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Update: Iraq

July 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Ed Wong, welcome back. Today, two developments: Gen. George Casey talking about an American pullout of troops next spring or next summer, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on one of his secret surprise visits to Baghdad urging or almost scolding Iraqis to get their constitution settled. Let’s start with that first part, the troop pullout. Was that — was that new?

EDWARD WONG: No, Gen. Casey and other commanders have said this before, that they would like some sort of drawdown of troops sometime in 2006, possibly by mid-2006, if the Iraqi security forces are ready to start securing parts of their country.

In interviews here in Baghdad, we’ve had several senior level commanders saying that, and in the United States before Congress we’ve had commanders saying the same thing. So it’s nothing new, but I think we’re hearing more of it coming out now from the commanders. They’re being more public about it. They’re reinforcing that notion and they’re trying to start building up the drumbeat to get the Iraqi security forces in shape.

I think it’s a two-fold thing: They want to put pressure on the Iraqi government to start getting their forces in order so that they can secure their cities, and they’re also trying to tell the American public that we’re not in an indefinite mission here in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, the president on this end has often said we’re not going to set a timetable for the withdrawal of troops. And I noticed that Gen. Casey also suggested that this wouldn’t happen, as you mentioned, until he was convinced that the insurgency had faded somewhat. Does he have evidence that that’s about to happen?

EDWARD WONG: It’s a two-pronged thing: Whether the insurgency abates and also whether the security forces — the Iraqi security forces — are ready to handle the insurgency. Right now, there’s no sign of the insurgency laying down its arms or pulling back on attacks anytime soon.

In fact, some of the attacks in the last two weeks have been among the deadliest or the most spectacular of the entire war, and I think that it’s gotten a lot of Iraqis on edge about whether the government can provide security.

Now, the other factor is whether the Iraqi security forces are ready to secure the area. And what we’re seeing is that in the areas of the country where there is no insurgency and where, for example, the Kurdish forces or the Shiite militias or uniformed security forces are dominant then we’re seeing that those streets are secure.

But here in Baghdad and also in the Sunni Arab areas, where the insurgency has its largest support, we’re seeing that, for the large part, the Iraqi security forces are not able to maintain security without the aid — without significant aid — from American forces.

GWEN IFILL: And yet Gen. Casey said to reporters today “that the insurgency is not progressing.” How many Iraqis have been killed in this? Is it a different measurement that he’s applying?

EDWARD WONG: I’m not sure exactly what Gen. Casey’s metric is, but what we’re seeing is that, just this month alone, several hundred Iraqis were killed in fairly devastating attacks, and that suicide car bombs are still the main weapon and the deadliest weapon that the insurgents are using.

The deaths of American troops are still fairly steady. I don’t think they’re as high this month as they were in the month of May, but they’re not — they’re nowhere near the lowest point of the war, either, and roadside bombs and other attacks are still taking a lot of American lives.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a distinction being drawn here between the insurgency and the potential of that this is now morphing into a civil war?

EDWARD WONG: The fears of civil war are very real among a lot of people here. We’ve seen a shift of rhetoric, I think, on the part of some American officials in that they’re acknowledging that the country is poised between either trying to move towards stability or trying to move towards further chaos, which would result in civil war.

For example, the new U.S. Ambassador here, Ambassador Khalizad, said earlier today — I mean, said earlier this week — that he did not want country to move into the direction of civil war and that his job partly was to assure that the conditions were not set for the country to move in that direction.

Now, in the past, the American officials have been very adamant in public that the country is nowhere near civil war, but now we’re seeing that tone change here. There’s a slightly more alarmist tone here.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and part of the conditions that you talk about include the political track here, which is the agreement on this constitution that everyone is working on. We heard Secretary Rumsfeld urge Iraqis today to come to some sort of agreement. He said that’s what politics is all about. The deadline is Aug. 15. Does it seem like it’s moving in that direction?

EDWARD WONG: The Iraqi writers who are working on the constitution say that large sections of it have been completed. We’ve been seeing various drafts coming out in last week or two and they do seem to have a skeletal framework for the constitution. They also say there are several big issues that they need to still work past, one of them being the issue of autonomous powers and whether there will be large sections of Iraq, autonomous regions that will have fairly sovereign powers.

The groups — the different groups in Iraq are fairly divided on this issue. The main opposition comes from the Sunni Arabs, who say this is an issue they won’t back down from. And so, I think over the next week or two, we’re going to see a lot of heavy negotiations, and we’re going to see the Americans putting a lot of pressure on the Iraqis to try and get this done and to reach some compromises, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said today. Now, what we’ll see by Aug. 15, it’s unclear whether it will be a complete constitution or not.

What it might be is, it might be a framework of a constitution, and then the Iraqis could simply just keep working past the Aug. 15 deadline to try and fill in the blanks on some of the bigger issues there and in the hopes that they’ll have something that the Iraqi public can vote on by the October referendum.

GWEN IFILL: The Sunni Arabs, who had walked away from the table after an assassination a week ago or a couple weeks ago, seem to be back at the table.

EDWARD WONG: That’s right. They came back a day or two ago. They basically had worked out some of the demands that they had made, and it seemed like the leaders of the constitutional committee, mainly Shiites and Kurds, had acquiesced to some of the commands.

One of the main demands was providing more security for the Sunni Arab writers of the constitution. They felt that they hadn’t been getting the proper protection: bodyguards from the government and security badges and things like that. And the Shiites said that they would be willing to provide these in order to bring the Sunnis back to the table.

I think a large part of that was due to American pressure. The American embassy had been working fairly hard to make sure that the Sunnis were included in the process in order to have the constitution have some legitimacy. It’s unclear how much the Shiites and the Kurds actually want the Sunnis at the table. I think they see it as their right to rule the country right now and there’s still a lot of animosity between those two groups and the Sunni Arabs.

GWEN IFILL: And to wrap this all up, tying it to the earlier part of this conversation, is there any sense that there is a connection between the escalating violence, the suicide bombs, the attacks around the country and the progress, if any progress is being made on this constitution?

EDWARD WONG: I don’t know if there’s a direct connection. I do think that, as the political process goes forward in the next six months towards a constitution, towards an October referendum, and then towards elections in December, the insurgents will keep up the pressure. And the Bush administration is hoping that what will essentially happen is that some Sunni Arabs will be elected in December and that those Sunnis will then be able to tell the insurgency, “Look, we have political representation now in the government. Let’s just try and quiet down on the violence so that we can see if we can work out some sort of political answers to our demands.” But that’s a big question, that’s a big “if.”

A lot of Sunni Arabs I’ve spoken to say that they do hope to take part in the elections, but they also say that their main goal in taking part is to gain back the power that they had lost. Now, what will happen during the elections is that, most likely, they won’t gain back that power because of the demographics here in Iraq, that they’re in the minority. And so, what could happen after the elections is we might even see an escalation of violence depending on — it all depends on whether the Sunni Arabs feel that they have adequate say in the government or in the ruling of the country.

GWEN IFILL: And, of course, we’ll be watching all that. Edward Wong of the New York Times, thanks again for joining us.

EDWARD WONG: Thanks a lot, Gwen.