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The Future of Iraq

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we have one more perspective on Iraq this morning from Leslie Gelb. He's a longtime journalist and now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He spent 10 days recently talking to people in Iraq, and when he returned, he spoke with Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Leslie Gelb's trip was arranged by the State Department. He met with educators, business people, provincial councilmen and most of the leaders of Iraq's new national government. His travels from Baghdad to northern Iraq brought him in contact with Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (Council of Foreign Relations): My impressions of the Iraqi leadership almost across the board are very positive. The problem is, it's Iraq and it's a different culture. These folks are not used to the word `efficiency' in an American sense. They're much more interested in kind of equilibrium and seeing that all sides have something to take away with in the deal. It's a much slower, much more confusing kind of politics, but they know how to play it.

MONTAGNE: A couple of years ago, you proposed in an op-ed piece a provocative idea, and that was a three-state solution for Iraq: Kurdish state in the north, Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the center. Do you still believe that that's the only arrangement that will work?

Mr. GELB: Yeah, I didn't propose three separate independent states. I proposed three states as part of a confederation with a great deal of autonomy for each of those states, with a central government in Baghdad with limited powers. I think that outcome will be what happens in that country, either as a result of negotiations, and I hope that'll be the case, or civil war. But the notion of Iraq as one country, as almost all of our Middle East experts say, just does not square with the realities out there now, with the history of that country or what you will hear from the Iraqis themselves. They themselves have come to the conclusion that essentially the only way to keep the country together is to have maximum decentralization, alas, along ethnic and religious lines. The Kurds are already there. They've reached that conclusion. You see a real political movement in Basra in the south among the Shia in the same direction now. The Sunnis in the center are the slowest to move in that direction, but logic, I think, will take them there because it's the only way that they'll be able to run their own affairs, by and large, without being dictated to by either Shia or Kurds.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, working out a confederation to begin with takes compromise and seriously tough bargaining. How's that going to work?

Mr. GELB: It's hard. It's very hard, but it is a natural bargain if each in the end gets to essentially run its own internal affairs and that the central government in Baghdad deals with oil, maintenance of the oil pipelines and distribution, sharing of oil revenues, border defense, health and the like. They have a real common interest in those areas, and I think in the other areas, they're going to have to work out these decentralized arrangements.

MONTAGNE: You have written that there has to be a government and a cause people are willing to fight and die for.

Mr. GELB: Yes.

MONTAGNE: We know millions of Iraqis risked an awfully lot just to vote. Now that you're having just been there, do you think that Iraqis are getting a government worth dying for?

Mr. GELB: You know, I don't know. I think they deserve the chance. I think the leadership group could put such a government together. One of the things that absolutely hits you over the head in all the kinds of conversations I had was that while Iraqis are angry and frustrated with Americans, they hate the terrorists. They know what the terrorists are doing to them. They're destroying their lives and their country. Now that feeling, which is there and it's palpable, is a great force for a new Iraqi government to capitalize on.

MONTAGNE: Leslie Gelb is the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He's just returned from a 10-day trip to Iraq.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. GELB: Sure.

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INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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