened in this election.

The Islamic parties didn't do so well. Certainly the Sunnis didn't—they almost got run off the planet. The other thing that happened is the Sunni Awakening. The guys who came on our side and fought al Qaeda, they did terribly in this election, just terribly. And it's not altogether clear whether they got trounced because they were our pals. But it doesn't look good for them. They really suffered in this election.

The people who did well were—look at al-Sadr's people in Sadr City. They did very well, because they were extremely clever about how they worked this election. This election was even more complicated than Iowa caucusing. You needed a phone book to figure out who you were going to vote for—6,000 candidates.

But what the Sadr people did is something that—do you remember the election in Gaza when Hamas won? Well, part of the reason that Hamas won was because the guys they were against, Fatah, put up too many candidates. Hamas put up one in most of the districts. So if you said, "I kind of like that guy, but maybe I like that guy," Fatahs split their vote. Hamas did not.

And that is what the Sadrists did. They were very strategic about who they had. And since this was an open list and you could say, "I like that guy, I like that guy, that guy fixed my sewer, that guy made sure that we got a little bit cheaper gas this week, but I don't have to choose between him and him, I just have one." So they did very, very well.

QUESTION: Thank you for shedding light on the situation.

Given the chaos you described and the personal horror that virtually every Iraqi experienced, can you comment on how many or what percent of them are (1) still glad that Saddam was toppled and (2) are still fairly pro-American?

It's easier to talk about the first rather than the second.

I think most Iraqis are glad that Saddam is gone. You know, what happens in situations of great chaos is nostalgia does set in. You will find plenty of people who well say, "I'd rather take Saddam any day than this." In calmer moments, I'm not sure that's true.

But think about what it must be like to not know when your kids leave the house in the morning if they are going to come back. At the end of the day, many people will take security over a free press, will take security over democracy any day. That has been, I'm afraid, Iraq's choice.

Pro-American is a really interesting question. I think that they are a little happier with us than they have been because they don't see us anymore. We now have pulled back into bases. So if you are an Iraqi, you kind of know that the Americans are back there, but they aren't as obvious as they were before.

As I said, the Awakening guys did very badly, and they were the pro-American figureheads. You can still get killed for working as a translator—you are considered a traitor.

I think that strategically Iraq will want to have a close relationship and a friendly relationship with the United States, because their task will be to balance Iranian influence against American influence. Middle Eastern countries learn how to play that game with outside patrons so that they can chart their own vaguely independent course. Iraq is going to want to do that. So they will use us for that very reason.

Can I look into the heart of every Iraqi and say, "Are you grateful?" That's hard to do.

QUESTION: As I have been listening to you reflecting on Iraq, your knowledge is remarkable. But how is it that you have the staying power to remain for almost a decade in Iraq, with all the contradictions and everything? It's a wonderful story, but doesn't it take something out of you personally?

Secondly, since the title of your book is Eclipse of the Sunnis, how do you look to the future and the balance between the Sunnis and the Shiites in the Middle East?

You know, I had a book party in Washington, and four Iraqis came in and they said, "We're the eclipsed people." [Laughter] I said, "You know, eclipse is a phase. It is not forever."

Look, Sunnis are the majority in the Middle East. So this is a new reality, and Arabs are going to have to get used to it and figure out what they are going to do about it, and I think that the Shia-dominated government in Iraq is going to have to figure out what it is going to do about it.

They don't live on an island. Their neighbors want to know how they are going to treat their minority. If I were the Iraqi government, I would certainly be saying to Saudi Arabia, "And exactly how are you treating your minority? You've never been very nice to those people. You really don't allow them religious freedom. So let's just talk about this." Well, maybe that's an American way of dealing with things and it won't work out that way. But it should. Historically, perhaps it will.

But I always hate crystal ball questions because one thing is it's hard to know until we see how this election shakes out. But I think that we haven't turned a corner.

I think that we do have a country that has a democracy but no democrats yet, and that is going to take a while. This was supposed to be the shining example to the rest of the region, but the rest of the region says, "If that's democracy, no thank you." It has given it a bad name.

On the other hand, the Iraqis have learned how to do it, and they seem to have warmed to this crazy election system that they have and have gamed it and figured out how to work it.

So let's see who emerges as the prime minister and let's see if they can find some power-sharing agreement.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for a very interesting and informative talk.

I'd like to ask you about the social basis in Iraq for stability and democracy. For many years before 2003, the United States and other countries imposed sanctions on Iraq and it imposed a tremendous cost on the middle class—


QUESTIONER: —which I think is really kind of the social basis for stability. Now, you have described this tremendous exodus of the middle class from Iraq and a question about whether they are going to be able to return, and if they return, they don't even have their own houses to occupy.

So I am wondering, is there anything left of a middle class in Iraq that could provide that kind of nucleus for a social basis for stability and democracy?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, there is not a middle class, but there is a kleptocracy that is growing in Iraq. There are some very rich people in Iraq today. If you look at Transparency International, you will see where Iraq rates now—it's like third from the bottom. It is quite a concern. You can't steal that much money and think you are going to have a middle class.

Part 2, how do you have a middle class when the only place that you can work is the government? There is not enough private enterprise in Iraq today. There needs to be a whole lot more. Because without private enterprise you are stuck in the sectarian system, because parties think that jobs are spoils—and they are—and it is hard to get a job based on merit. You get a job based on muhassasa [the government's ethnic and sectarian quotas], which essentially means there is a sectarian basis for jobs. So if a Kurdish minister is the head of a ministry, you can pretty much bet that everybody in there is going to be a Kurd. Those things have to change for there to be something that we would recognize as an entrepreneurial economy and democracy.

There are a couple of other trends that happened in Iraq that had been happening before Saddam, and that is Baghdad rules and the rest of the provinces run to catch up. It is unclear whether this earthquake in the country changes some of those old patterns. We'll see.

QUESTION: Who is going to keep the lid on the country when the United States leave? You have three separate interests here: the Sunnis, the Shiites—who were out of power, now they're in power, and I don't think they are ever going to give it up, and they have the oil—and then you have the Kurds up in the north who are interested in their own country, their own independence, and the oil around Kirkuk and Mosul. So the Sunnis are sort of left out of this equation here. Who is going to keep that lid on, particularly in view of the fact that each segment of the population is pretty well armed with guns and bombs?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, let's hope the U.S. military isn't telling fibs, that they have actually trained an army that is now able to, as you say, keep a lid on. It doesn't mean that you have to keep the same lid that Saddam kept on.

But the military actually kept security in this election. The Americans were not in the scene. The country did not fall apart.

There was a series of bombings. I was there in 2009 and there was just a horrendous bomb that took off the façade of the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry. That was the beginning of a series of attacks. The country did not fall apart.

The sectarian war didn't start again. The military seems to be able to keep a semblance of order.

Almost every diplomat I have talked to believes that if Maliki doesn't win, he will continue to rule the country as an interim prime minister until a government can be formed.

Although what they all say is: "Forget about getting anything else done. All that legislation that needs to be passed, an oil deal that needs to be settled—all that stuff will go by the boards. You won't see that for another year."

Is there another civil war? I don't think anybody can tell you. I really don't. But we are on a schedule to leave, and those troops will be down to 50,000 by the end of this year. That drawdown begins in about six months, whether there is a government formed or not.

I think it would be striking if this election were more or less fair. Do you think it will be? Secondly, do most Iraqi citizens expect a more or less fair election?

DEBORAH AMOS: The problem is it needs to be for everybody to accept it, and it needs to be fair and acceptable for the withdrawal to go on time. Woe be to Iraq if the majority of Iraqis think that it was rigged. This is not Afghanistan.

The UN is overseeing it. I noticed that the head of the UN mission there was very quick on the day after the election to say, "We have not seen any widespread fraud," and then dispatched 100 lawyers to go make sure. They know what's at stake.

Both candidates, both Maliki and Allawi—and it depends on where they were in the polls—said, "There's cheating." Allawi was the first, and then he was much more quiet when he beat Maliki. Then Maliki said, "There's cheating." So I think that there are going to be challenges to it.

One thing you can say is, outside of Lebanon, this is the other election where you don't know who is going to win. That was a good thing.

I think by and large Iraqis do see it as a fairly fair election—not a whole lot of cheating, not a whole lot of dead—36, that's low for them. In every precinct all of the parties were there, and they had a slew of Arab League people. There was just tons and tons and tons of monitoring. I think that the Election High Commission is a bit inept, and they have made it worse by not getting the boxes counted, not doing what they should have been doing. I don't know why, but it's Iraq. But it just didn't look good.

But so far I haven't seen anything that convinces me that the whole country thinks it's a rigged election. I don't see that, especially—here's why—if it was rigged, Maliki would have won. That's how it works everyplace else.

Here's my concern, though, about this, and it's because I'm writing a research paper on the Iraqi media. I think that the next prime minister is going to really crack down on the media, because if you are the prime minister and you control television and you didn't win the election, then you were doing something very wrong. And I do worry about that, that will be the lesson that will be taken away from this election, because Maliki should have swept the floor. He controlled the media.

JOANNE MYERS: Deborah, thank you so much for giving a voice to this fragile diaspora.

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