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Can Abadi form a workable government for Iraq?

August 11, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
Iraq’s president named a new prime minister, but Nouri al-Maliki refuses to give up his post, while the fight against Islamic militants continue. Gwen Ifill is joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk for an update on the political turmoil in Iraq, plus analysis from Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Laith Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy.
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GWEN IFILL: We return now to the political and the military struggle at hand in Iraq.

Brett McGurk is the deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, where he focuses on Iraq.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Deputy Assistant Secretary.

What role did the United States have in forcing Maliki’s hands? There are reports that you personally may have had a role in that.

BRETT MCGURK, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State: I can assure you, Gwen, that those reports are not true.

In 2010, I think we were — it was said that we somehow maneuvered Maliki into power. Now it’s being said we’re somehow maneuvering him out of power. The political dynamics in Iraq have really their own dynamic, which the Iraqis sort through very much on their own.

We do play a very active facilitating role between all the political blocs. We encourage them, as does the United Nations and other partners in Baghdad, to try to keep to the constitutional timeline and keep things moving forward, because this is an extraordinarily complex and difficult situation, particularly on the security side, but also on the political side.

It’s very complicated. And we serve as neutral brokers when useful. When we can provide an idea to bridge two different ideas or proposals, we certainly do that. But it’s not our job to pick who should be in power or who shouldn’t be in power.

GWEN IFILL: Well, in your role as neutral brokers, are you persuaded that Mr. Abadi is going to be what the U.S. or any other person in the region, any other country in the region needs now for Iraq to get back on its feet?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, he’s someone we have known for some time. And we have known all these leaders for some time.

We have very deep relationships with a host of Iraqi leaders on — really on all sides. But, Gwen, I think it’s important to just focus on where we are in this process. The first — as the president just said in his statement, the first step was to choose a speaker of the parliament. And that happened about a month ago.

And that set a 15-day timeline for naming the president of the state. And that took place on time. And that then set a new timeline for naming the prime minister. And that happened today. The prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, now has 30 days to present a new cabinet and to present a national program to the parliament, and the parliament will have to ratify that cabinet and program.

And if they do, Haider al-Abadi will then lead a full four-year-term government. But what happened today was, Haider al-Abadi was named the prime minister-designate. We have obviously embraced that decision because it is a very critical milestone in the process of forming a new government. And the Iraqis have been working very hard at this.

And now over the next — over the coming days, he will begin the process of pulling together coalition partners and forming a new government. And we want that government to be broad-based, inclusive, and to develop a national program that can harness the resources of the state to pull the country together over the next four years. And if they do so, we will be a very willing partner.

GWEN IFILL: That’s the political part of this equation. There is also a military part. We have heard of new airstrikes today. The Kurds are hoping that you expand those airstrikes.

Can you imagine that being able to happen, that is, the U.S. stepping up its military action in the — in Iraq, as long — if Maliki were to continue what he’s doing now, which is trying to hold onto power? Can you imagine doing this with him there?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, Gwen, on the security side, we’re focused — in terms of U.S. direct action, we are focused on two limited missions. One is the mission around Sinjar Mountain. And that is about breaking the siege of that mountain.

And that is why we have been doing airstrikes there over the last four or five days, including another series of airstrikes that were conducted today from ISIS locations near the mountain who are threatening the civilian population that is under siege on that mountain.

And, secondly, we’re committed to protecting the regional capital of Irbil. And we have done a number of airstrikes to make sure that ISIS forces cannot encroach on Irbil. And those strikes have also been quite successful.

South of the Kurdistan region, we are focused with the Iraqis through — we have a joint operation center in Baghdad, which we set up in June, and we are working hard, in coordination with the Iraqis, about coordinating how they might begin to push back against ISIS, working with their Iraqi air force in terms of how they can do targeting.

GWEN IFILL: But if I could interrupt you just for a moment, I guess my question is whether all that would still go on if Maliki stays in power.

BRETT MCGURK: Well, Gwen, I don’t want to get ahead of the process. We just have a new prime minister-designate today. He has 30 days to form a new government. And we’re going to continue.

But the — Prime Minister Maliki is still the prime minister of the state, and we’re going continue working closely with him over the next 30 days, obviously. And we will be working with all the leaders to pull together a new government. So there’s multiple strands here that we have to do — we have to kind of pull all of them at once.

It’s a very complicated situation, obviously. But we’re focused on the ISIS threat from north to south. We are particularly focused on Baghdad. We’re focused on Anbar Province. We’re focused on Diyala Province. And in each front, there’s different dynamics and different elements.

But we’re not going to slow down any of our support. But the president has said and he repeated again tonight, in the context of a new and inclusive government, we will be in a very active conversation with the leadership about what they need, and we will be prepared to come behind them if they have a plan to pull the country together and unite the country against — against this very serious threat.

GWEN IFILL: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk, thank you for joining us.

BRETT MCGURK: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: For more now, we turn now to Zalmay Khalilzad. He was U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. He now has his own consulting firm. And Laith Kubba is senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy.

What can you tell us about Haider al-Abadi?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: I know Mr. al-Abadi.

He was a member of parliament when I was in Baghdad. He has a very distinguished background. He was from Baghdadi family, a very well-known family. He’s a member of the Dawa Party, the party that Mr. Maliki also is a member of. But he spent a lot of time in the United Kingdom, got a Ph.D. there. And so he knows the West and may be more open to alternative ideas.

He’s got a big and difficult task ahead, not only dealing with the challenge of Mr. Maliki, but also to bring Iraqis, Shia, Sunni, Kurds together, form a government in this very difficult and challenging time.

GWEN IFILL: Laith Kubba, how — what can he accomplish that Nouri al-Maliki could not or cannot?

LAITH KUBBA, National Endowment for Democracy: Well, number one, he is less threatening now to all other political blocs. They see him as less threatening because…

GWEN IFILL: Even though he’s from the same party?

LAITH KUBBA: He’s from the same party, but the party has been fragmented now a little bit.

And Maliki has disowned him in a way. So that might play to his advantage. He has a weaker hand. But on the other hand, I think he is going to — he’s in a better position to negotiate with others.

GWEN IFILL: As we just heard at the State Department, at least for the next 30 days, technically, Maliki is not going anywhere. And he says that this is all legally worthless, that he is still in power. Can this move forward as long as he continues to hold on?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think there is a potential for serious problems. But the more likely scenario, in my view, is that, during the 30 days, some sort of a deal will be worked out, where some of the concerns that Mr. Maliki may have about his own future might be addressed, whether it has to do with a possible position, whether it has to do with some form of immunity, protection.

I would — I think while the risks of confrontation and perhaps the use of military, of security forces is there, and I think the president’s message today was loud and clear in support of Mr. al-Abadi, without mentioning Maliki, but the message actually was for Mr. Maliki.

And I suspect that a lot of maneuvering going on in Baghdad and — will intensify to work out something between the two.

GWEN IFILL: Laith Kubba, do you agree that this is just a deal waiting to be cut?

LAITH KUBBA: I’m a bit cautious. I think Maliki surprised everybody in the way he’s been indifferent to the whole world around him and so fixated on power.

I think the fact that the country is falling apart, bit sway of territory is under ISIS, Baghdad itself is under threat, yet Maliki is not thinking of the country, and he’s not thinking that the whole world has endorsed Mr. Abadi, and that all political blocs want to work with him, he’s indifferent to all that and insisting to play hard politics.

To me, that is worrying. He has encouraged some militias to go out in the streets. With that mind-set, I think everybody is taken by surprise and worry, would he push it to the end?

GWEN IFILL: Let’s assume for a moment that a deal can be cut, something can be agreed on, if not in the near future, then in the eventual future, and Mr. Abadi takes over.

What can he do to form a workable government in a country that’s falling apart, Mr. Ambassador?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, he will have to come to an agreement with the Kurds, which will be tough for him because the Kurds are demanding even more autonomy than they have under current circumstances.

They want essentially to replace the federal system to a confederal system, essentially to be sovereign, but in some form of association with Baghdad, so that they can control their own oil exports, they can get weapons for their own forces, they can control their own airspace.

So it’s a tough one to do without losing ground internally for him. And with the Sunnis, similarly, he will have to agree to a devolution of authority away from the center to the provinces. The Sunnis want a region like Kurdistan of their own or several regions, again, to have their own forces for local security.

And to bring the Sunnis and the Kurds together with him, given the demands that are there, this is going to be a tall order, a difficult challenge for him, and then to mobilize everybody against ISIS, which is knocking at the door. He’s going to have one of the world’s toughest jobs.

GWEN IFILL: A tall order, sounds like it. How do you see it working, Laith Kubba?

LAITH KUBBA: It is a tall order and it’s very tough.

I think, in addition to trying to contain the demands, the increasing demands, I think he needs to reach out to Iraq’s neighbors. I think Maliki has spoiled relationships with all of Iraq’s neighbors. And he needs to reach to all of them to say a new beginning. He needs their help, not only in containing ISIS, but also in building a new momentum in the country.

I think the endorsement he has would give him a good start. He also needs to form a cabinet that would function and deliver some services to the country, not simply to appease political blocs. I think Iraqis want to see some dividend out of their electoral processes. They vote every time, and the system is not getting any better.

On the security front, it’s most challenging. I think that one is a head-on. He needs to work with the army, with nearly everybody in order to insurance security is delivered and Iraq gets back some order.

GWEN IFILL: Well, one of the things we have been hearing is that the U.S., in collaboration with the Baghdad government, whoever that is these days, have agreed to arm the Kurds. Is that helpful or is that also a potential wedge?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think that’s helpful because it came in the context of a very urgent situation, with the move of ISIS into Kurdistan coming very close to Irbil and the very devastating action against Yazidis and Christians and others.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: So this was based on an agreement with Baghdad, although I think we also are starting our own bilateral agreement with the Kurds.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Laith Kubba, briefly.

LAITH KUBBA: Well, in the context I think of what Ambassador Khalilzad had said earlier, that the Kurds are now pushing for a confederal state, it becomes a highly charged issue, because if they have the weapons, then that would create a de facto state and will complicate things.

I think the only way to contain the Kurdish issue is through negotiations, not through entrenched armed positions.

GWEN IFILL: We will be watching for all of that.

Laith Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, thank you both very much.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Good to be with you.