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Democrats Debate Political and Military Strategy for Iraq

July 13, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: As sectarian violence continues unabated in Iraq, in Washington members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee turned to the American ambassador to Iraq with their concerns: the deteriorating security situation and when U.S. troops would begin coming home.

Committee Chairman Richard Lugar.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), Indiana: The people of Iraq desperately need their government to deliver tangible benefits. The government must begin to show progress in solving the vexing security situation that’s produced daily violence, including ethnic killings and suicide bombings. The government must have a strategy for dealing with militias that are responsible for much of the ethnic violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Ranking Member Senator Joe Biden said the Shiite-led Iraqi government needed to do more to stem the violence.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: The government has to be willing, I think, to move against a Shia militia with the same intensity that it moves against the Sunni-based insurgency.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Khalilzad was straightforward in his assessment of the challenges at hand. He stressed the progress Iraqis have made and the hurdles they have yet to conquer.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Terrorists have adopted by exploiting Iraq’s sectarian fault lines, and sectarian violence has now become the significant challenge to Iraq’s future. The security situation in Baghdad remains extremely difficult, as the capital has become the focal point of terrorists and sectarian violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Khalilzad said he was working with Iraqi leaders to defuse the sectarian violence, improve the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, and curb government corruption, but he said the Iraqis couldn’t do it all alone.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I urge that we be patient, because the issues that the Iraqis are dealing with are difficult, complicated issues that will take time to resolve and that we need to be agile and adapt and adjust as they move forward.

And I believe that they are moving in the right direction, but there are also countervailing forces, both internal and regional, that would like this Iraq not to succeed.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska pressed Khalilzad for a time line.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: Where is the strategic optimism when we talk about how does that translate into Iraqi governance?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: This will take time. And the outcome in Iraq will be very important in shaping where this region goes.

God forbid, if we were to abandon this effort, the threats that will emanate from that possibility from that scenario would create, in my judgment, bigger problems than we face now.

And I believe that, for good strategic reasons, as well as for moral reasons — because we have had a role in bringing about this set of circumstances in which Iraqis find themselves, and we can’t abandon them. And we need to help them stand on their own feet, because it serves our strategic interest, and we have a responsibility to see it through.

RAY SUAREZ: Wisconsin Democrat Senator Russ Feingold also wanted to know how long American troops will remain in Iraq.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: Mr. Ambassador, can you tell us when you believe, as our lead diplomat and chief of mission in Iraq, that a majority of U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: We want Iraq to succeed, to stand on its own feet. We do not want the country to disintegrate into a sectarian civil war that will bring other countries in.

So we want Iraq to stand on its own feet as soon as possible, as I have said. So I don’t think it’s appropriate before we have started discussions with the Iraqis for me here to talk about a time line that you’re asking for.

Violence remains in critical areas

Sen. Jack Reed
D - RI
In the real critical areas, the city of Baghdad, and Basra, and other places, the violence is very, very significant. It's unpredictable.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Khalilzad added that the U.S. faced the challenge of finding the right calibration, between pulling out of Iraq too soon and staying too long.

Now, two Democratic views from senators just back from Iraq. We get those views from Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. They were in Iraq on July 7th and 8th and visited Basra, Baghdad, Fallujah and the U.S. airbase at Al-Assad in Anbar province.

Senators, welcome. We're speaking on a day that saw the handover of a sizable province to the Iraqi security forces and another day of terrible violence and suffering on the streets of Baghdad.

How would you, Senator Biden, assess the security situation in Iraq?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: It's in very bad shape. But there's two realities. One is, in certain areas, like in the British handoff in southern Iraq, is probably one of the smallest in population and calmest in its behavior of provinces, governance in all of Iraq. And where most of the violence is occurring, that's most visible up in Baghdad, I think is not under control.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Senator Reed, how would you assess both what you saw, what people told you? What conclusions have you come to about the state of play in Iraq?

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, the violence continues in the critical areas. There was a handoff by British forces today. But that province, as Senator Biden suggested, is mostly desert.

In the real critical areas, the city of Baghdad, and Basra, and other places, the violence is very, very significant. It's unpredictable. It represents a combination of Sunni and Shia antagonism, rivalries within the Shia community, and also a large degree of criminality.

And the danger is that it will spill out of control, despite the best efforts of the Iraqi security forces.

"There is no plan"

Sen. Joe Biden
D - Del.
My concern is: I don't see a plan. I don't see an initiative from the administration that indicates to me how they're going to lead their way through this, by disarming the militia, getting a Sunni buy-in, and keeping the neighbors out.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Reed, we're weeks into what was called a security crackdown by the new Maliki government. There are tens of thousands of Iraqi forces, thousands more American forces in Baghdad. Why is that also the epicenter of violence?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I believe for several reasons. First, I think there's a surprise that the Operation Forward Together, the massing of Iraqi security forces and about 8,000 additional U.S. forces, has not made an appreciable difference.

I think part of that is the fact of the proximity of Sunnis and Shias, the rivalries that are obvious there. I think also it's the fact that politically -- and there is a political calculation here -- they understand that Baghdad has become the real central point of conflict, because of its proximity, because of its posture in the country, and that there is where the political battle, as well as the sectarian battles, are being fought.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Biden, you've been to Iraq, what, about seven times. Is who is killing whom changing, and why is it significant?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: What's changing is that more sectarian violence, bubbling civil war, Shia on Sunni. What has changed is the calculus that there's no plan for getting considerable Sunni buy-in to the new government.

They have ministers. They have a little piece of the action. But until, in my view, they get constitutional amendments, which they were impliedly promised to them on December 15th when they voted for the constitution, that guarantees them oil revenues, that guarantees them a piece of the economic pie, I think there's not going to be much of an incentive for them to take on or diminish their insurgent efforts.

And with regard to the Shia, there is battles within the Shia between the Mahdi Army, which is a militia, and the Badr Brigade for ascendancy. And there is a considerable desire on the part of the so-called jihadists, which make up a small portion of the problem in Iraq, but have a significant impact by keeping this increasing sectarian war going.

My concern is: I don't see a plan. I don't see an initiative from the administration that indicates to me how they're going to lead their way through this, by disarming the militia, getting a Sunni buy-in, and keeping the neighbors out. And so that's my concern.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, during his testimony on Capitol Hill, Ambassador Khalilzad told you and other senators what the administration is doing in Iraq, in addressing security concerns, political concerns, efforts to get the Iraqi economy going. You say you don't hear a plan; is it that you just don't have confidence in the plan that's been laid out?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: No, no, there's no plan. There's no detail. I asked him, for example, "What are you going to do to set up the civilian ministries, which you acknowledge are desperately needed in order to be able to govern the country so that you can do everything from turn the traffic lights on to keep the electricity on?"

And he gave me a generic answer. He didn't give me a specific answer.

I asked him, "What are you going to do to bring into those civilian agencies, where they have virtually no expertise, no planning capability, that they have no plan? Are you going help them put together that plan, that institutional plan?"

And he said yes. I said, "How? Will you give us a copy of what you're suggesting specifically you're going to do, like the military gave us a copy of specifically how they were going to train the Iraqi forces, how they were going to specifically try to begin to move after the police?"

So I don't see a plan. And lastly, I don't know whether or not this administration is pushing hard to suggest to the Maliki government that they have to amend the constitution to guarantee a part of their resources to the Sunnis, which almost everyone I speak to believes is a necessary minimum to get them to foreswear the insurgency.

Sectarian strife has widened

Sen. Jack Reed
The administration has significantly underperformed when it came to providing the real resources, in terms of both advisers, in terms of civilian advisers, and real dollars to reconstruct and help the country of Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Reed, Ambassador Khalilzad during his testimony also mentioned that, in his view, the sectarian violence in Iraq has now grown to such a degree that it outstrips the insurgency in its danger to the survival of Iraq. Do you share his assessment?

SEN. JACK REED: I think his assessment is accurate. We're seeing a huge upswing in sectarian violence, and we're seeing continued insurgent activity. But it is this fighting between Sunni and Shias based upon their sectarian differences, and also within the Shia community, that I think is becoming more and more significant and much more difficult to constrain.

Before the insurgency, the Sunni insurgency could be localized, I think, and it wasn't as widespread, certainly not as pronounced in Baghdad. But this sectarian violence is very difficult to contain.

And one other thing I think is important to note is, you know, the ambassador, the administration talk about objectives, but a real plan requires resources, also. And the administration has significantly underperformed when it came to providing the real resources, in terms of both advisers, in terms of civilian advisers, and real dollars to reconstruct and help the country of Iraq emerge from this period of instability.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Reed...

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Ray, can I add one...

RAY SUAREZ: Yes, go ahead.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: We asked, "How do you stand up the agriculture department?" It could undercut the insurgency by giving people -- I mean, the militias by allowing people employment. We asked our generals over there, "Why is there this increase in the militia?" They said it's a paycheck. It's a paycheck.

And yet, what's the plan to get agriculture up and running? What is the plan in order to deal with the unemployment? In these areas where there's the greatest degree of difficulty, you have 50 to 70 percent unemployment among those folks old enough and competent enough to wield weapons and kill people.

And you ask our generals what they want. You ask one in particular, our number-two guy there. He says he wants an ability to put these folks to work. That will do more to deal with the militia and decommissioning them than almost anything else that happens.

Impressed by Prime Minister Maliki?

Sen. Joe Biden
D - Del.
[Prime Minister Maliki] impressed me that he was more inclined to do that, dealing with the militia, which I think relates to his ability to govern, although I have still my doubts.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Biden -- and then I'll get a reaction from your colleague, as well -- you met with Prime Minister Maliki and the leaders of his government. Did he impress you as someone who's ready to take on his own ethnic community inside the country to get that violence down and allow some of these other things to happen?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: He impressed me that he was more inclined to do that, dealing with the militia, which I think relates to his ability to govern, although I have still my doubts.

And I have great skepticism about -- this is Joe, just me speaking. I'm not obviously speaking for Jack. I have great skepticism about his recognition that there is an absolute necessity to guarantee the Sunnis a significant buy-in. I did not get that impression at all from my questioning of him.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me go on those same questions to Senator Reed. How did Prime Minister al-Maliki impress you, as someone who's ready to do the tough things inside his government?

SEN. JACK REED: I think he's ready to take the first steps, but I don't think or I'm not convinced that he is ready to follow through completely and thoroughly. And if the first steps are difficult, and I think they will be, he might be unable to follow through.

I think he recognizes that, unless he is equally stern with his own Shia community as he is easily concerned with the Sunnis, then it won't work ultimately. But I think he will take the first few steps, but I think we'll have to wait and see if he can follow through.

RAY SUAREZ: So you don't share Senator Biden's skepticism about whether he's ready to stare down some of his toughest internal opponents?

SEN. JACK REED: I think he's prepared to do that, but I think they'll most likely stare him right back, and he could blink. And so I share with Joe the sense that it's not quite sure that this is someone with a real plan and a real determination who will carry through, regardless of the course, to his own political coalition.

He is there because of the sufferance of lots of people in his community. And I think he's aware that he could lose that legitimacy in the Shia community if he pushes too hard.

And so I think he's ready to take the first steps, but, like Joe, I don't think he was there communicating the notion that he has everything in hand, he has isolated his opponents politically, and that he's going to move forward aggressively.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Reed, Senator Biden...

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I'm skeptical, but not unsympathetic.

RAY SUAREZ: I'm sorry. I didn't hear that.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I'm skeptical of his will, but I'm not unsympathetic to how difficult it will be, even if he has the will.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Biden, Senator Reed, gentlemen, thank you, both.

SEN. JACK REED: Thank you.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Thank you.