National Geographic News
American author and freelance journalist Sandra Mackey moved to Saudi Arabia in 1978 and lived there four years with her physician husband, reporting on the boom and bust of the country's new oil economy and its impact on a society moving from a tribal past to modernization.
In the decades that followed, Mackey has returned often to the Middle East to report on the region. She has written about the civil war in Lebanon, traveled in Iran despite government restrictions against American visitors, and, most recently, traveled in Iraq. Her fifth book, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, was published earlier this year.
This month National Geographic Books issued Cradle and Crucible: History and Faith in the Middle East, which includes a chapter by Mackey on the origins and consequences of political and military conflict in the Middle East during the 20th century. In a recent phone interview with National Geographic News from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, Mackey discussed conditions in Iraq and the influence of its leader, Saddam Hussein.
What do you think will happen in Iraq if Saddam Hussein were to lose power?
There is a lot of evidence to point to the fact that Saddam Hussein has been able maintain his power two ways. One is through fear. The second is through tribal alliances that [Hussein] has put together since the end of the Gulf War. [Hussein] really doesn't have enough people who are loyal to him to control the whole country. So he has bought these tribes to control their own people. Once they start seeing that Saddam Hussein is being weakened, they very well could start pulling their support away from him, and he could just topple. There could be a military coup and [Hussein] could go. Finally, you have the possibility of an American invasion and occupation.
I think in any of these scenarios you're going to have, at least in the short-run, real problems of control. There is a lot of anger there of Iraqis against Iraqis. There will be a huge scramble to see who is going to be able to control the state and who is going to define the state. In the long-term, I think it depends on how things unfold. The Iraqis have got to reestablish civil society. Before they can even move on to a political system, they've got to define the state. I can't see that Iraq can move from a period of Saddam to total self-rule overnight. There's got to be some international presence there that more or less wraps the blanket of civil society around the Iraqis.
In some ways, I think the region may be more aware of the fragility of Iraq than the Bush Administration. I think the Bush Administration is either too optimistic that you can make this transition easily. Or they have just accepted the fact that the United States will go in, and we will be the occupying power.
Iraq is a very complex society. What would a change of regime mean for the people of Iraq?
Iraq is a patchwork. Most of the population is divided between three ethnic or sectarian groups. The Sunni Arabs, the group of Saddam Hussein, are Arab by culture and language. They follow mainstream Islam. Through the history of the state, [the Sunnis] have dominated Iraq politically. But they're only 20 percent of the population. The majority of the population is made up of Arab Shia. These are Arabs by culture but they follow the dissenting sect of Islam known as Shiism, which you find in Iran. Then you have an ethnic division which separates the Arabs from the Kurds. The Kurds are not Arab by language or culture. They are Muslim. But their religion is not that important to the Kurds if you compare it to what their real passion or faith is, Kurdish nationalism. Within each of these groups, you have divisions between the urban people and the rural people. [They are] divided by tribes, particularly in the Shia areas. The further complication is that each of these groups tends to be concentrated in one section of the country. The Kurds are in the north. The Sunnis are in the center. The Shia are in the south.
The Iraqis are going to have to come to terms with how to govern themselves. This is going to be very difficult. One of the things that's thrown around a lot both by both Iraqi opposition groups and the United States is democracy, "We're going to give them democracy." This is not going to work in the short run in Iraq. If you regard democracy as one man or one woman, one vote, that puts the Shia, with 60 percent of the population, in control of Iraq. That's not going to be acceptable to the Sunnis or by the Kurds.
A real challenge to any post-Saddam Iraq is to devise a political system that gives the Shia their political and economic rights as a majority, but yet, at the same time, protects the rights of the minority so that everybody will invest in this country. One of the problems of post-Saddam Iraq is just, number one, simply devising the machinery for running the country and then selling it to enough people that it will actually work.
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