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As Violence Escalates, President Bush Assures Iraq of U.S. Support

October 16, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Sectarian violence in Iraq continued to widen today, with a series of car bombings that rocked Baghdad and the town of Zuwahiriyah, south of the capital.

Today’s attacks came just a few hours after President Bush reassured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by phone that the U.S. had not yet decided on a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The call came amid rising concerns from U.S. officials about Prime Minister Maliki’s ability to govern and about the U.S. strategy in Iraq.

The chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee, John Warner, said he stood by his recent bleak assessment after visiting Iraq earlier this month. He spoke yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: You can see some movement forward, but a lot of movement back. You have to rethink all the options, except any option which says we precipitously pull out, which would let that country fall into a certain civil war at that time, and all of the neighboring countries would be destabilized.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats long have called for a change in the U.S. strategy, and Congress has asked a group of outside experts to assess the American mission in Iraq. Former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton co-chairs the panel, called the Iraq Study Group. He appeared on the NewsHour last week.

LEE HAMILTON, Co-Chairman, Iraq Study Group: I think it’s very much a question whether this political leadership can do it. I think that we must give them a chance to do it. There are some encouraging signs. Their rhetoric has been pretty good, but the follow-through with action has not measured up to our hopes.

KWAME HOLMAN: The group will give the president its recommendations about Iraq after the November midterm election. White House spokesman Tony Snow said today that Prime Minister Maliki also reassured the president when the two spoke.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: The violence level is absolutely unacceptable, and it is important to make progress. One of the things the prime minister was talking about in the phone call this morning with the president is he feels confident that the steps he is taking, both on the political and economic and security fronts, not only are moving forward, but are going to yield some fruit.

KWAME HOLMAN: Snow also said President Bush told Maliki to ignore rumors that the U.S. would set a timetable for the Iraqi government to take control of the violence.

Confidence in the Iraqi government

Matthew Sherman
Iraqi Ministry of Interior
These things, there is going to be no quick fixes here. It's going to be an effort where these things are going to take months, if not years, to fix

JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis from Matthew Sherman. He was deputy senior security adviser to the Iraqi government under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 until this year. He's now head of a political risk assessment company, and he was in Iraq last month.

And Juan Cole, he's a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. He authored the book "Sacred Space and Holy War" about Shia Islam.

Professor Cole, do you share Lee Hamilton and others' doubts about the Maliki government?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Oh, absolutely. I think it's not realized that, if this were a European government, it would have just fallen last week.

The Shiite majority in parliament ran through a proposal for provincial confederacies that was opposed by the Sunni Arabs and by some of the Shiites, and it was opposed by the prime minister. And they held the vote for it while the Sunni Arabs were boycotting the session.

The Sunni Arabs have been absolutely promised that they would have a voice in these matters. And they were denied that voice by the parliamentary majority of Shiites. And Maliki would have lost a vote of no confidence over this if he had been a British prime minister.

If he can't even control his own party, his own coalition in parliament, then how he is going to control guerrillas and militiamen roaming the countryside?

And these attacks that occurred in Balad were daylight attacks by company-sized units just shooting down over 70 people. Where were the police? Where was the army? Were they collaborating? Were they afraid? Maliki doesn't seem to have the levers to control these things.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sherman, do you agree he doesn't even have the levers to control them, much less anything else?

MATTHEW SHERMAN, Former Deputy Senior Adviser, Iraqi Ministry of Interior: Well, it's a young government still. He was just named prime minister in April. His government was then formed in May. And it's going to take time in order to bring about any significant change at all.

These things, there is going to be no quick fixes here. It's going to be an effort where these things are going to take months, if not years, to fix. And to be able to try to undermine by saying, you know, if you don't have things done in 60 or 90 days, you're really kind of undermining there any chance of success in Iraq.

With regards to the federalism debate, it's not just the Sunnis and the Shias who are debating this issue; it's also within the Shia bloc itself. This recent federalism vote that was passed last week was something that was just passed, as Professor Cole, said with just a majority of the assembly, 140 of the 275 seats. But there's great divides within the Shias themselves on whether to move forward.

You have one party, the SCIRI Party, which is the dominant party, saying that we want a nine-province federation. You have the Sadrs who say, no, we don't want that. But then you have those middle parties, the Diwa and Dawa, saying, you know, we want it, but not right now, because it's not good for reconciliation, so there's lots of debate.

Controlling the militias

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
But this battle for Baghdad has already been going on since August, and there has been not only no reduction in attacks on Shiites so that they would feel secure and that they don't need their militias, the attacks have gone up!

JIM LEHRER: There's lots of debate, but the issue before us on the table now is: Can he, in fact, stop the sectarian killing?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: In time. I think that...

JIM LEHRER: How much time? You say months, years he can stop it?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: I say it's going to take at least months. His statement of saying that we're going to start addressing this in significant earnest at the first of the year, that's reasonable in my book.

JIM LEHRER: You mean to disarm the militias?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: Right. Because what they are doing is they are starting to take some small steps. Two weeks ago, we saw a whole brigade of the national police taken offline, where certain brigade commanders were then brought to justice for the sectarian violence that they were engaged in. That whole brigade is either going to be arrested or is then going to also go through some training.

JIM LEHRER: There were 700 troops?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: That's correct. So I think that they're not going to be able to confront things -- you're not going to be able to take on Sadr right away. You're going to have to do this in another way.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Sadr -- yes, it's Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a Sunni cleric who has his own little militia.


JIM LEHRER: And there's now -- yes, Juan Cole, you know a lot about Muqtada al-Sadr and all of these other elements. You heard what Mr. Sherman says. It's going to take weeks, months, maybe even years to get this thing under control.

JUAN COLE: Well, no, I don't think that's the right way of thinking about it. It's not that they're doing the right thing and it just needs time to happen. They're doing the wrong things; it's never going to happen this way.

JIM LEHRER: Why not? Why not?

JUAN COLE: Well, the Shiites and the Kurds are clearly cocky. They blew off the Sunni Arabs. They said, "We don't care about your feelings. We don't care what you think. We're going to ram this thing through."

Why could they do that? Because the Marines have Ramadi under control for them. The U.S. military is being used by the Shiites and the Kurds as their trump card to keep the Sunnis down. And as long as they're cocky like that, as long as they don't feel they have to compromise, than there's not going to be any way forward.

JIM LEHRER: Nothing's going to happen.

JUAN COLE: The other thing is that the U.S. military had a two-stage program for security in Baghdad. They were going to go in and make sweeps of the Sunni Arab districts and cut down on the guerrilla violence against the Shiites, and then they were going to use that as an argument to the Shiites that OK, now you have to give up your militias. The Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, would have to be dissolved, and so forth.

But this battle for Baghdad has already been going on since August, and there has been not only no reduction in attacks on Shiites so that they would feel secure and that they don't need their militias, the attacks have gone up! We've got 50, 60, 70 bodies showing up every day in Baghdad, bullets behind the ears.

The sweeps are not doing the job of making people feel secure. And if they don't feel secure, they're going to be deploy their militias. And Maliki doesn't have the ability to make Muqtada al-Sadr dissolve his militia. In fact, Maliki was voted into office on Muqtada al-Sadr's backing.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sherman, how do you respond to that?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: Well, I agree with him, and I disagree with him. Yes, is Maliki somewhat beholden to Sadr? Yes, he is, because he was voted in. And that's part of the reason why he can't confront him right away. There are certain other things, though, that he can do in order to try to address this issue.

With regards to the Baghdad security plan that the professor raised, it's been a series -- it's been an evolution, where we had Phase One that came about in June, June 15th, when the prime minister announced this, which really was the Iraqi security forces taking the lead. And my own analysis of that was the coalition seeing how effective they would be and what they weren't quite up to the test at that time.

Phase Two was having the coalition take a much more aggressive role. And now I think what you're starting to see is the Iraqis saying, "You know what? Maybe we shouldn't be confronting things so much. Maybe we need to focus on reconstruction more and more political discussions."

The problem with that, though, is that, you know, they're still premature politically, and also that they really don't have the ability to provide so much reconstruction.

U.S. withdrawal deadlines

Matthew Sherman
Iraqi Ministry of Interior
Diplomatically, it's going to be a very fine line to walk, because you do want to help push the process along, but you also don't want to undermine and cut the legs out from underneath the government.

JIM LEHRER: Was the president right to call Prime Minister Maliki today and say, "Don't worry about it. We're there. Don't worry about deadlines or anything that you hear back here"?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: Absolutely. Rumors are an incredibly powerful thing on the streets of Baghdad. And I was just there two weeks ago and speaking primarily with Iraqis. And the main rumor that was going on was: Is the U.S. going to support us or are they going to go away within the 60 or 90 days, which was in a number of newspaper articles, unnamed newspaper articles? And...

JIM LEHRER: Well, for the record, of course, Senator Warner, when he came back -- not on "Face the Nation," but when he first came back from Iraq a week or so ago -- he said two months. Lee Hamilton has said something similar to that. They've all put a little bit of time, not for pulling troops out, but to say Maliki has got to get it together.

MATTHEW SHERMAN: Diplomatically, it's going to be a very fine line to walk, because you do want to help push the process along, but you also don't want to undermine and cut the legs out from underneath the government.

JIM LEHRER: So you think those comments undermine the government?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: By doing that, you need to give them more time.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Professor Cole, that just talking about, "Hey, Maliki, you're not doing it right" or whatever undermines him and weakens him?

JUAN COLE: I think, on the contrary, since -- we've had five, six months of this government. Nothing positive has been accomplished by it. Security is collapsing in the South now in Diwaniya and Basra, which have been quiet before.

I think that this government needs to have its mind concentrated. And I think that we should start a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops as a way of letting them know that they have to get their act together.

They're going to be living in that region, whether it's inside Iraq or in a partition state, with those forces that they're contending with, with the Sunni Arabs, the Shiites, the Kurds. They're all going to be there, and they're not going any place.

They have to learn to compromise with each other; the big political leaders have not learned to do that. Last week, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Shiite coalition party in parliament, the majority coalition, dismissed the Sunni Arabs as a bunch of dusted-off Baathists and Salafi fundamentalists.

Coalition troops

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
As long as they think that they have U.S. military backing, the Shiites and the Kurds will never compromise with the Sunni Arabs.

JIM LEHRER: And your position is, as long as the U.S. coalition troops are there, they will not face the music? Is that your position?

JUAN COLE: That's right. As long as they think that they have U.S. military backing, the Shiites and the Kurds will never compromise with the Sunni Arabs. And as long as the Sunni Arabs think that the U.S. is backing those forces, they will never give up the struggle against what they think of as an occupation.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it differently, Matt Sherman?

MATTHEW SHERMAN: Well, let me just say that, you know, there's one thing to try to push the diplomatic process forward, by saying, "You need to do more sooner." But by saying that, you know, you only have 60 to 90 days and then who knows might be a little bit too hard. Again...

JIM LEHRER: What about -- specifically what Professor Cole said is, just start a phased withdrawal. Then they have to come to grips with the fact that it's them or nobody.

MATTHEW SHERMAN: Yes, it's more than just a phased withdrawal or troops on the ground or not on the ground. The real debate, in my mind, should be placed on: What are the troops going to be doing that are in the country? Are they going to be focusing and doing operations that we're seeing in Fallujah? Are they going to be doing operations that we're seeing in Baghdad? Are they going to be focusing their efforts on training and supporting security forces?

So there really are many different things that they could perhaps be doing there on the ground, and that's really what we should be discussing, because troops are going to be on the ground regardless.

JIM LEHRER: No phased withdrawal then? You disagree with Professor Cole...


JIM LEHRER: ... that that wouldn't be helpful? OK, gentlemen, we'll leave it on that major point of disagreement. Thank you.