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The NYT’s John Burns On The “Soft Partition” Of Iraq

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I interviewed John Burns yesterday (the full transcript here), and this is the exchange on “soft partition” in Iraq:

HH: A lot of people are speculating that a soft partition is settling in. Do you see that, John Burns? 

JB: I’m a little suspicious of that, because I think that the contending parties in Iraq are identified by one thing that they do have in common, which is that they view this as a winner takes all game. And although it’s true, for example, that in Baghdad, one cause of the lessening of sectarian violence in Baghdad, one cause in my view, is the American surge, the additional American troops have been there. But another cause is that there has been so much effective partition within Baghdad itself as a result of ethnic cleansing over the last eighteen months. But that’s a battle that is far from over. Neither Shiites nor Sunnis are likely to accept that as a status quo in the long term, and you only have to think of the people who have been driven from their homes, and I know dozens of them, many of our own employees in Iraq of the New York Times, have had to leave their neighborhoods in fear of their lives because of the sectarian killing. The only property many of these people have, the only asset they have is their homes. They’re not going to give them up. This is a struggle which will not relent, and not relent for a very long time. So if we talk about an actual soft partition, I don’t see that as a lasting solution. [# More #]

HH: John Burns, I don’t have you resume in front of me, but I seem to recall that you were the bureau chief in India for a while for the Times. 

JB: I was indeed.

HH: And of course, India went through a partition, and it was Hindu-Muslim, not Shia-Sunni Muslim, and it was bloody and it was awful. But when you were there, had it passed, not obviously in the Kashmir, but in the day to day relations between Muslim and Hindus, did they carry the scars of that partition forty years later? 

JB: They did, they did. And as late a time that I was there in the 1990’s, there was still major upheavals and riots and killings which could be traced back to that partition. I think in some ways, India has been more successful in overcoming the aftermath of partition than has Pakistan, so I don’t want to leave the impression that India’s a country that remains deeply traumatized by it, but the 120, 130 million Muslims in India still have a restive relationship with the ruling Hindu majority in India, and a great deal of that restiveness goes back to 1947-48.

HH: And do you expect that that same sort of restiveness will endure, even if some kind of rapprochement is worked out over the next four, five, six years in Iraq, between Shia and Sunni? 

JB: Oh, I’m sure it will. Hugh, we’re dealing here with a problem that has its origins right at the very earliest stages of Islam, 1,400 years ago. And Iraq sits right on the fault line of that schism between what we now know as the Sunni and the Shia. What happened when the American invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003 was lifting the weight of terror which Saddam Hussein had managed to suppress that schism, if you will, has exposed it. And the notion that Sunni and Shia in Iraq can resolve differences which are so deeply rooted in history, as their more recent experience on the Shia side of repression, and on the Sunni side of seeing their ruling power usurped, the notion that that can be resolved in any brief period of time, I think, is entirely notional. I think it’s going to be a very long time before there is what you might describe as a lasting settlement. 

– – – – 

HH: John Burns, when we went to break, we were talking about the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, and I’m hoping, given how many years you’ve spent there, you can sort of explain to me and to the audience how…you mentioned that Saddam’s weight of terror suppressed this divide. How palpable is that divide, even, say, among the employees of the New York Times? Does it rise up as say racial tension would have in the South in the 50’s and the 60’s? Or is it much deeper and much more concealed than that? 

JB: No, you mentioned in the last segment the situation in India, and I think that you could say this in common about the two societies in sectarian friction and violence, which is that it’s a manmade thing. It’s a provoked thing. So let me tell you, for example, about the mood in the New York Times’ compound in Iraq. I think among media organizations, we are the largest employer. We have more Iraqi staff than anybody else. And one of the most pleasing things said to me as I left a few weeks ago by one of the Iraqi staff was that you’ve made it possible for us within these high walls, the high blast walls with which we’ve had to surround our compound in Iraq to protect ourselves, and our Iraqi employees, you’ve made it possible within these four walls for us to be Iraqis, not Sunni and Shia. There’s no sectarianism here. I have to say, I was extremely pleased to hear that. And it wasn’t we who created that. We made it possible for Iraqis, decent, hard-working, conscientious Iraqis, the sorts of people we employed, and who contribute so heavily to our daily report in the New York Times on Iraq, made it possible for them to be themselves. And their natural default position, and I’m speaking now of the great majority of Iraqis, is one of peaceable intent and goodwill across the Sunni-Shiite schism, if you will. This sectarian violence has been provoked in the first place by al Qaeda and the Baathist underground as it became, that is to say the remnants of Saddam’s regime, who for a very long time, in the fact of, I have to say, passive Shiite resistance, were killing Shiites in very large numbers in their Mosques, in their markets, on the streets, in their schools, with the sorts of bombings which Americans became so familiar with. It was really only in 2006 that Shiites began to strike back in a serious way with militia death squads of their own. But on both sides of this, it’s extremists who have prevailed. I don’t think that they represent, they don’t represent the default position on either side. That said, of course, the fundamental question of power, and the division of power, is a thing that divides Sunni and Shia. At the New York Times, it wasn’t an issue that we had to address, but it is an issue that Iraq has to addressed, and that’s going to be an extremely difficult one to resolve, absent active religious friction.

Read the whole thing.


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