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Experts Eye Relationship Between U.S., Iraqi Governments

November 1, 2006 at 3:41 PM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: In Baghdad today, more burying of the dead. This time, relatives gathered for the funerals of those killed in yesterday’s suicide attack on a Shiite wedding party.

October was one of the bloodiest months of the war for Iraqi civilians. But amid scenes of sorrow and carnage, there were also scenes of Iraqis celebrating, as U.S. troops dismantled dozens of checkpoints in Sadr City that had been set up last week in the search for a missing U.S. soldier.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, asserting his authority as general commander of the armed forces, issued an order via press release yesterday afternoon “to remove all barriers and checkpoints and open all entrances in Sadr City and all other areas in Baghdad.”

The decision came after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened more violence if the checkpoints were not cleared. Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, controls the area, one of the most dangerous in the capital.

Iraqi’s defense minister insisted the security changes were planned months ago to help ease traffic congestion.

ABDUL QADIR Al OBAIDI, Defense Minister, Iraq: We have been working to fulfill this decision for more than two months and fulfill such a decision without affecting the security process. And we can set a checkpoint for the time we need it. We cannot put checkpoints on for 24 hours, especially in rush hour. We must open the roads, and we are working for that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Washington, White House Spokesman Tony Snow denied the change would jeopardize the U.S. mission in Iraq.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: To deal with checkpoints does not necessarily change the situation in terms of how you deal with Sadr City. The prime minister has also said on a number of occasions, if you look at Sadr City, in his opinion, 90 percent to 95 percent are people who support the mission and are opposed to terrorism.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But in the Iraqi parliament, Sunni members of al-Maliki’s government criticized his decision to bring down the barriers.

Local politics' impact on al-Maliki

JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis of what's going on. Robert Grenier retired from the CIA in June. He had been head of its counterterrorist center. He was also the Iraq mission manager at CIA during the buildup to and aftermath of the 2003 invasion. He's now a senior director at Kroll Associates, a security consulting firm.

Erik Gustafson is founder and executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, which promotes democracy in Iraq. He's an Army veteran of the first Gulf War.

Mr. Grenier, what do you think is behind al-Maliki's order about these roadblocks, these checkpoints?

ROBERT GRENIER, Kroll Associates: Well, I think he was in a position where he had pushed local political tolerance just about as far as it was going to go. We saw the latest statement from Muqtada al-Sadr, and he has followed through on threats to violence in the past. And the last thing in the world that this government needs is a protracted military campaign in Sadr City. I think that's precisely what the prime minister wished to avoid.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? I mean, he was threatened with violence by Muqtada al-Sadr if he didn't take the checkpoints down, so he had no choice?

ERIK GUSTAFSON, Education for Peace in Iraq Center: Yes, and there was a threat of a general strike. We actually saw the general strike go into effect, which is causing a lot of problems. I mean, the Mahdi militia is very strong within Sadr City, and so they were actually even able to exercise that general strike, even among some of the Iraqi residents there that didn't want to exercise that, that wanted to go on to work. I mean, that's the problem with the Mahdi militia. You know, the force of violence is behind it.

JIM LEHRER: So the other side of the equation, the U.S. had no choice but to go along with what al-Maliki ordered?

ROBERT GRENIER: I think that, when push came to shove, it was necessary for the ambassador and General Casey to follow the prime minister's wishes.

JIM LEHRER: So what's going on here? Why? Why does the U.S. have one position and al-Maliki have another, and we're supposed to be in concert here? What's going on?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think that there is a fairly complicated dynamic at work. And I think that the prime minister does, in fact, want to blunt the worst excesses of the Shiite death squads. I don't think there's any question about that.

JIM LEHRER: And that includes those who work for Muqtada al-Sadr, who is an ally of his, right?

ROBERT GRENIER: Who is a former political ally of his.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

ROBERT GRENIER: That's right, and has supported an important element of the prime minister's coalition. But that said, he has to play a very finely attuned political game with the Shiite members of his own coalition. And he dare not push them too hard.

Trying to appease U.S., Iraqis

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, how does he maintain the relationship with the United States?

ERIK GUSTAFSON: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that did occur was the consultation with General Casey, because General Casey's acquiescence was key in this. The U.S. military does not answer to the Iraqi prime minister.

And so I think General Casey went along with it because he did recognize that, you know, this was -- it had gotten to a situation where the blockade of Sadr City had gone on for a week. We're talking about a population of, you know, somewhere around 2.5 million mostly poor Shiites that this disrupted their...

JIM LEHRER: They were literally locked into this area, right? They couldn't get in, and nobody could -- I mean, they couldn't get out and nobody else could get in. Is that what it was about then?

ERIK GUSTAFSON: Well, you could get in, but it was very, very long, I mean, hours-long waits to go through the checkpoints, because every car had to be inspected. You had a perception that the operation was put in place to seek out one missing American soldier; that probably didn't play out too well with the Iraqi populace, as well.

Prices started to go up within Sadr City for fuel, for food. So, you know, that created a lot of anger, and then I think the Mahdi militia, always eager to, you know, play on those kinds of politics, seized that and used that. So there wasn't much of a choice.

But what I think the prime minister has done is be able to demonstrate, you know, once again that he's not America's man in Baghdad and that he can exercise Iraqi sovereignty. The key is, is that, you know, it's important for him to do that because that helps him have more authority, more ability to get things done. The question is: Will he then use that to get things done, particularly in reining in the death squads?

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that he had to do that -- I mean, it was good for him to do this for his own political reasons among the Iraqis, particularly among the Shia, right?

ROBERT GRENIER: Yes, I think that's true. Now, on any given day, there is likely to be disagreements between Maliki and the American commanders as to just how far they should push the envelope. We saw the reaction, for instance, from the Sunni Arab members of the prime minister's coalition to the lifting of the barricades.

JIM LEHRER: They said it played right into the hands of those who would cause violence in Iraq, that's what they said.

ROBERT GRENIER: Indeed. And in fact, it is members of their community who are being preyed upon by those death squads that everyone believes, in fact, have safe haven in Sadr City.

Working toward a unified government

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Do you see this as a turning point in this of any kind, in this relationship? I mean, is this thing on the verge of even getting worse than it is, in terms of the relationship between the U.S. and al-Maliki's government and what it could lead to?

ROBERT GRENIER: I think part of what we're seeing here is a growing gulf between the stated political intentions of the United States and the realistic political aspirations of the Maliki government.

JIM LEHRER: Explain that.

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think -- clearly, I think if the U.S. administration is taken at its word, we are still striving for a unified Iraq which has a democratic and representative government, which is able to exert authority over all of the Iraqi territory.

JIM LEHRER: The Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shia areas all under one unified government?

ROBERT GRENIER: Yes, and I think that that is, certainly for the short and midterm, that is becoming less and less likely. And at the end of the day, I don't think that Prime Minister Maliki is going to sacrifice the support among his base, which he dare not lose, in order to achieve goals that, in fact, he thinks are probably unachievable.

JIM LEHRER: Like a unity government?

ROBERT GRENIER: Like his ability to completely shut down sectarian violence and to exert the control of his government over the Sunni Arab-dominated areas.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see that, the big picture?

ERIK GUSTAFSON: I mean, sectarian violence has never been worse in Iraq. The different communities have never been more polarized. I think one of the remarks that was very interesting in response to lifting the blockade came from the vice president, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who's with the Iraqi Islamic Party. He said that...

JIM LEHRER: He's a Sunni.

ERIK GUSTAFSON: He's a Sunni Arab. And this is one of the mainline Sunni Arab political parties. He said that the lifting of the blockade will end a lull in sectarian death squad activity.

What will be interesting is to look back at the numbers over this past week when the blockade was in effect, if we do, indeed, see a drop in the number of murders, homicides occurring in Baghdad. And if that's the case, it further demonstrates that the Maliki government really needs to do more to rein in death squad activity, which, you know, we know that some of the leaders of the most notorious death squads are operating out of Sadr City.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mr. Grenier about what Maliki's dilemma is here, if he's trying to maintain a unified government and a unified -- not maintain it, obtain a unified control over the government all over the country? This is just not working for him.

ERIK GUSTAFSON: I mean, it's even challenging just to maintain unity within the Shia bloc right now. And I would also say that what's critical is Baghdad, you know, just to be able to exert more national authority within Baghdad, putting an end to the sectarian violence, getting the police under control so that they're not complicit in that violence.

That's the kind of real difference that I think the people of Baghdad want to see, and they want to see it fairly soon.

Does U.S. have choice?

JIM LEHRER: On the political level, as a practical matter, does the United States have any choice at all when it comes to supporting al-Maliki? Don't they have to pretty much go with him at this point?

ERIK GUSTAFSON: I mean, I think it's a marriage of necessity for the short term. I think that, you know -- I mean, you look at Prime Minister al-Maliki's approval ratings, and I think it's something that President Bush would envy right now. According to...

JIM LEHRER: They have approval ratings in Iraq?

ERIK GUSTAFSON: Yes, the last major poll that was conducted by the International Republican Institute found somewhere around 55 percent approval for Prime Minister Maliki.

JIM LEHRER: Across the country, among all...

ERIK GUSTAFSON: I mean, because you've got a majority Shia nation.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

ERIK GUSTAFSON: It was much stronger in the Shia areas.

JIM LEHRER: Understandable, yes, yes.

What would you add to that, in terms of al-Maliki's ability to go from here to there, wherever "there" is, because right now, things don't look very good?

ROBERT GRENIER: No, things don't look very good. But I think, as Erik has pointed out, the U.S. administration has little choice but to go with the Iraqi government that it has. For better or for worse, this is a democratically elected government.

One doesn't see anyone else waiting out there in the wings who could hope to gain support in parliament. And I think that for the U.S. to reconsider that position would mean a fundamental break in our policy in Iraq, and I don't think that's going to happen easily.

JIM LEHRER: So if that means Maliki saying, "Get rid of the checkpoints," the U.S. has to say, "Aye-aye, sir"?

ROBERT GRENIER: When push comes to shove, I think it comes down -- I'm sure that there will be discussions. And at the end of the day, those troops don't move unless General Casey says that they should.

But, again, I think that -- I think President Bush, I think, put it very well when he said we're going to continue to put pressure on this government but we will not exert more pressure than they can bear. And I think to some degree the U.S. officials in Baghdad have to rely upon Prime Minister Maliki to make the determination as to what the political traffic will bear.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

ERIK GUSTAFSON: And there are going to be some actions that the Iraqi government will take that will be unpalatable among politicians here in Washington, like the need for national reconciliation, to grant amnesty to some former combatants. But these are the kinds of growing pains, and if we want Iraq to become independent and not dependent on U.S. military presence, these are the kinds of growing pains we're going to have to deal with.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you, both.

ROBERT GRENIER: Thank you.