USIP's ongoing examination of Iraq's emerging leadership finds a revolutionary change in the forces shaping the new leaders and their political orientation since the end of the Ba'th regime. The report offers several proposals to help Iraqis step back from the current political crisis.


  • Understanding the background and visions of Iraq's new leaders is critical to analyzing where the country may go in the future.
  • Changes in leadership since Saddam have been revolutionary. Among Iraq's new leaders there are virtually no holdovers from the Ba'th era. A "de-Ba'thification" program to remove the old guard reinforces the divide between those who held office before and those who hold it now.
  • The ethnic, sectarian, and regional balance of the leadership has also been reversed since Ba'th times; Sunni dominance is gone, and Shi'ah constitute the largest group, with Kurds and Arab Sunnis making up about a fifth of the leadership. A high percentage of the new leaders are exiles, and most have been shaped by years of opposition to Saddam's regime. Under the Ba'th, affiliation with other parties was prohibited; today's leaders come from a diversity of parties.
  • Ideological changes are also dramatic. Under the Ba'th, the vision was of a unified state with an Arab identity, emphasizing economic development, technology, and independence from foreign influence. The newly elected leaders have differing visions. The focus on ethnic and sectarian identity has sharpened; nationalism and a sense of Iraqi identity have been weakened.
  • The Kurdish parties make Kurdish identity paramount and seek a highly decentralized federal region that includes Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders are overwhelmingly secular and pro-Western in their orientation.
  • Shi'ah leaders have more diverse views. Their primary identity is Iraqi, but their sense of nationalism is weak. The main interest of most Shi'ah leaders is in Islamizing—and reforming—society, in a Shi'ah direction. Because they are a majority, they favor elections and a parliamentary government.
  • The secular center has a commitment to an Iraqi identity and a more centralized state, but it is losing ground rapidly. A clear vision for the Sunnis has yet to be articulated, but judging from their campaign literature, many are still wedded to past Ba'th visions.
  • One surprising finding is the lack of emphasis on economics. Although new government leaders recognize the need for economic development, they do not make it a priority. This puts them at odds with many of their constituents, who say they want services and security.
  • The new politics of communal identity is making compromise on governing difficult. While ethnic and sectarian identities have been an important feature of the Iraqi polity in the past, the new political process (elections, constitution making) is sharpening them. So, too, is the insurgency.
  • It is crucial to address fragmentation before it becomes irreversible. One step would be to refocus Iraqis on economic issues, especially the formulation of oil legislation that gives all Iraqi communities a stake in oil resources and an equitable share in their benefits.
  • The political process should be slowed to allow politicians to absorb changes and work out compromises, especially in the area of regionalization. Iraqis should be encouraged to mend the political system that is producing polarization—for example, by refining political party regulations and the election law.
  • The new political leadership must develop an alternative vision for the future that encourages economic development, a new middle class, and communal tolerance, or the incipient fragmentation will become a reality.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This study shows that while ethnic and sectarian identities have been an important underlying feature of the Iraqi polity in the past, the new political process is sharpening these sentiments by mobilizing them for votes. Iraq under Saddam was a political monolith, with a huge imbalance in power among ethnic and sectarian groups. Sunnis from the Triangle predominated, with almost no Kurds in power in the central government, and with Shi'ah greatly underrepresented.

Today the ethnic and sectarian balance in power very closely represents the balance in the country. But the politicization of ethnic and sectarian divisions has never been so severe. The political groups ousted from power, mainly Sunni ex-Ba'thists, now joined by religious jihadists, have fomented a determined and destructive insurgency, not just against the United States but against the new leadership as well, which has bitterly divided communities. Meanwhile, in the race for power in the new electoral process, leaders of political parties have used appeal to ethnic and religious sentiments to mobilize mass constituencies, playing on communal identity to win elections. But the process, and the conflicting visions of these parties, makes it difficult to compromise once power is achieved, while the insurgency makes it even more difficult to bring ex-Ba'thists and Sunnis back into the process.

The intense focus on the political process (three elections in one year; drafting of a constitution in a few months) has absorbed virtually all the energy and attention of emerging new leaders, distracting them from concentrating on other essential areas, such as economic development and delivery of services. Interviews conducted for this study indicate that these aims do not have a high value for the new national leaders, or they assume that such tasks will be left for "technocrats," despite dissatisfaction of most constituents with their failure to deliver. But elections have not forced politicians to pay a price for this lapse; indeed, politics reign supreme. While this may be producing a new set of leaders in the short term, it is likely to exact a high price for Iraq and Iraqis over the long term. Fragmentation and overpoliticization are likely to continue to inhibit investment and economic development in Iraq, and with them the strengthening of Iraq's educated middle class, on which the future of the country--as well as its democracy--depends. Indeed, economic development and a growing middle class are the factors most likely to undercut identity politics, by providing new avenues of mobility and new visions for the future. These problems and ways to overcome them need to be addressed and confronted by Iraqis themselves before the situation becomes irreversible. U.S. policy over the next phase of Iraq's transition.

What, if anything, can be done?

While the United States has diminishing influence in Iraq as new Iraqi leadership takes charge of the country, the United States can exercise its remaining leverage to help Iraq gradually walk back from the recent political polarization, and help put a floor under the slide toward ethnic and sectarian fragmentation. There are several steps that would be helpful:

  1. Help refocus the attention of Iraqi politicians on economic issues, which not only are critical to development but also cut across ethnic and sectarian divides and will produce alternative visions for Iraq's future.
    • First, encourage Iraqis to formulate a new oil law that is national in scope, encourages foreign investment in Iraq's dilapidated oil infrastructure, and gives all of Iraq's citizens and communities a stake in its oil resources, or assured distribution of its benefits on an equitable basis. Such legislation should be the new government's first order of business. How this issue is dealt with will define the prospects for Iraq's future unity. If "regional" interpretations of the new constitution go so far as to deprive the oil-poor Sunni region of Iraq of an equitable share of oil resources located mainly in Kurdish and Shi'ah areas, there will be little hope for ethnic and sectarian peace.
    • Encourage the international community to provide the financial support it has promised and to devote these resources to projects that cut across ethnic and sectarian communities, rather than to those that reinforce divisions or are structured so that they benefit only one location or community. It should not be difficult to identify such projects and focus on them, making the point that economic development, not identity, will be rewarded.
    • Focus on development in one or two mixed communities as a model for economic cooperation. Baghdad should be a focus of this activity.
  2. In the short term, the United States should slow down the political process to allow politicians to absorb the changes that have taken place and to work out compromises. For example:
    • Slow the process of regionalization, especially the creation of a new nine-province federal region in the south. This would give the new Sunni political leaders time to accommodate themselves to the concept of federalism and to come up with ideas of their own on decentralization.
    • Postpone the proposed referendum on constitutional amendments slated for 2006, giving the Iraqis more time to work out differences. The interim period could be used to fill in the many legislative gaps in the constitution on which there is more agreement.
    • Stop local ethnic and sectarian relocations in mixed-population areas where intimidation by political forces has occurred (especially south of Baghdad, in Diyala, and in Kirkuk), by providing better security in these areas. Mixed-ethnic and -sectarian communities must have protected space in which to interact, and this space must be expanded.
  3. Encourage Iraqis to fix the political system that is producing this polarization. Actions that could be considered:
    • Legislation to regulate political parties, making them more open and accessible to ordinary Iraqis. Three areas need attention: financing of political parties, transparency in the process of nomination, and a decoupling of parties from militias.
    • Revision of the election law in ways that move it away from the single-list system (which seems to favor ethnic and sectarian identity) and focus more on district and local representation. Many different models and examples can be drawn on, but a system that encourages new leadership in local areas is likely to be less ideological and more oriented to satisfying constituent demands.
    • Development of mechanisms to encourage new leadership at municipal, local, and provincial levels, where leaders appear to be more responsive to the economic and social needs of the population and less oriented toward ideology and identity.
  4. The United States and its international partners need to refocus Iraq's emerging leadership on an alternative vision for the future, one that encourages economic development, a stronger middle class, and communal tolerance. This is a long-term effort, which needs to be rooted in education and the public media, but a very necessary one. While Iraqis must take the lead--and a number are--the international community can encourage cross-cultural activities and attitudes by
    • funding more robustly international exchanges of leaders and opinion makers;
    • supporting Iraqi think tanks that explore different visions and policy options;
    • working on social studies and humanities curricula, in schools and online, which encourage cross-cultural tolerance and differing visions of the future, at all levels from primary school through university;
    • encouraging the establishment of an American University in Iraq, in an area accessible to all Iraqis and dedicated to teaching all communities;
    • helping to establish "charter" or "model" schools that emphasize a modern, cross- cultural curriculum that will turn out leaders with a new and different vision.


About the Report

This report is part of an ongoing study on Iraq's new political leaders and their visions for the future. Based on extensive background data and personal interviews with over forty top leaders since 2003, the study finds a revolutionary change since the Ba'th in the forces shaping the new leaders and their political orientation. A nationalist regime committed to a strong central government has been replaced by political pluralism and disparate views, with no common vision on Iraq's direction forward. The political process has intensified polarization around ethnic and sectarian identity, which could lead to Iraq's fragmentation.

The report suggests several ways to help Iraqis step back from this divide, including refocusing on economic development, particularly the need for new oil legislation that would give all Iraqis a stake in the nation's major resource, and slowing the political process to give leaders time to absorb change and refine the political system.

Phebe Marr is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. A leading U.S. specialist on Iraq, she is frequently consulted by government and nongovernmental authorities, and her book The Modern History of Iraq is considered the standard source on contemporary Iraq. A former senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, she has advised high-level officials, often testifies before U.S. Senate and House committees, and frequently appears on network TV as a commentator on Iraq.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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