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Can Iraq be united under Maliki?

June 19, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been faulted by some for deepening sectarian divisions now roiling the country. Gwen Ifill talks to Charles Duelfer, former UN and U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, Abbas Kadhim of Johns Hopkins University and Feisal Istrabadi of Indiana University about what’s undermining Iraq’s stability and best possible outcomes.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: So can Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki unite his country? Or will it take another leader?

Feisal Istrabadi was Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. He’s now a professor of international law and diplomacy at Indiana University. Abbas Kadhim was born and raised in Iraq and is now a senior foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. And Charles Duelfer, who has decades of experience in dealing with Iraqi leaders, first on political and later on intelligence issues, after the U.S. invaded Iraq, he was the lead weapons inspector in the country.

Welcome to you all.

Feisal Istrabadi, until a few years ago, Iraq’s politics seemed to be relatively stable. What has happened in what seems to be such a short time?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Indiana University: I think, over the last two years, the prime minister has increasingly come to confront some of the other partners that he has in the coalition.

He has begun in the last few months to confront the Sunni of Iraq militarily in a variety of ways. And he has come to confront the Kurdish parties — or, rather, the Kurdish region in Iraq economically. And I think this has caused many of his coalition partners to look upon him with some question marks.

GWEN IFILL: Are the question marks from within or from without? That is to say, are just coalition partners looking at him askance or also are fellow Iraqis?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I mean — well, I mean, they’re all fellow Iraqis, right?

GWEN IFILL: Right.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: But, in theory, all of these parties that are asking the questions are in government and — or part of the government.

And so I think he has lost the ability, in my judgment, to be an effective interlocutor with at least two of the three major ethno-confessional groups in the country, the Sunni and the Kurds.

GWEN IFILL: OK. I think I was talking about coalition partners outside of Iraq.

But let me ask Abbas Kadhim about this.

Is Nouri al-Maliki to blame for the current set of circumstances?

ABBAS KADHIM, Johns Hopkins University: Well, he is part of the entire Iraqi political system, and he has worked with many others.

Maliki isn’t the only decision-maker in Iraq. It’s a coalition of politicians from all parts of the country, and the entire political ruling class has failed Iraq, definitely. So I think blaming Maliki alone would be unfair, I think.

There are three things that I would — or two things maybe I could just put quickly about Maliki. One is that he is the most popular politician, as the last elections showed. He outperformed the closest rival 3-1 in the number of seats taken. And he himself got 721,000 votes alone in Baghdad.

The second, which has to do with the debate that is going on in Washington, D.C., is this idea that Maliki has to go. You know, this is the worst thing that can be done to a country that is democratizing, to have people in Washington or in any other place to call on someone to resign or to pick kings or to overthrow kings.

I think the president in his statement today got it right when he said, we are not in the business of choosing or picking Iraqi leaders. This is the way it should be done. If Maliki is overthrown at the orders, if you will, or the pressure of outside forces, this will have grave consequences for the prospects of democracy in the country.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Duelfer, as you look at this shake down, this shake out, do you think that al-Maliki has done enough to avoid this impasse we’re now at?

CHARLES DUELFER, Former UN and U.S. Weapons Inspector in Iraq: The short answer is no.

But the problem really was born in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in 2003. We made some — I think everyone acknowledges now some mistakes in terms of not being inclusive enough of the Sunni groups. Some of them former were Baathists. Some of them were former army.

And throughout the succeeding 10 years, they have been looking for some signal that they will have a role in the new Iraq. For a while, they seemed to be brought in during the awakening period that General Petraeus was taking credit for, but now, under Maliki, he has gotten less inclusive, rather than more inclusive.

And, as Obama said, yes, we must be driven by the elections, but when the end results are to exclude a very important population, and that population, by doing nothing, can encourage the evil that is ISIL, then we have got a problem that must be addressed. They need a strong message, and I don’t think they’re getting it.

GWEN IFILL: Is it about excluding Sunnis in general or former Baathists in particular?

CHARLES DUELFER: I think there’s a collection there.

And then there are obviously gradations, but what they need to hear now, they need to hear something which will give them a good, positive alternative to either doing nothing or actively supporting ISIL. I don’t think that message came across in the president’s words tonight. He was too nuanced.

He needs to be very, very clear. If Secretary Kerry goes to the region, as has been predicted, he may see Maliki. If he sees Maliki, but doesn’t see Sunnis or some representatives of Sunnis, they’re going to get exactly the wrong message. This is a critical time. They have got to act quickly.

GWEN IFILL: Feisal Istrabadi, I want you to weigh in on that. How important is it for the U.S. to be more pointed, I guess, in its statements about what it is willing to do and what it is not willing to do?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I think it has to be very careful.

And I’m sorry if I misunderstood your question earlier. But it has to be very careful in how it deals publicly. Diplomacy ought to occur behind the scenes and not in front of the cameras. I agree with Abbas. The United States cannot be seen to be forcing the hand of players in Baghdad.

But it can make its own interests clear in Baghdad behind the scenes. And it can — I think it’s fairly clear that the current leadership of Iraq simple doesn’t have a vision. I agree that all political parties, all politicians in Iraq have a share in the blame in where we got here and how we got here, but that’s not really what we’re discussing.

The question is, how do we get out of the hole that we’re in? And I think, as they say here, one of the first things we need to do is to stop digging and find a new leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about — a little bit about that, because Vice President Biden has been very involved in talking to the leadership, the current leadership and being that broker.

And now we see John Kerry is on his way to the region. Was there a breakdown somehow in the relationship that allowed us to get to this place, where there seems to be such distrust?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I think that the United States, once it withdrew, took the position that the Iraqis were now in charge. And I think that that may have been appropriate.

I think it’s appropriate now for the secretary of state to engage in Iraq. I’m very pleased to hear that he’s going to Iraq. I agree with Mr. Duelfer that he needs to meet with all parties to get a sense of where they all stand.

I would say that if Maliki’s list got one-third of the seats, that means that two-thirds of Iraqis didn’t vote for his list. And I think that, too, is something that ought to be taken into account. In any parliamentary system, a list that gets one-third which is unwilling to meet some basic demands of the other parties might well find itself in opposition.

GWEN IFILL: Abbas Kadhim, Maliki or no Maliki, what are the chances of a unity government that has been talked about at least?

ABBAS KADHIM: Well, it is a matter of whether the others are willing to work with — to work together, to work for Maliki.

If they are driving a hard bargain that Maliki has to be completely out of the picture, I don’t see any possibility for ignoring the top vote-getter, and especially with this kind of huge margin among the two. Feisal is right that two-thirds of Iraqis didn’t vote for the State of the Law, but also they didn’t vote for one entity that had the two-thirds.

They voted — their vote was scattered. And, you know, if it is impossible for someone who got 95 seats to form a government, it would be even harder, more impossible for someone who got 30 seats. So, perspective on numbers is important.

GWEN IFILL: You’re saying there is not necessarily a clear alternative to status quo?

ABBAS KADHIM: Yes, there isn’t. And where are the other leaders who are going to take over from Maliki? I mean, we don’t see them in the crisis.

And the Iraqis are highly disappointed by their performance. And that is the bigger problem. There is no clear alternative to Maliki right now. And, if anything, this crisis has driven his popularity even higher among the Iraqi people.

Yes, he is unpopular in Washington, maybe unpopular in certain Sunni areas. And now that he’s armed with a fatwa, a religious edict, from the top grand ayatollah in Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani, I don’t see any way taking him out. So anybody who wants to form a government, a unity government, he has to put a special place for Maliki.

GWEN IFILL: Final thought, Charles Duelfer. What’s the best possible outcome here?

CHARLES DUELFER: The best possible outcome is an agreement where there’s parties in Iraq who can say, we’re going to divide up power, with serious ministries going to Sunni groups, with perhaps a reconsideration of the hydrocarbon law, where oil can be divided.

And I don’t see how that can happen as long as Maliki clings to power. Now, we’re asking Maliki to something very, very difficult, because at a time when he’s under crisis, we’re asking him to be inclusive. And that’s almost the opposite of what you would normally do.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Duelfer, Feisal Istrabadi, Abbas Kadhim, thank you all.

ABBAS KADHIM: Thank you very much.