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Governing Iraq

February 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: A week of violence has left 130 people dead. The roadside bomb that killed an American soldier today was the third such attack in 24 hours. Over the weekend and last week, Iraqis were the victims in coordinated attacks against police and civil defense targets.

A week ago, a massive truck bomb exploded outside a police station in central Iraq, killing dozens of Iraqi recruits. A day later, nearly 50 Iraqis were killed in an attack on a Baghdad army recruiting center. On Thursday, in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraqi insurgents attacked a convoy carrying the top U.S. military official in Iraq. Gen. John Abizaid was not hurt.

The most brazen and sophisticated assault was a daylight raid Saturday in Fallujah. About two dozen guerrillas stormed a police station and security compound, freeing some 75 prisoners; 25 people were killed, including four attackers.

MAN (Translated): They opened fire against us indiscriminately. We hid as the RPGs and grenades were fired against us.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the casualties mount, the date when the U.S. is to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis — June 30 — looms. The Bush administration originally wanted to hold a series of caucuses to start the selection process for a new Iraqi government. The U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council went along with that idea at first.

But the caucus plan got a thumbs-down from Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, who rarely appears in public. He called for direct elections instead. The U.S. asserted that wasn’t practical so soon, and asked the United Nations to help broker a new arrangement. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the governing council and Shiite clerics last week. He too said he doubted there was adequate time to set up elections before the hand-over date.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: We have agreed that the timing should not be prisoner to any deadlines, that we need to organize elections as early as possible, but not earlier than possible.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brahimi is expected to submit his recommendations to the U.N. secretary-general as early as this week. But there is more opposition to the Bush administration’s caucus plan. The Washington Post reported today that half the members of the Iraq governing council no longer support the idea. In Washington today, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the disagreement over when and how to transfer power remains unresolved.

COLIN POWELL: The debate goes around the issue of a caucus. Is a caucus still the best way to do it, or can the caucus process be refined or modified in some way, or is there some other procedure that might be used to reflect the will of the Iraqi people as we move forward?

And so we’re waiting to get the report from the secretary-general before any decisions are made. And I think the Governing Council is also waiting to hear the report of Ambassador Brahimi.

What we’re talking about is an interim government to whom sovereignty will be transferred until such time as you can have a full constitution in place and that you can have a full election, which nobody believes is possible by June. But at some point in the future, whether it’s the end of this year or sometime next year, remains to be determined.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary Powell said he still had an open mind on the issue.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: What do the latest developments say about Iraq’s security situation, and the prospects for a political transition by the U.S.-declared deadline of July 1? For that, we’re joined by Adeed Dawisha, a professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio — born in Iraq, he’s now an American citizen; retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, a former Middle East intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Nancy Soderberg, vice president of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit group promoting conflict resolution. She held senior positions on the National Security Council, and the U.S. delegation to the U.N. during the Clinton administration. Welcome to you all.

Pat Lang, last week the U.N. sends a team in to assess the feasibility of elections, quick elections, and that same week we see some of the bloodiest, particularly Iraqi on Iraqi violence we’ve seen. Coincidence?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: No, not at all. I mean the insurgents I think have a very clear idea of the fact that they want to impede this whole process as much as they possibly can. And so as was reflected in the letter that was captured at the border by someone who is thought to have been Mr. Zarqawi, they clearly —

MARGARET WARNER: An al-Qaida connected terrorist.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: An al-Qaida connected Islamic zealot terrorist. They have the idea that they want to stop this process before it goes too far. And since insurgent wars are largely about control of the population either by positive means or through causing fear, the idea that they would attack other Iraqis in this way to keep people from joining the police, is not surprising.

MARGARET WARNER: You are talking now about mostly Sunni insurgents.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: At the present time the insurgents all appear to be largely Sunni. The Shia in the southern part of the country have been quite quiescent up to this point; I have the impression that they’re waiting to see what they’re going to get out of the eventual constitutional setup in the country so they’re not too eager to make trouble right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dawisha, do you agree with that assessment so far, and who do you think is behind the violence and why?

ADEED DAWISHA: I agree wholeheartedly. I think that the Shiite population does not differ very much from the Sunni population in Iraq in actually wanting to see the Americans leave Iraq at some point.

The difference is that the Shiite don’t want them to leave Iraq now because they know if the Americans were to leave tomorrow or even if they were to leave next month, it is the Sunni insurgents, the remnants of the old Saddam regime members of the Baath Party, whoever is perpetrating this violence against the Iraqis themselves, the chances are it is they who are going to be able to take over the reins of power, something which the Shiites don’t want to see.

So that while the Shiites certainly don’t want to see an occupation that goes on forever, they also realize that this is not the time for the Americans to leave.

MARGARET WARNER: But I guess what I should have asked you more directly is. Do you think this is mostly the work of Sunni insurgents or do you see a big hand by al-Qaida by outside foreign fighters, terrorists?

ADEED DAWISHA: It’s not very clear as to who is perpetrating this. It is very interesting, for example, in the latest attack in Fallujah, initially we were told that the insurgents were Iranians, they were shouting Allahu Akbar in a non-Iraqi accent — that they wanted to free four Iranians. And then literally the day after both the police headquarters in Fallujah as well as the American military headquarters denied all that and said no, the people who carried out the attacks were Iraqis.

It’s very … it’s a very confusing situation. But the thing that you get out of that is some kind of cooperation between the Baathists, the old Saddam people as well as maybe some foreign fighters who have … who are basically infiltrating Iraq regularly and have been doing so for the last four or five months.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to get to Nancy Soderberg but first Pat Lang, just clarify one thing for us. We see fewer American troops killed. Is that because American troops have pulled back and are trying to leave it to the Iraqis?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: It seems in fact that we have some sort of policy of relative disengagement from what is going on in the towns. The officer who is the operations officer for the Coalition Provisional Authority said yesterday that he was quite pleased with the result in Fallujah on Saturday because the Iraqis had stood up and fought for themselves. I would have thought that although that was a desirable thing, in fact, you wouldn’t want to see them take so many losses. I don’t understand why there wasn’t some air support provided to these policemen.

MARGARET WARNER: Nancy Soderberg, what is your assessment the impact this violence has for the process of a political transition?

NANCY SODERBERG: Ironically the perpetrators of this, and I think it is remnants of the Saddam regime plus a growing al-Qaida presence, the irony is that the more they attack to try to get the U.S. out of Iraq, the longer the U.S. is going to have to stay in Iraq because we can’t leave as long as this violence is going on. You can’t hold elections and caucuses as long as this violence is. So what they are doing by these constant attacks on U.S. and increasingly on the Iraqi people is prolonging the U.S. occupation.

MARGARET WARNER: The people you talked to, for instance at the U.N., do they think that if the security situation is not stable, you could still have a political transition? In other words, as Paul Bremer, the head of the provisional authority, suggested this weekend that, in fact, Americans could keep control of the security peace somehow and could you still have a political transition?

NANCY SODERBERG: Well, you can have some political violence, but not the chaos that you have right now, until they get the security right, the political process is going to be somewhat stymied. The U.N. secretary-general is deeply angry at himself for having let the best and the brightest of the U.N., a team led by Sergio De Mello, who was killed in the bombing on Aug. 19th, they knew then the political situation was wrong and let them go anyway. They will not do that again.

So until the security situation is settled, you will not have the U.N. go in, in any great numbers. And that presents a problem for the U.S. because they now need the U.N. in order to have a legitimate transition. No process that the U.S. puts forward will be seen as legitimate. So they need the U.N. in there. That means you’ve got U.S. troops there in major numbers for the foreseeable future.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dawisha, I want to ask you about something that Paul Bremer did say I think it was Sunday or Monday after these attacks, particularly the one in Fallujah. He said I think it’s quite clear that the Iraqi security force, as brave as they are, are not going to be ready by July 1 so there will have to be an international presence here after the sovereign government comes to power, et cetera. Would you agree with that? Just on the security front, however many that have been trained by American forces, they’re really not up to defeating these insurgents yet?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think that’s absolutely true. There was a great haste in trying to recruit police and other security forces. And I can understand that because we really wanted to give the occupation an Iraqi face. So we kind of tended to hasten this recruitment process giving them two on three weeks training. Therefore a bunch of them were poorly trained.

Listen, last July we had about 20,000 security forces — police and other security, now we have about 175,000. You can see the explosion in numbers. There is no way that these people have been trained really fully for this kind of … for the challenges that they were going to face. Plus, when you do it so hastily, you’re actually encouraging remnants of Saddam’s regime to get into the police force and act as inside informants.

I mean the fifth columns in the police at the moment are responsible for many of these atrocities. Obviously many of the attacks knew exactly where … where the prisoners were, what time the guards were changing. There was a lot of information coming to them from the inside. All this was the result of the haste by which we expanded the police force. So I don’t think there’s any way that we can say that these people are going to be able to keep the peace and stop the challenges that are going to be perpetrated against them and against the people of Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: In the meantime, Pat Lang, would you agree with the assessments that the insurgents have become more sophisticated and bolder?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: There appear to be two groups there. One are a group of people, you could call them Baathists or Iraqi nationalists or somebody, intent to excluding us from the countryside and shooting at our logistical convoys, things like that. Then you have people from overseas outside the country, who are basically Sunni zealots who appear to be really hard case types and are well organized and they are going repeatedly come in and try to attack places in the daylight I think in spite of what their losses are likely to be. They use aircraft missiles and all kinds fire support. These are tough people. They’re going to need help for a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Briefly to all three of you and I’ll start with you, Nancy Soderberg. As we’ve said, Mr. Brahimi is returning to the U.N. later this week; Kofi Annan said today he hoped to have the recommendation ready by the end of the week.

Given that he has said publicly, Brahimi had said on the one hand he seems to agree with the Shiites, elections are the way to go but on the other hand, he seems to agree with the Americans that quick elections are not possible. What are at least his options?

NANCY SODERBERG: Well, I think what will happen is he’ll provide various options to the U.S. and the U.N. for consideration. And I think the first will be that taking elections by the July 1 deadline originally proposed by the Muslim cleric Sistani off the table. Everyone knows that’s not possible. That leaves options of several types.

One would be to have the elections later in the year, probably at the end of the year or early next year. That’s in walking around the halls of the U.N. today, everybody’s best guess of what is most likely to emerge from this. That would be coupled with some kind of handover of some of the key functions to perhaps an expanded Iraqi governing council or some other process where you have an expanded authority there.

The other alternative would be to have some kind of grand council, the Afghani process, led by the current U.N. envoy to Iraq when he was in Afghanistan called the loya jirga where you bring in the country’s elders to decide a process and take on more responsibility there. So something of that type of mix of options will be what Lakhdar Brahimi puts on the table. He will be back channeling with Washington throughout the week.

MARGARET WARNER: And Pat Lang, given what Colin Powell said today and what Paul Bremer said this weekend, does it appear to you that even the Bush administration conceded that their caucuses idea, which we won’t go into, but it was a complicated process they wanted to set up, to set up an inner government is dead?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think that’s absolutely dead. I mean the Shia clerics don’t want it and the Governing Council would prefer to retain power in its own hands and they’re going to be given power evidently. It is going to be difficult to see whether they’re going to be willing to give up that power easily — some sort of electoral process easily — once they have had control of the country for a while.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Dawisha, very, very briefly, can you envision that there is some kind of interim arrangement between the time the U.S. wants to hand over power July 1 and Brahimi says it’s time for elections or are feasible at the end of the year, that everyone would accept, or do you think the violence will get worse?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think that in terms of the IGC, the Governing Council, that would probably be expanded — bringing in groups that have not been represented so far, maybe increasing to 45-50 or even 55. Then work for an election date maybe at the end of the year or the beginning of next year. And in the meantime, allow political parties to form to propagate the message to kind of form a balance, a secular balance, a more professional, more middle class more urban balance to the clergy and to the tribal leaders who will be elected if — without that kind of arrangement.

MARGARET WARNER: I know we’ll get back to that once the recommendations are out. Thank you all very much.