Friday, September 14, 2007

Inside Iraq special on the Petraeus report

Al Jazeera English has the definitive "must-see" weekly discussion for anyone interested in the situation in Iraq, Inside Iraq. This week's program was an hour-long special devoted to reactions to this week's testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker to committees of the US Congress. The first half of the show featured four panelists in Washington, discussing the ramifications of the Petraeus report in US politics; the second half featured the Iraqi foreign minister and two policy analysts, one from America and one from Egypt. As important as the US domestic political scene is to the conduct of the Iraq Occupation, we mustn't forget about the effects our policy has on Iraq and its neighbors.

Inside Iraq, special edition, original air date 2007-09-14, ©2007 Al Jazeera English.

NOTE: an audio glitch in my Internet feed caused the loss of a few seconds from the transcript. If I can catch a rebroadcast of the show, I'll try to fill in the gap.Update: the gap has now been filled in, with the text in reddish-brown.

Hoda Abdel-Hamid: Hello, and welcome to a special edition of Inside Iraq. I'm Hoda Abdel-Hamid. General David Petraeus and the US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, have said that the US troop surge is working, but both men faced tough questions during their testimonies, in particular from the Democrats. President Bush has accepted the advice of Petraeus of a limited troop withdrawal by next July, but the issue of Iraq is fueling tensions within the United States, and is likely to be the key topic in the US Presidential campaign next year. In the first half of this program, we look at the implications of the Petraeus report within the United States, and in the second half, we focus on what the American policy might mean for Iraq and its neighbors. But first, let's take a look at the man who has become so linked to President Bush's surge policy. Raoui Raggeh(sp?) reports.

[correspondent]: He's always tried to be a different kind of soldier. Understanding the local culture, talking to tribal leaders — that's been the policy of General David Petraeus. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division, he became involved in reconstruction and securing local elections. That approach is what enabled him to write what's considered the definitive manual on counterinsurgency. He was also put in charge of training the new Iraqi army. Washington saw him as the man who could save Iraq. He was chosen in January as the public face of President Bush's surge policy. The 54-year-old New Yorker bore all the hallmarks of a PR sell. General Petraeus reached new heights of exposure in recent days, giving his assessment of the situation in Iraq before Congress.

Gen. David Petraeus: As the bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met.

[correspondent]: It was the most anticipated presentation by an army officer since 1967, when General William Westmoreland testified about the Vietnam War. That conflict was the subject of Petraeus' Ph.D. dissertation; his topic had been the lessons the US military could learn from the Vietnam War. Some critics say, all these years later, the general had failed to heed his own advice. In his testimony, Petraeus warned against a quick withdrawal from Iraq, but even before the testimony, as leaks trickled out to the international media, there was uproar about what the general was about to say. An American anti-war group took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, accusing General Petraeus of "cooking the books for the White House." General Petraeus or Betray Us, it asked.

[voiceover]: And his recommendations didn't exactly "fly" on Capitol Hill.

Tom Lantos (D–CA-12): This is not a knock on you, General Petraeus ... but the fact remains, gentlemen, that the Administration has sent you here today to convince the members of these two committees and the Congress that victory is at hand. With all due respect to you, I don't buy it.

Barbara Boxer (D–CA): Please don't what you did in '04, when you painted a rosy scenario in an op-ed piece, turned out to be wrong, like you did in '05, when you told us — and we believed you — that the Iraqis were just about there, they were going to take over their own defense. And please consider that others could be right.

Colin Powell: [before the UN Security Council, 2003-02-05] If concentrated into this dry form....

[correspondent]: In 2003, General Colin Powell managed to win over doubters with his presentation before the United Nations, in the build-up to the war in Iraq. Ultimately, that presentation destroyed Powell's credibility — a risk General Petraeus is facing as he attempts to convince Congress to stay the course. Raoui Raggeh for Inside Iraq.

Abdel-Hamid: So, is General Petraeus under pressure from the politics from the Iraq War, what are the implications of his report in the run-up to the US Presidential elections next year? To discuss these issues, I'm joined by four guests from Washington D.C.: Mr. Edward Walker, former US [Assistant] Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director for Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Steve Clemons, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation; and retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard, who today serves as the senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Gentlemen, welcome to Inside Iraq.

Mr. Gard, let me start with you: was the General Petraeus assessment an objective military assessment, or was it a politicized report?

Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (ret.): I believe that General Petraeus is honest. When you give someone in uniform a mission, he's gonna do everything he can to accomplish it, and I think it's part of the human condition that one tends to look at what seems to be working and to capitalize on it. I don't believe that he at least was a political instrument of the President in a direct way, although he certainly was indirectly.

Abdel-Hamid: Well, Patrick Clawson, didn't Petraeus give us a bit of an impression that it was — that the surge was working and actually security was improving?

Patrick Clawson: Well, the surge has been improving security, and that is the area that Petraeus was concentrating on. Now along with him, also Ambassador Crocker testified, and Amb. Crocker said that the political situation, on the other hand, has not improved very much, so we got quite a mixed message from the two presentations. Amb. Crocker's message was really quite a bit more negative than that of Gen. Petraeus, and if I had been one of Pres. Bush's political opponents up there on the Hill, I would've been giving much more attention to Amb. Crocker's presentation, which described a rather difficult political situation rather than Gen. Petraeus' testimony, which described a somewhat improving military situation.

Abdel-Hamid: But, Mr. Walker, this surge had twofold: on one side, the security, and on the other side, the Iraqi government had to meet some essential benchmarks and kick-start this political process that's going nowhere, so how can we really say that the surge is working?

Edward Walker: Well, you can say the surge is working because it has created some stability in small portions of Iraq, typically some Sunni areas that were a mess before. I think Petraeus is right: the situation is better. Whether it's sustainable or not is another question, but on the political side, what Ryan Crocker was pointing out was, we seem to be walking away from the central government, or its control of the situation, and moving much more towards regional agreements among tribal units, in order to provide stability, economic growth, and so on, and not depend on the central government, except for a check occasionally.

Abdel-Hamid: As the surge started, Pres. Bush said that there would be eighteen benchmarks that the Iraqi government had to meet, and that he would be extremely strict about that, but during the entire week, we heard very little about these benchmarks. Is he changing the course; what's happening?

Walker: Of course he's changing the course; those benchmarks are gone. Maybe someday they'll be accepted, but the current strategy is to break the country down into political units and drive for political agreement within each of these units, to reduce the stress and reduce the security problem, and someday maybe we'll get back to those 18 benchmarks.

Abdel-Hamid: So, Steve Clemons, at the moment, can we say in any way, I mean for the outside world, that what we heard the entire week in Washington was actually something trying to salvage Pres. Bush than really actually giving a clear assessment of what's happening in Iraq?

Steve Clemons: Well, I think Gen. Petraeus gave Pres. Bush a really important gift, and that gift was, he seduced Democratic critics and potential Republican defectors from the President's position into a debate about tactics — tactics that really don't address the broad geo-strategic question, and what really got avoided and set aside was the question you're asking, which is the big question about strategy: what are we seeking to achieve? And the President has slipped through, and I think he's done a very good job. His speech last night was very compelling, seemed sincere; the swagger was gone, and he's offered something that was structural, which was to reduce the military component by about 30,000 troops, which we were going to probably need to do next spring anyway, and in doing so, he's probably stemmed the tide of Republican defections and held the coalition supporting his views together, so I think that we've been drawn into a debate about tactics. What was interesting about Petraeus' comments was that, at best, we're talking about nuances. Clearly, Gen. Petraeus is telling the truth about the empirical results as he sees them about levels of violence in Anbar and certain sections of Baghdad, but we're still talking about nuances. If it were clear-as-day success, we would not be having the debate we are.

Abdel-Hamid: Mr. Gard, now, Pres. Bush and Petraeus were talking about pulling out troops, but when you pull out these 30,000 "surge" troops, isn't there a risk that the security situation will just deteriorate very quickly, I mean, you take off the lid and what happens next?

Gard: Well, I think that certainly is the case. That is a matter of concern. But the draw-down of this number of troops is inevitable, unless you change your deployment policies and increase deployments from, say, 15 to 18 months, or to call back on duty National Guardsmen and Reservists who have only recently returned from being deployed. Politically, that probably is not doable at this point.

Abdel-Hamid: Patrick Clawson, so, at the end of the day, don't you get the impression that really all these security gains they're talking about actually aren't official, and it's all because there are so many troops and so many joint command centers in the middle of Baghdad, and really nothing has been solved on the ground in Baghdad?

Clawson: One of the greatest security improvements has been in Anbar province, and that has come because of a decision by a significant portion of the Sunni population to work with the Americans in order to get rid of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the surge has helped facilitate that process, but the basic change was a decision by Iraqis, the Sunni community in particular, to work with the Americans, and the Americans correspondingly made a big adjustment in their strategy and decided to work with the local Sunni community and not to insist that that community depend on the national government in Baghdad, but instead the Americans are helping empower those Sunni communities to run their own affairs. So we see a considerable improvement in the security situation related to the surge, but basically because of the actions of Iraqis. That's been, in fact, a bigger change than what's happened in Baghdad, where the Americans have been concentrating their efforts.

Abdel-Hamid: We'll take a short break now, but when we come back, we'll continue with our analysis of the Petraeus report.

[voiceover]: Changing the definition of success to stay the course, with the wrong policy, is the wrong course for our troops and our national security. — Barack Obama, US Senator, Presidential candidate 2008

[commercial break]

[voiceover]: It's good news that he feels we will be able to withdraw some troops. To change the strategy from the surge would be a terrific mistake. — John McCain, US Senator, Presidential candidate 2008

Abdel-Hamid: Welcome back to Inside Iraq. With me are Edward Walker, Robert Gard, Patrick Clawson, and Steve Clemons. Mr. Walker, how much of what happened this entire week was for US domestic consumption, rather than really a fair assessment of the situation in Iraq and how to look forward?

Walker: Actually, I think it was a relatively fair assessment, if you look at what was said and don't pay too much attention to what was not said, because it's some of the things that were not said that have caused the problems. I think that it was very much designed for the American people. It was designed to give the President the running room to run this policy out through the summer, and then on into the end of his administration, and I think he's been successful in that. It was also a guarded message to the Iranians, and to al Qaeda, but not as aggressive as he has been in the past, so there was a nuance there, and particularly when you look at Crocker's testimony about the talks with the Iranians, he clearly has not given up on them.

Abdel-Hamid: Steve Clemons, when we say that what has not been said, we shouldn't focus on, but isn't what has not been said really the most crucial of the entire situation in Iraq, which is, what is the Maliki government doing at this stage?

Clemons: I think that is one of the key questions, and, you know, one of the major news networks here, CNN, did a profile of the President's prime-time speeches and the way in which the President's own narrative had changed dramatically, and I think that there some questions about benchmarks, but really the political reconciliation — I think Patrick Clawson is exactly right, right on the money, in focusing on what Ryan Crocker put on the table — is that there's been an absence, complete absence of progress in the very important area of political deal-making in that region, but your first question about, was this designed for an American audience: absolutely, because the President's got to try to square with the American people and try to re-rationalize why we're there and why American men and women are dying and why this is all worth it. I think the President largely succeeded. I think he succeeded because, in part, the Democrats don't really want to win. They want the President to bear the burden and responsibility for this war until the election. That may be a mistake, but that's what is in fact taking place, and, you know, I also think it was very interesting that embedded in the President's speech was an embedded critique of anyone who challenged his view of what's happening as "those who would leave Iraq to either al Qaeda or to Iran," and I think it was a very, very powerful message.

Abdel-Hamid: But, Patrick Clawson, the biggest critique of this report were actually the Iraqi people. A recent poll said that 70% of the Iraqis think that the surge is not working, and actually the security in their own area has deteriorated over the past 6 months.

Clawson: That's true, and it is an indication of just how much Iraqis are dissatisfied with the current situation. Iraqis have, on the whole, decided that the Americans aren't being very effective at providing security. However, the good side of this development is that appears that many Iraqis have therefore decided that they have to provide their own security, and they have to be prepared to work with the Americans to do that. So what we're seeing in both the Shia and Sunni community, increasing willingness to work with the Americans by Iraqis, and the Iraqis themselves providing the security in their local areas, and recognizing that the Americans aren't going to do it for them, that the Americans are only going to be a small contributing factor in that security situation which the Iraqis themselves have to take principal responsibility for.

Abdel-Hamid: But, Robert Gard, now what we have is that the Sunnis are cooperating with the Americans, Shias are cooperating with the Americans, they are not cooperating with each other. Are they actually preparing [for] the after-Americans period, arming themselves and preparing themselves for what happens after the Americans pull out.

Gard: Well, I think that is a matter of deep concern. Counterinsurgency strategy and tactics isn't really very well suited to deal with civic violence and a civil war, and I think the Shia are quite suspicious of our arming some of the tribes in Anbar and elsewhere, and I don't see a diminution in the hostility between those two groups, at least not in the near term.

Abdel-Hamid: So, Steve Clemons, I see you nodding there in agreement.

Clemons: Well, I basically think that what is happening and evolving there — and I think it's a big debate — if the United States were not there, and we were not — I'm not sure how much of a buffer we really are, but if you consider us some kind of a buffer — we create kind of a moral hazard problem, if you will, in the region. And the view is that if we were to withdraw tomorrow, that you would have a vicious escalating civil war, and that our buffer status is somehow pre-empting some of that. Now, the alternative is that our removing ourselves may in fact lead tribal leaders to stare into the abyss, see how horrific the situation will be, and to become mature and try and stabilize the situation among themselves. I really don't know which of those are the right scenario; I think that's the kind of debate we need to be having. But I agree with the general that the worry about a no diminution right now being in sight regarding the Shia-and-Sunni competition or Shia-on-Shia competition for resources and power and status, and whatever evolves in the future of Iraq, is probably right and probably the dominant fear among observers here in Washington.

Abdel-Hamid: Mr. Walker, isn't the biggest problem for President Bush really this current government in Iraq? Is this a government that's not willing to help other provinces, it's a government who's not willing to bring about national reconciliation, so no matter what he does, he doesn't have the backing back in Baghdad?

Walker: Well, I don't think the people in Baghdad have the ability to do what we would like them to do. I don't see how they can mend the breaches that exist between the various sectors of the country, because they simply don't have the political power. What we're seeing is a move away from the central government, even by our own administration, arming effectively militias, sectarian militias in the region, sectarian police units, walking away from the national institutions, and, all in the name of adding to the security, and for a while it'll work, but the question is, what happens when you start walking away? The other problem is, something we haven't talked about is the role that Iran might play if we did walk out of the Iraqi situation. Most clearly, they have every intention of filling any vacuum, particularly in the south. That's going to create enormous pressures on the Saudis and others; we could see our position in the whole region evaporate. We don't really want to see that.

Abdel-Hamid: Is it a Catch-22 situation with Iran? I mean, the more the US stays, the more they will get involved, and if the US leaves, they will also get involved; how can you solve that one?

Walker: Well, I think you're absolutely right. The fact is that what we have to do is, we have to reassure other countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf States, the Saudis and the other, smaller Gulf States, that we're not going to walk away from their security and their situation, and that we're not going to become an ally of one side or another side in the sectarian battle that takes place. The worst thing that can happen to us is, we become identified either with Sunnis or Shi'ites. That's a very huge risk in this proposition, and I think the administration has to straddle that line.

Abdel-Hamid: Patrick Clawson, if you can't be identified with either Sunnis or Shias, then the US is in the middle, acting as a buffer zone; how long can it do that for?

Clawson: Well, the United States can encourage both communities to accept the principle that they're going to have power in their own areas —

Abdel-Hamid: But hasn't it been doing that for the past three years? Hasn't it been trying to do that for the past three years?

Clawson: No. No. No. For the past three years, what we've concentrated on is saying that they have to reach an agreement about how to run the national government, and what we have changed in the last 6 months is to an approach of now saying, Live and Let Live. You take control in your areas, and let the other people have control in their areas. That's a very different approach from saying that you all have to agree to work together very closely on running a central government in Baghdad. Now the focus is on Live and Let Live. Let the Sunnis have power in Anbar, and let the Shia have powers in Basra and Najaf and Karbala, and the two sides respect the other's right to live —

Abdel-Hamid: But wouldn't that lead to the partition of Iraq, make it quicker?

Clawson: No. No more than the situation in Belgium where you have two regions which each respect the right of the other to run things and then there's a weak federal government. There are many situations around the world. Look at the United Arab Emirates: you have 7 emirates, each of which is quite powerful, and a weak central government. That's the model which it seems will probably work best in Iraq, and which Iraqis look like they're beginning to accept.

Abdel-Hamid: Now, my last question is, how much of this week — to what extent will this week affect the Presidential elections.

Clawson: That's an interesting question. I think that the staging of this week has major impact, because I think the President has prevented many, particularly in the Senate side, many Republicans from further defecting from his position, and that's very, very important. There are 21 Republican seats up in 2008, versus 12 Democratic, and the view was that all of those Republican Senators were going to have to square with their voters over the problems of the Iraq War. I think that's major. I think the Democratic side, though, is also telling, because these Democrats are trying to differentiate themselves from each other in a very crowded marketplace of competition right now. They're all resisting homogenizing their message, and I think the President is using that to his advantage quite well, and so I think we're going to get — as much as I disagree with the President's policy, which is largely a status-quo incrementalism, and we're not going to see any big breakthroughs — I think the President is winning.

Abdel-Hamid: Gentlemen, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you very much, Edward Walker, Robert Gard, Patrick Clawson, and Steve Clemons. When we come back, we'll look at the implications of the Petraeus report for Iraq and the Middle East.

[commercial break]

Abdel-Hamid: Welcome back to this special edition of Inside Iraq. I'm Hoda Abdel-Hamid. Pres. Bush has promised to pull out of Iraq about 5,000 troops by Christmas. Is this token gesture a signal to the al-Maliki government that it has been incompetent and ineffective? How will the US continued military presence in Iraq affect the balance of power in the region? Ayman Moyheldin takes a look at what Iraq and some of its neighbors might make of the testimonies from Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker.

Ayman Moyheldin: It may have been an assessment presented to the US Congress, but many across the Middle East were left wondering what, if any, are its implications for the regions. In several hearings described as anti-climactic by some, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker did more of the same: blame Iran and Syria for Iraq's troubles.

Amb. Ryan Crocker: Sir, we have seen nothing on the ground that would suggest that the Iranians are altering what they're doing in support of extremist elements that are going after our forces as well as the Iraqis.

Moyheldin: That rhetoric drew sharp criticism from Tehran, where the Secretary of Iran's National Security Council said:

Ali Larijani: We think it's in the interest of Iraq and America that the US leave Iraq.

Moyheldin: The report also cited progress being made in what was once one of Iraq's most restive provinces, al-Anbar, and praised Sunni tribes for now allying themselves with the US. But just days after the report was submitted, one of Iraq's most prominent Sunni tribal leaders and an important US ally, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, was killed by a roadside bomb in the heart of Anbar. From those allied with the US to those fighting the US, all weighed in on Petraeus' and Crocker's assessment. In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, the head of the Islamic Army in Iraq dismissed the report as fabrication.

[Islamic Army in Iraq]: The American troops present a report to the American administration. That helps them in Iraq. Therefore, we don't think this report will help. It's purely for the American domestic consumption, and for the President before the Congress.

Moyheldin: If some of Iraq's neighboring countries were hoping for more clarity on regional issues triggered by the Iraq War, they never got it. In nearly three days of public hearings and statements, neither the ambassador nor the general mentioned how the surge has failed to abate Iraq's growing refugee problem. Nearly 10% of Iraq's population has now fled the war-torn country. Kurdish fighters are using the Iraqi territory in the north to launch attacks on Turkey; there was no mention of that in either of the reports, and there was no mention of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict — an abiding source of anti-Americanism in the region. Perhaps the one headline that did emerge from the report was that the US could begin withdrawing the additional 30,000 troops it added in January, by the summer of next year, leaving the US military exactly where it was almost 9 months ago, and leaving Iraq and its neighbors with more questions than answers. Ayman Moyheldin for Inside Iraq.

Abdel-Hamid: I'm now joined from Paris by Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari; from Washington D.C. by Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project of Defense Alternatives; and from Cairo by Diaa Rashwan, senior researcher at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Gentlemen, welcome to Inside Iraq. Mr. Zebari, I'm going to start with you. Both Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker came under intense pressure when they were testifying. Now, from an Iraqi point-of-view, how do you perceive what they said over the past week?

Hoshyar Zebari: Well, we welcome their reports, and I think they did a magnificent job in deflecting all this Congressional and public pressure on the surge strategy, on the US commitment in Iraq, and I believe they gave a very accurate, up-to-date assessment of the situation on the ground. Nobody had in his pocket to see any ready-made solutions or any magical solution to the problems and the difficulties we are facing, but they indicated how things are going forward and what needs to be done, and what would be the consequences of an abrupt or sudden withdrawal of US troops, because it would be devastating, I think, to Iraq, to its people, to the region, and to the greater interest of the United States and others in that part of —

Abdel-Hamid: Mr. Zebari, you say it was a fair assessment. Amb. Crocker said that the Maliki government was dysfunctional and riddled with corruption; is that a fair assessment?

Zebari: Well, I think we expected, to be honest, a harsher criticism, but I think they were fair to the government, to its performance. Yes, we admit that we have our own shortcomings, definitely. We have to improve the performance of the government. The government is facing a crisis by the withdrawal by a number of ministers. People expect their government to move faster with the legislation that is pending in the parliament. People expect a faster move by the government, by the security forces, by the service sectors, and to those areas that have been cleared from insurgents, from al Qaeda, and so on, so we are not running from our responsibilities, but I believe that this testimony, this hearing, will add new pressure on the government to move faster on the political front, to support those gains that have been achieved on the ground.

Abdel-Hamid: So, Mr. Conetta, when Amb. Ryan Crocker accuses such damning accusations against the Maliki government, what is he trying to say exactly? Are we to interpret something behind this?

Carl Conetta: I think that we can conclude from the testimony by Crocker and by Petraeus that, on the one hand, the United Sates intends to stay, that the withdrawal of some troops at the end of this year actually is an operational matter; it does not indicate frustration. However, what the ambassador has made clear is that there is a level of frustration. My own assessment is, however, with the President supporting so strongly the continued presence of troops there, perhaps indefinitely, that the pressure is off the Iraqi government, in terms of reform measures. One interesting point, though, is that the ambassador did signal in some of his exchanges with Senators the possibility of US support for a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi assembly, so it would be interesting to see if that goes forward.

Abdel-Hamid: But under the current circumstances, wouldn't that be even more disastrous for Iraq, to have a complete change of government, considering it took them 6 months to put one together?

Conetta: Well, it would depend on whether there was someone in the wings acceptable to the United States, someone that we'd prefer to see. And that remains to be seen. This was not a clear statement by the ambassador; it was simply in response to a question, how do you distinguish between a dysfunctional government — which he characterized the Iraqi government as being — and a failed state, and he said, "Well, in a dysfunctional government, you still have a political process, and of course you'll always have the option of pushing for a vote of no confidence." Interesting thing to say in the context of these developments.

Abdel-Hamid: Now, let me bring in Diaa Rashwan. This entire Iraq War and post-war has been extremely unpopular in the Middle East for the past four years; how did the Arab world really perceive the Petraeus and Amb. Crocker's testimony this week?

Diaa Rashwan: I think that, you know, for many Arab world analysts, the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker was more political than technical. It means that we are facing two responsibilities: one military and one the diplomat. Trying to justify and to give Pres. Bush's strategy in Iraq more weight and more confidence vis-à-vis, especially, the internal American public opinion. This testimony in the face of the Congress committee was really a part of this battle between Democrats and Republicans about Iraq. In the Arab world, and at least many Egyptian analysts, feel those two American responsibilities in Iraq only tried to give the actual government of Iraq more trust from the part of the American government, and also to give it more trust from the American public opinion, despite the real critiques and the real handicaps of this government, coming not only from Iraq itself, but also from other American politicians. We heard what said the Mr. Tom Lantos, vis-à-vis the behavior of the Maliki government, and then we believe that this was more political than reflecting the realities in Iraq. It's only to justify what Mr. Bush was going to do in Iraq in the rest of his mandate.

Abdel-Hamid: I'm just going to bring in Mr. Zebari again. Did you view this week as something more for US domestic consumption, or was it a testimony that reports that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government took extremely seriously?

Zebari: No, this testimony, this hearing was designed for the American public, primarily, to view, to review where the status of the troops, all this heated debate in the United States about value of this commitment, about the sacrifices, about the need to bring their boys home, I think we fully understand the frustration people feel there, and we understand it. We are frustrated also, at the same time, but I think this testimony have given a clear picture of where are things, what has been achieved, what needs to be done. As for the government, actually, I think any comments by other commentators really would rest finally on the Iraqi people's decision: there are constitutional, legal, parliamentary ways how a government can be changed. This is not up to others to decide or dictate how this country is ruled or by whom it is governed. So I believe the government still has the support of the majority, still has a quorum, still functioning, and working very hard to bring others, let's say, on board, and as we've seen —

Abdel-Hamid: Mr. Zebari, I'm sorry to interrupt, but when you say the government is functioning, the government has been completely paralyzed the last few months, it is crumbling apart, and now you have one year, at least, until next summer, to sort of reverse the course; how are you going to do that?

Zebari: Well, I think the government — I'm a member of that government — still has a quorum, and many ministers, despite the view or the position of the leaders of their bloc are still participating in the cabinet and carrying out their duties and function. Yes, you will see soon whether there would be accelerated efforts to bring more ministers, or to reach more consensus, on the need to do a better job, both for the government and in the Council of Representatives. Especially we are facing a number of very important legislations that needs to be passed to reinforce the process of national reconciliation, but the testimony themselves, I think will establish an added pressure on the government to move faster on those areas.

Abdel-Hamid: We'll take a short break now, and when we come back we'll take a further look at the regional implications of the Petraeus report.

[voiceover]: The Iranian involvement has become much clearer to us, and there's no question that Iranian financing is taking place through the Quds Force. — Gen. David Petraeus, US military commander

[commercial break]

[voiceover]: Responsible people should understand this: that Iran is against any sort of insecurity and attacks, and Iraq is able to defend itself. — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian president

Abdel-Hamid: Welcome back to Inside Iraq. So, one of the key recommendations in this report is that the US should remain in Iraq for at least 10 years. I'm going to ask you, Mr. Conetta, how will that affect the balance of power in the Middle East?

Conetta: What it indicates is how important Iraq is viewed in Washington as a piece of strategic real estate. Our eye, of course, is on Iran, principally, and we see Iraq playing a role as a bulwark against Iran, and more generally as a stepping stone for our broader objectives in the area. We are currently engaged in a process of coercive transformation, really trying to accelerate and pressure the entire region to change along lines that are preferred in Washington. In Iraq, we'll play an important role — or at least have been playing an important role, in the Administration's view. Whether, in fact, we can maintain that presence for that period of time, is unclear. Actually, what the Petraeus report does, interestingly, in the slides, it ends with a presence — suggesting a presence of anywhere from 30,- to 60,000 troops, but it's not a timeline. It is an indefinite presence, and that's where things stand today.

Abdel-Hamid: Diaa Rashwan, the US says it wants to change the Middle East, bring about democracy. These 30,- to 60,000 troops, if they stay for an indefinite amount of time, wouldn't it have the reverse effect?

Rashwan: First of all, I'm not sure that United States came here to change the region towards democracy. It's clear, at least in Iraq, that Iraq before the coming of the United States was not a religious state. It was a secular state, nationalist, while under a dictator, a dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, without democracy, it's true, but the nature of the state was not religious. After the coming of the United States, now are facing a constitution of Iraq full of religious articles. We are in the face of a real force, political force, in the country now. The majority of them are religious, and what is so-called democracy of Iraq is already now under tribes, under sects, and not real citizenship.

Abdel-Hamid: Move back to the subject of Iran and Syria, and this question is for Mr. Zebari. Now, we have heard also, of course, this week criticism of both countries. Could you tell us, really, to what extent both countries really are part of what's happening in Iraq, are fueling the violence there right now?

Zebari: Well, we are engaging them in constructive, direct dialogue to be more helpful, to support the effort of the Iraqi government, my government, to stabilize the situation, and to remind them that they won't gain anything out of our immediate difficulties, because, really, if Iraq were to fail, the whole region will fail, and they will be affected directly, so they will gain nothing out of that. If they have difficulties to settle the score with the United States presence, I think there are many other areas they could do so, and that's why we've been very active recently in this regional diplomacy, to engage them, to bring them to Baghdad, to review the words of the three working groups on security, on refugees, on energy. We agreed to have another ministerial meeting of Iraq neighbors plus the P5 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, US, UK, CN, RU, FR], the G8 [CA, FR, DE, IT, JP, RU, UK, US], in Istanbul at the end of October, with the goal, with the aim to engage all the players to help stabilize the situation.

Abdel-Hamid: Mr. Zebari, when the US indicates that it might have a long presence in Iraq, for at least a decade, how can you convince them of your argument?

Zebari: Well, Hoda, I think this is an Iraqi desire, an Iraqi idea, really. The current arrangements between Iraq and the multinational force, going every year to the Security Council to renew the mandate, with all the difficulties that we have been facing. We raised the idea recently in the statement of the five leaders. The need for some long-term security partnership arrangement between Iraq and the United States, so the idea is to go to the Security Council at the end of this year, to include some language to that effect, and to start negotiation with the United States and other countries in 2008 to reach some understanding for long-term arrangements, because I believe that Iraq still needs the continued support of the United States to stabilize the situation, to enhance its capability to be able to stand on its own feet and to deflect any regional pressures or interventions.

Abdel-Hamid: But, Mr. Conetta, isn't this again a bit of a Catch-22 situation for the United States, because the longer it stays, because the Iraqi government needs it, the longer it will attract people who want the American project in Iraq to fail?

Conetta: Well, I think that we do have — I mean, an underlying fact, and something we need to contend with, is that the presence in Iraq, at least according to popular opinion polls in Iraq, is not popular in the grass roots, and support for attacks on the coalition is rather high and continues to go up. That means that as long as we are there, there is potential for trouble, and it may be that Iraq has no peace as long as there are large-scale amounts of American troops there. Iraq's situation is unfortunately in the shadow of America's regional policy, which, with regard to Iran, at least hints at the possibility of war. How Iran will then relate to the Iraqi situation, I think it's easy to connect the dots that in fact they see Iraq and our involvement in Iraq as a weak point, and certainly if war is in the offing, they are not going to be very cooperative with regard to the American project there, so as long as we are in the middle and having a perspective that sees us coercing change in the region as a whole, certainly Iraq suffers and we remain vulnerable, but this is a risk that the present administration is willing to take.

Abdel-Hamid: My last question is for Mr. Zebari. Now, with the announcement that the 30,000 surge troops will pull out by next July, is that something that scares the Iraqi government? Does the Iraqi government have to do some certain points to be able to reach that next July somehow in shape?

Zebari: I think we are expecting, actually, this number of troops suggested to be withdrawn or pull out by next summer is the same number of troops who came to support the surge strategy, so practically it won't affect the overall balance of power —

Abdel-Hamid: But Mr. Zebari, the surge —

Zebari: By then, Hoda, let me just finish. By then, I think the Iraqi security and military forces will be able to increase their readiness, to increase their equipment, their arming and their performance, so we have time, I think, until then, and those training and those recruitment are ongoing, so the process is not stalled. By then I think we will be in a better shape and a better position to fill that vacuum that these troops will leave behind.

Abdel-Hamid: Many thanks to my guests. To watch this show online and to send us your comments, please go to [or to the Al Jazeera English YouTube™ page]. We've reached the end of this show; join us next week when we take another look Inside Iraq. Goodbye.
I continue to be dismayed by the false dichotomy between "stay the course" and "precipitous withdrawal." It is manifestly clear that the interests of the United States and Iraq require that U.S. forces make plans for an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, not at some indefinite point a decade or more from now, but as quickly as possible. I, for one, believe, as Carl Conetta suggested, that Iraq will never have peace as long as there are large numbers of US troops there. I also believe that it is fundamentally unfair to inflict chaos on the Iraqi people in the name of America's "broader regional policy." It is clear that, barring an immediate spine replacement for the Democratic Party, U.S. troops are likely to remain in Iraq in numbers over the 100,000 mark at least through 2009-01-20, when Bush leaves office, but we also have to make sure that he doesn't commit US forces to stay there for 10+ years before he skulks home to Crawford.

update: corrected the spelling of the name of the Al Jazeera correspondent, Ayman Moyheldin.

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