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Iraqi Government Responds to President Bush’s New Strategy

January 15, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: U.S. military supply convoys entered Iraq from Kuwait today, a precursor to the surge of American forces ordered by the president with an aim of quieting the violence in Iraq.

Building up over time, more than 20,000 extra troops will mainly serve in Baghdad and Anbar province, bringing the number of U.S. servicemen and women in the country back up to more than 150,000. Today, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, said the success of the security mission depends on the Iraqis stepping up.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, Commander Multi-National Force-Iraq: As with any plan, there are no guarantees of success, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But with sustained political support and the concentrated efforts on all sides, I believe that this plan can work.

RAY SUAREZ: But it’s political support from the Iraqis that has been questioned. The eight-month-old government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed in its attempts to rein in armed militias.

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” President Bush repeated last night the onus is on al-Maliki.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I told him he’s got to provide the troops he said he would provide inside Baghdad, and we’ll help him. I said, when our guys get moving along with yours, you can’t get on the phone for political reasons and stop the troops from going after killers.

In other words, what they’d do is they’d say, “We’re going after this killer,” and they’d say, “Well, for political reasons, don’t.” A killer is a killer. And we expect them to go after both Shia and Sunni murderers in order to provide the security for Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Saturday, al-Maliki confirmed the president’s plan mirrored his own. He told a small group of Iraqi reporters, “What we have seen in the American strategy is that it is identical to our strategy and our intentions, our strategy that aims to control security is based on using force against any outlaws, whatever their background or identity.”

But al-Maliki did not name the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to his Shiite ally, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The cleric’s influence on Iraqi politics has hindered past U.S. attempts to secure some areas of Baghdad, including the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, named after his father.

That’s caused some U.S. lawmakers from both parties to doubt the administration’s new plan will work.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: The Maliki government said almost a year ago that they were going to control the militias, they were going to bring security in the country, they were going to deal with a revenue-sharing law, they were going to bring services to the people of that country, all of these five goals they set out, none of which have even been closely achieved in that period of time.

RAY SUAREZ: And Republican John McCain, a strong supporter of the president’s plan, expressed skepticism of the Iraqi leadership.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I don’t guarantee success. We’re going to have to have Maliki, who has not been — shall I say, he’s been a slender reed — to be far more forthcoming and far more supportive. We’ve got to get the Iraqi military performing better. There’s a number of things that have to happen.

RAY SUAREZ: The additional U.S. troops should be in place in Iraq by this summer.

Iraqi response to President's plan

Laith Kubba
Former Government Spokesman, Iraq
Maliki himself is more or less echoing the same rhetoric. He's actually emphasizing that he wants to go after Shias and Sunnis irrespective, whoever breaks the law, and he wants to disarm the militias.

RAY SUAREZ: For an assessment of the Iraqi government's response to the new Bush strategy in Baghdad, we're joined by Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Iraq's previous government from April 2005 to January 2006, and Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She's been to Iraq six times since the 2003 invasion.

Laith Kubba, what are leaders of the Maliki government saying about the new Bush strategy?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: I mean, as we've heard, Maliki himself is more or less echoing the same rhetoric. He's actually emphasizing that he wants to go after Shias and Sunnis irrespective, whoever breaks the law, and he wants to disarm the militias.

I think his spokesman, his adviser, they're all more or less repeating the same rhetoric, saying both Shias and Sunnis who are causing death and murder are going to be chased.

I think the real crunch is, where do you draw the line? And in the early days, I have every reason to believe that this crackdown is going to yield results, that Maliki would claim credit for that. But I think after a few weeks or a few months, we see much harder assignment of trying to separate the militias from the terrorist or murderer networks.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, what are you finding out in your reporting?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I think that Maliki will give the appearance of cooperation. And what I'm hearing from Baghdad is the expectation that the radical Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, will basically lay low in the hope that the United States and new Iraqi troops will go after Shiite insurgents.

But then the real question comes about what will happen next, because eventually the U.S. troops will pull out in not too long a time. And the question then is, if the Mahdi Army comes back in and tries to capitalize on what U.S. troops have done, will Maliki pursue an even-handed policy and rein in the Shiite militias? Or is he even capable or does he really want to?

And the signals behind the scenes are that the answers are no to those questions. So then the question, the real big issue for the United States becomes, how do you get a political leadership in Iraq that will really pursue reconciliation and not just use this surge for its own aims?

Will Maliki disarm militias?

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
I think what the Maliki government wanted and what they had said publicly and are still saying indirectly is for the Americans to get out of the way and let government forces...take on the Sunni insurgents in any way they wished.

RAY SUAREZ: Laith Kubba, do you agree that -- the government and Trudy used the word "appearance," giving the appearance that it goes along with the Bush plan -- that this government is either not capable, not willing, not inclined to disarm the militias?

LAITH KUBBA: I think when we're talking about the government, this government is not only Maliki and Shias. I think there are Sunnis and there are Kurds who would like to see this implemented too, so long as it doesn't affect them harshly.

So the definition who is a militia and who isn't, which one should come first, there is a lot of politics will be played between the Iraqis. And I think the Americans are going to find it very difficult to decide which is the right course, both in terms of timing and sequence.

But in the early days, I think that there is an undisputed, say, 20 percent of these networks that must be taken out, and everybody would endorse and support the government. And I think this much will take place with some benefits.

But the tricky question is -- I think as Trudy quite rightly pointed out -- where do you draw the line later? I think Maliki is going to be reluctant to disarm these militias fully before seeing that the government can provide security to these neighborhoods.

The only reason why these militias appeared is because there hasn't been troops to provide protection to these neighborhoods. And once you allow the militias, then you're inviting trouble.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, hadn't the Maliki government been publicly against sending more American troops into Iraq? Are there elements of that government that are still against it? And are there big differences between what they say privately, not quoted by name, and what they're saying publicly?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think what the Maliki government wanted and what they had said publicly and are still saying indirectly is for the Americans to get out of the way and let government forces -- which meant predominantly Shiite forces -- take on the Sunni insurgents in any way they wished.

Now, in theory, everyone would hope that the Sunni insurgents would be put down. But this kind of approach held out the real possibility that you were going to have revenge taken against innocent Sunnis, and clearly the Iraqi forces were not capable of fully doing their job.

So now you have a situation where Maliki still says, as per the plan that he endorsed, that the Iraqis are fully in charge. But this is very complicated because you now have a dual chain of command. And Maliki has picked a general that the Americans have never heard of to be their commander.

And the question is how that's going to inter-mesh with the American commands. And many American military people are afraid that the chain of command will be muted and it will be unclear what the Iraqis say they're going to allow, if they're going to try to prevent the Americans from going into certain areas, and whether you're going to have a situation where the American troops want to go after militias and the Maliki government says no.

Relations with the U.S. government

Laith Kubba
Former Government Spokesman, Iraq
I think everybody knows that it is the last chance, and they're all working on borrowed time.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Laith Kubba, you heard what Trudy Rubin just said. But Prime Minister Maliki himself said there's no difference now between his position on how to proceed and that of George W. Bush.

LAITH KUBBA: Well, easier said than done. And I'd like to hear him say the same words, say, six months from now.

I think the real difficulty is those militias not only developed because there has been lack of strong Iraqi army units and police protecting the streets, but also they are linked to the politicians and political groups that are out there. And now they've built more or less interests.

And the only way to disarm them is really if there is a package, genuinely agreed by all parties, in making the Iraqi government on a plan to disarm them and empower further the Iraqi army and the police and fill the space. Without that agreement, everybody is fooling everybody else and playing on time.

RAY SUAREZ: In public and private comments from Iraq over the last several days, one phrase kept popping up: "last chance." Do you think this government has a sense that the Americans are giving them their last chance?

LAITH KUBBA: I think everybody knows that it is the last chance, and they're all working on borrowed time. I think a deadline has been set, whether it's realistic or unrealistic by November, there will be a transfer of power. That will raise, heighten the level of readiness and anxiety that everybody then is thinking, "Let's prepare for that day. I want to jump in and make sure that I will not be bypassed."

Sectarian interests inside Iraq

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Kurds are generally pleased that the Americans have made a further commitment. The Kurds want the Americans to stay in Iraq, and they see this as a U.S. commitment to stay on, not to withdraw immediately.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy, we've been talking about the government and its position. What about other interest groups inside Iraq? For instance, is there a Kurdish opinion that's different from that of the leaders of the current government?

TRUDY RUBIN: The Kurds are generally pleased that the Americans have made a further commitment. The Kurds want the Americans to stay in Iraq, and they see this as a U.S. commitment to stay on, not to withdraw immediately.

And it is the Kurds who are going to be sending new troops to Baghdad, although the three additional Iraqi brigades will be nominally Iraqi army brigades. They're going to be made up almost all of Kurds from the north. So in that sense, the Kurds are behind this.

I think that the most unfortunate aspect of Iraqi politics is that there are good people who would like to see this succeed, but the complications of the constitutional process that the United States backed and Iraq adopted have resulted in the choice of Prime Minister Maliki, who's really the lowest common denominator that Iraqi politicians could agree on.

If there were a way of changing that leadership, there are better people in the wings, but it is not clear that that process can be jiggered legally, according to the constitution, although there is much talk of that in the background in Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Laith Kubba, what about the Sunnis, both those that are in parties that support the government and those that have been in opposition since the government began?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I would say not surprisingly there has been, to say the least, some quiet welcoming to the new surge that is in Baghdad and to the new line that the U.S. has taken on Iraq.

I think the Sunnis have complained that they've been subject to retaliation and revenge by the Mahdi Army, and they wanted to see American troops and further army presence. They trust the army more than the police. And they would like to see the army taking over.

So we have politicians like the Al-Hashemi, the vice president, publicly welcoming and endorsing it. The Web sites that talk about some of the national groups, Sunni groups, insurgency, so to speak, they are not condemning it as they used to condemn every move.

I think the only group that I haven't heard their reaction is the al-Qaida-linked groups. But by and large, I think the Sunnis are in favor of these new measures.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Trudy, are you hearing any bridling or reaction or anger about the very tight deadlines that the president announced, President Bush, when he laid out the plan?

TRUDY RUBIN: Well, I think that the government of Nouri al-Maliki does understand that they are being put in the spotlight. The problem is that if that government -- and I mean particularly the prime minister, because the government is sort of dysfunctional and he has very little control over his ministers who come from various different political parties and have their own fifes.

But I think he grasps that there really is no pressure point that the Americans can easily use to dislodge him, so in a way the pressure on him is not concrete. If he doesn't meet the benchmarks, the real question is then whether Iraqis, with American encouragement perhaps, but whether Iraqi political individuals and groupings that are now talking about the need for a change in leadership in Iraq can succeed in forming a new coalition and, through the constitutional process, dislodge the Maliki prime ministership.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, Laith Kubba, thank you both.