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Rice Praises Newly Passed Iraqi Reconciliation Law

January 15, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq Tuesday, where she applauded Iraqi officials for passing a law to allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into the government. Middle East analysts examine the political situation in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Rice peeled away from President Bush’s Middle East trip for a visit to Baghdad to applaud some rare good news.

On Saturday, the Iraqi parliament passed a law to allow thousands of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to reclaim government jobs and pensions. The compromise is designed to draw Sunnis, who were purged from government posts after Saddam’s fall, back into the political process.

Rice met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and encouraged him to build on that success by pushing for provincial elections and a law to share oil revenue, as well.

Standing alongside Foreign Minister Zebari in Baghdad today, Rice praised the new law.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: This law, the Accountability and Justice Law, is clearly a step forward for national reconciliation. It is clearly a step forward for the process of healing the wounds of the past.

And it will have to be followed up by implementation that is in the same spirit of national reconciliation. It is also that any law that passes anywhere in the world has to be implemented in a way that is in the spirit of the law. And so that is the work ahead.

GWEN IFILL: This latest step toward political reconciliation is but one of 18 benchmarks the Bush administration has been lobbying for.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I hope that we will focus on what needs to be done, but also on how much has been done, because when I hear that the surge was to give the Iraqi people a chance for political reconciliation, I say that’s absolutely right.

And while it hasn’t always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like, it has certainly moved. And given the history, and the legacy, and the stains of tyranny, it’s moved quite remarkably.

GWEN IFILL: Reaction to the new law, which still faces procedural hurdles, was mixed. Opponents said it would allow alleged criminals to return to positions of power within government.

SALEH AL-MUTLAQ, Iraqi Parliament Member (through translator): It’s a law without justice; this law breeches human rights.

GWEN IFILL: But others welcomed it.

JAMAL ADNAN, Iraqi Civilian (through translator): I support the Accountability and Justice Law on the condition that it should not be based on sectarianism and it should not harm anyone whose hands are not stained with Iraqis’ blood.

HUSAM AL-KARRADI, Iraqi Civilian: Such a decision as they made in the Iraqi parliament I think is going to be in the right way to make the life better for the Iraqis.

GWEN IFILL: Rice returns to Saudi Arabia to rejoin President Bush later in the day.

Questions of implementation

GWEN IFILL: For more on Iraq's reconciliation efforts, we are joined by Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the government of Iraq. He's now a senior program officer for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

And Eric Davis, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he is also a scholar for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, where his research focuses on the political situation in Iraq.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Mr. Kubba, how significant is this new law now that it looks like it's going to actually become law?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: Well, it's important, because it has surely a buy-in from the Sunnis. It's been awaited for, for a long time. It's a step. It's a small step, but in the right direction.

It will create a better environment. Maybe it will encourage more political dealing, a process of give-and-take and making compromises.

But I would not blow it out of proportion. I would say it's a small step. But against the background what Iraq went through and the letdowns that we had in the past, against the background that there is no real agreement on bigger issues, I would be cautious in blowing it out of proportion.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Davis, what do you think?

ERIC DAVIS, Professor, Rutgers University: I would agree with Laith Kubba. I think the devil are in the details. And the problem is, is this law going to actually be implemented?

There's a lot of doubt that many Iraqis are actually going to be allowed back who were formally members of the lower echelons of the Baath Party into their former government employ.

GWEN IFILL: So you don't think it's -- that the law went far enough necessarily?

ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think that this law, as I think Laith Kubba implied, must be supplemented by a number of other measures.

For example, Prime Minister al-Maliki promised there would be provincial elections by the end of 2007. That would set up an important political institutional structure in the countryside. That hasn't occurred. It would give Sunnis more representation.

There's a need for more reconstruction money to go to the provinces in poor urban areas to cut down on young people joining radical movements.

And the Awakening Council members who are fighting al-Qaida in rural areas need to be brought into the national police. Since most of them are Sunnis, this would send another important message to the Sunni community.

And, finally, having spoken recently to members of Iraqi tribes, they're proposing a national tribal council. This would not only enhance stability in the countryside, but virtually all Iraqi tribes have Shiite and Sunni wings. And this would be a good model for the country as a whole.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Davis just raised a lot of unfinished business. I want to go back for one moment, Mr. Kubba, to the finished or the semi-finished business of this particular law. What took so long?

LAITH KUBBA: A number of things. Number one, the two major blocs that are controlling parliament and government, which are Shias and Kurds, do not want to see the Sunnis back in power. It's hard politics, raw politics.

They do see any attempt to reconstitute forces, whether it's the army or the Baath party that was previously dominated by the Sunnis, poses a threat.

I think they are obviously playing on peoples' sentiment, the fear of the past, to make sure that these laws would stay in. There is no question that it created huge injustice, because many of them, the majority of the Baath Party members actually were there -- it was necessary to earn a living to join the Baath Party.

And the part of the aggravation among the Sunni community has been the abuse of that law. It's been used to blackmail members, to push them out of jobs. And the politicians looking at short-term gains did not want the Sunnis back. So this is the background to it.

Role of tribes in reducing violence

GWEN IFILL: Professor Davis mentioned the role of the Awakening Council. Explain who they are and what they did.

LAITH KUBBA: I think that's a very interesting topic for a simple reason. Over the last three to four years, the U.S. government and the Iraqi government insisted that the way ahead is to build the institution of the central government, the army, the police, and not to go along and arm tribes.

That against, also, the background of the Sunni being marginalized, the former Baath members have lost their jobs, the Iraqi army has been dismantled, created an environment for the insurgency, both national and for al-Qaida.

And I think it took a long time to realize that something needs to be done, in the short term, by allowing tribal leaders to have control over money and arm their own followers to help the Americans get...

GWEN IFILL: Reduce the violence?

LAITH KUBBA: Reduce the violence and get rid of al-Qaida. This will bring short-term gains, and it did.

But in the long term, it's most dangerous, because we are not building state institutions. We are building actually different tribal powers throughout the country. And it will be impossible to keep everybody at place later.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Professor Davis about that. How dangerous is it in the long term to have achieved some measure of a decline in violence, if not peace, in exchange for having armed these tribal leaders?

ERIC DAVIS: Well, this is a problem. I mean, I think that we have not been looking at the development process in Iraq in a comprehensive manner.

First of all, if you bring the Awakening Councils into the national police -- and there's been great reluctance on the part of the central government to do this -- then the central government has greater control over them.

They're now in the employ of the central government; they have steady salaries; and they're going to be less under the control of the tribal leaders.

Secondly, if you bring reconstruction monies into the rural areas -- and a lot of American provincial reconstruction teams are doing this now -- and people's local conditions begin to improve, there's going to be much less incentive for them to engage in radical behavior.

Continued U.S. presence

GWEN IFILL: We have heard, as Secretary Rice, by diverting her trip to Baghdad today, clearly, this is a big deal for the United States, the passage of this law, Professor Davis.

We have also heard, however, Iraqi leaders say that the U.S. presence is going to have to continue at least to 2012, we've heard 2018. Do you agree with that?

ERIC DAVIS: Well, whether I agree with it or not, it's probably not the important element, because I think, if we have a new president who decides to cut back on America's commitment in Iraq, things are going to change.

But I would point out that, with the importance of Iraqi oil -- let's remember that Iraq has proven reserves -- that's not even reserves that have been discovered -- of 115 billion barrels. I don't know anyone who is elected American president is going to ignore Iraq.

But, again, if reconstruction monies that Iraq has through selling oil -- and we know prices are very high -- can be used to put more Iraqis to work, to engage in economic reconstruction, it might vitiate the need to keep American troops there, because it could lead to a substantial reduction in violence.

GWEN IFILL: If that's true, Mr. Kubba, then this next step, this oil law, becomes even more critical than perhaps even the provincial elections, the next benchmarks.

LAITH KUBBA: They are both important, but let us not forget that the major three blocs in Iraq -- the Shias, Kurds and the Sunnis -- do not share a vision on what type of Iraq they really want to see.

Central government, control over oil, whether or not to include Kirkuk, all these people have strong differing opinions. And the oil law is one of them.

And possibly we can have a piecemeal agreement on every single law through compromises and hard give-and-take, but my own assessment, this is not likely to happen, because I think everybody has hardened their position.

And unless somebody comes up with a vision on a political deal, maybe more leverage, pressure on them external from the U.S., from the neighbors, I doubt that there will be a political deal.

Outlook for progress

GWEN IFILL: Condoleezza Rice said today, Laith Kubba, these improvements do show that Iraqis can count on a future with this democracy, a future in which violence is not necessarily a daily way of life, but it's going to take a really large effort by these political leaders to push forward. Is she being overly optimistic?

LAITH KUBBA: I think we've lived on hope for a long time. And I think maybe a harder look at the realities of what out there is really needed, that would be step one.

And I think if we -- the events have shown that the current class elite of Iraqi politicians did not deliver. They did not live up to expectations. Despite elections, they have the legitimacy of the electoral, but they did not live up -- they could not deliver.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Davis, what do you think, optimistic or not?

ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think that we have to also recognize that tremendous developments are taking place in the rural areas. There's a lot of projects.

For example, Barham Salih, the Kurdish vice president, has gone around the government and put a lot of money into rural areas.

So I think we have to not just focus on what's happening among this narrow political elite in the Green Zone in Baghdad, but also what's going on in the provinces. And there I think we see some positive developments that have yet to really reach the media.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Eric Davis and Laith Kubba, thank you both very much.

LAITH KUBBA: Thank you.