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Panel at YLS Considers Nation-Building in Iraq

A panel of experts spoke about the prospects for nation-building in Iraq on Friday, January 28, 2005. The talk was a part of Yale Law School's Middle East Legal Studies Seminar, a gathering of legal scholars interested in the region, which this year focused on "Nation-Building in the Middle East." In introducing the Iraq panel, which opened the conference, Sterling Professor of Law Anthony T. Kronman commented that with Iraqi elections coming up in a few days, "It would be difficult to conjure up a more timely subject."

The speakers were Salem J. Chalabi, who was the first general director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal set up to try Saddam Hussein and members of his regime and also worked for the Iraq Interim Governing Council as a legal adviser; Noah Feldman '97, an associate professor of law at NYU who spent several months in Iraq as the senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority; and Bernard Haykel, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at NYU and author of Revival and Reform in Early-Modern Islam.

Chalabi focused his presentation on some of the practical difficulties and missteps he witnessed in the nation-building process. However, he commented that he saw great progress in the fact that Iraq had gone from being ruled by a tyrant to nation-wide elections.

Chalabi said that the CPA did not have a detailed understanding of Iraqi culture when it started administering the country. This led to a number of mistakes. For example, the CPA did not anticipate the intensity of the Shiite/Sunni schism within Iraq. Chalabi also identified a lack of clarity as a problem in the early stages of nation-building. After Saddam Hussein and his supporters lost power, said Chalabi, "There was no clear winner" among the ethnic groups and factions within Iraq. "The Iraqi mentality was expecting a winner." In addition, the lines of authority between the new national government and the regional and local governments were not always clear. "This kind of organizational mess was part of the lack of clarity in moving toward the nation-building process," he said.

Chalabi also identified a trend of unrealistic expectations for Iraq, which he called a "destroyed country" after thirty-five years of Baathist rule. "We've had a lot of good ideas brought in by outside experts. Unfortunately, implementation became an issue." For example, Chalabi pointed out that Hussein's government had interfered with the functioning of the judiciary and tolerated widespread corruption. "We're trying to introduce Western rule-of-law ideas, but the mentality isn't there," he said. "The process is going to take a long time."


Haykel spoke next and identified sectarian divisions as a major threat to any future government in Iraq. He described the "extremely corrosive" situation in Lebanon, where much of civic life is divided along lines of ethnic and religious identification. Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites there largely associate with members of their own communities, even in official government business, said Haykel. "It's virtually impossible for people to transcend this," he added.

"What I see happening in Iraq is something very similar," said Haykel. He added that these divisions were not the fault of the United States or of the Iraqi people, but had been set up during the time of British rule and then further exploited by Saddam Hussein. Haykel added, "It's a cancer and I see no way out of it."

Haykel also speculated about why jihadist ideology--such as that espoused by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi--is so powerful in Iraq and other troubled nations. He described how the originalism of Salafism, which looks back to the first generations of Muslims in interpreting Islamic law, creates a fragmented authority structure. "Any individual who can interface with these texts has authority," he said. Haykel argued that this fragmented authority also meant that there is no military solution to the challenges of this ideology. Destroying a center of extremist activity, such as Falujah, only creates more recruits for the extremists.


Feldman said that he expected the Iraqi election on January 30 to reveal the profound factional divisions in the country. These divisions existed all through the rule of Saddam Hussein, but the destabilizing force of the U.S. presence in Iraq has deepened them.

Feldman spent the rest of his talk discussing potential solutions to the problem. "The creation of state institutions... will be a step in the direction of damping down the sectarian divisions," he argued. However, Feldman cautioned against giving formal recognition to sectarian divisions in the new Iraqi government.

His solution for giving minority groups assurances that their interests will be addressed while not hardening sectarian divisions was to adopt a form of regionalism. He said that Iraq is worse off now than it was eighteen months ago, because of sectarian rivalry and discord. The upcoming constitutional negotiations will simultaneously be a peace negotiation, and Feldman suggested that a compromise along regional federal terms will have the best chance of leading to a viable state.