Q&A: David Romano, Middle-East Expert 

It seems everyone has an opinion about the situation in Iraq. We should stay; we should go; we should make a plan for going. But it is rare to hear an informed insider talk about what has happened and how it can be fixed.

The Flyer recently spoke with David Romano, an expert on Middle Eastern minority groups and a professor of International Studies at Rhodes College, to learn exactly how conditions in Iraq have evolved.

An internationally renowned author and lecturer, Romano spent 2003 in northern Iraq, where he studied the Kurds and watched the early stages of the war unfold.

-- by Zac Hill

Flyer: Why did violence in Iraq -- sectarian violence as well as violence against American troops -- begin to escalate in the months after U.S. intervention?

David Romano: You have to understand the background. A big segment of the Iraqi population became unemployed with the fall of Saddam's government, and the United States was unable to replace their jobs.

Some surrounding nations didn't want to be our next targets, and those nations largely had better intelligence than we did. Under these conditions, insurgent groups -- both Islamists and Baath Party remnants -- consciously targeted the Shiites to try and provoke a reaction. Prominent Shia clerics, however, were telling their followers not to look for revenge.

This led to the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr. At first he had 200 people in his militia, but he was the only one who offered a chance to strike back. The violence naturally began to get worse from there, and society became more polarized. People increasingly turned to their kin groups for protection, vengeance, and jobs.

What was the situation like when you first arrived?

When I first got to Iraq, it was relatively stable. The Kurdish part of the country is still relatively stable. There was a window of opportunity where we could have got it right.

What should we have done differently?

We would have done very well to keep elements of the Iraqi army that did not desert and offer them salaries to guard buildings, ministries, the oil facilities, and so forth. By doing that, we would be providing jobs to a couple hundred thousand military-trained, otherwise-embittered individuals. Think about it! These people aren't possibly the kind of people that would feed well into an insurgency? Angry people with guns! Why not keep them on your payroll?

The Baathist system of control wasn't just fear. Anyone with skill was offered a job and made dependent, to the effect that more than 50 percent of the Iraqi population was employed by the government. We went in there, and we had some wonderful ideas about the free market, private enterprise, reducing the government payroll -- those all make sense economically. But economics don't function well when everything is being blown up.

We put all these people out of work overnight, and they became especially susceptible to joining the insurgency. Syrian and Iranian agencies were offering $200 to anyone who would throw a grenade at a U.S. Army patrol. That's a pretty good incentive to someone who is unemployed.

The other thing is that all these contracts that we have, both [paid] from Iraqi oil revenues and from U.S. taxpayers, are for rebuilding and so forth. What would have been the problem with giving those contracts to Iraqi companies? Not only would they have done it much cheaper, they would have been a lot more cooperative.

When I was in Baghdad, I saw the Iraqi Professional Corps of Engineers marching with signs that said, "We Built Our Country; We Know How To Rebuild It!"

We even installed ourselves in Saddam's old palaces. How could the Iraqi people not notice the symbolism?

Some people think that the solution is to divide Iraq into three separate states. Will that work?

The worst part about that is the extreme destabilization of Iraq. How dangerous would it be to have the militaries of [Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey] competing for pieces of the disintegrating Iraq? In the long term, you might have autonomous nation-states with a lot less to fight about, but there are still minorities within those states.

What are the other options?

If you go for the strong, unified central government, I'm sorry, your only option is authoritarianism, because the minority groups -- especially the Kurds -- will fight. A hundred thousand [of them were killed] in 1987 and 1988, and they don't want to see that happen again.

The vast majority of Iraqi Kurds doesn't want to be part of Iraq. At the same time, they are aware of the risks if they were to separate. They would be setting a destabilizing example of Kurdish statehood to surrounding nations and would be a magnet for those nations' Kurdish minorities. Those nations might intervene, especially Turkey. So most Kurds are willing to settle for a degree of autonomy.

We have to remember that Iraq was not a union of consenting peoples. This was a British creation. Government in Baghdad became progressively more authoritarian. Promises for a bi-national state [were] made in the 1920s. They were promised Kurdish-language rights, official bi-national recognition, and all that. All those promises were betrayed. So now you have this 80-year history of blood, massacres, and rebellions as a result of this colonial creation. What you see happening in Iraq now makes you wonder how many people put an Iraqi identity ahead of their Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, who knows what identity.

One option is a very decentralized Iraq where each region has power, and the Sunni region is promised their fair share of the oil reserves in order to not overturn the cart. Each group can pursue enough national self-determination that they are satisfied.

The president's latest plan calls for sending an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. Will the troop surge help quell sectarian violence?

You know, I would love it to. But I just don't see how. I don't understand what sending more troops over there would accomplish.

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