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Iraq Reacts to Progress Report, President Bush Speech

September 14, 2007 at 6:05 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The mourners at today’s funeral for Iraqi sheik Adbul-Sattar Abu Risha called for vengeance against al-Qaida. Abu Risha, assassinated yesterday, was a key U.S. Sunni Arab ally in Iraq’s Anbar province, leading Sunni clans there to root out jihadist militants in their midst.

During his visit to Iraq last week, President Bush personally thanked Abu Risha for helping make Anbar a rare success story for the U.S.-led effort in Iraq. Partly because of that success, President Bush said last night, the U.S. will begin withdrawing some troops this year, through next summer, though the bulk of them would remain. And the president made clear he sees the U.S. staying in Iraq for a long time.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency.

MARGARET WARNER: Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari today appeared to endorse a long-term U.S. engagement.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Iraqi Foreign Minister: I think that was a very clear message that nobody has any illusions that the current difficulties we are facing will disappear in the next year.

MARGARET WARNER: The Bush blueprint follows recommendations made to Congress this week by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador there, Ryan Crocker. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said this week U.S. forces must remain for a time. Speaking to parliament Monday, he said, “There have been tangible improvements in security in the recent period in Baghdad and the provinces, but it is not enough.”

But one Baghdad shop owner took an even longer view.

FADHIL SABRI, Shop Owner (through translator): No one can stay forever in Iraq, Bush or any other one. They will have to withdraw one day, like the British.

Ambivalence towards U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on how Iraqis see the new Bush administration game plan, we turn to Alissa Rubin of The New York Times, and she joins us from Baghdad.

Alissa, the president was pretty clear last night, a modest drawdown of forces by next summer, but no specific endpoint for withdrawing the bulk of them. How do ordinary Iraqis you speak with feel about a continued U.S. presence like that, at least through next year?

ALISSA RUBIN, New York Times: Well, I think if you talk to ordinary Iraqis, and by that I mean people who aren't allied with one of the sectarian militias or their sort of acolytes, what you hear is enormous ambivalence.

On the one hand, many people have really disliked having the U.S. soldiers here on their soil. They've come to see them as an enormous intrusion. They set up checkpoints that stop everybody from going about their daily life. There have obviously been civilian casualties.

But at the same time, and with great reluctance, lots of people say they still need them. They do not feel confidence in their own security forces to really deal evenhandedly with the problems on the streets. They're not sure they can deal with them even if they intended to be evenhanded, but they just don't have the firepower.

And so they in some measure feel that they can't -- they aren't ready to kind of quite give up having the American presence, and then if the Americans were to withdraw rapidly, a very large number of people say that it would be -- they use words like chaotic, devastating, really quite strong language to describe their fears.

Reaction from government factions

MARGARET WARNER: And then how about the Iraqi leadership, not only the Maliki government, but also the leaders of the other major political factions? Where are they on this question?

ALISSA RUBIN: Well, I think it varies enormously. Within the Maliki government, which obviously gets a lot of assistance and backing just day-to-day from the American government, I think there's also a very sort of moderately expressed, but I think strongly felt feeling that the Americans need to stay, do a bit more to try to stabilize the country, that they need to be able to tell people the Americans won't be there forever, but no one is really demanding or a lot of people are not yet demanding a date. The kind of debate that we hear in Congress is not quite the debate here.

Now, that is not true of Muqtada al-Sadr and the people close to him. They talk in much more concrete terms. I talked to a couple of people earlier this week. They were talking about one year being a maximum. But, in fact, in some ways, they would like it to be one week. I mean, those were their words. And I think for them they really feel like they can make more headway and perhaps gain more ground if the Americans would leave.

Long-term American presence

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Bush also put another idea on the table last night, which was the idea of really a very long-term American presence of some nature in Iraq. And he talked about economic, political and security, extending way beyond his presidency, certainly. Now is that view or vision widely shared or shared at all?

ALISSA RUBIN: I would say that that the particulars of that are not very well-understood at this point. You have to remember that the speech was broadcast, you know, at 5:00 a.m., and it was being rebroadcast tonight, I noticed. But it's still -- a lot of that hasn't sunk in.

My impression is that Iraqis want to feel there's a real commitment by Americans to leave. They just want to be able to have some influence about when the date will be, because they're not confident about what will happen next. There's an enormous sense of uncertainty throughout the society, really, about which way the country's going or which way even parts of the country are going.

So I think, for a lot of people, if it really comes across or is played as a kind of endless presence, that will not be appreciated here.

Assassination of Sunni sheik

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, a story you wrote about today, the assassination of the Sunni sheik out in Anbar, from the people you've talked to out there, what impact is that expected to have on the effort by these Sunni clans to continue fighting the jihadists out there?

ALISSA RUBIN: I think it's going to be a little bit hard to tell until we've seen how it goes over the next few weeks out in Anbar. Today, the mood out there at the funeral was really substantially about revenge, and everybody there was chanting that they would revenge his death, and anyone who had anything to do with his killers would be killed.

And this was not just the Sunni sheiks in Anbar, but there were many leaders from the government there. It was a very widely attended funeral by people, you know, with power and men and guns. And they all were very intent on that message.

What's harder to calculate is that there are a number of provinces, particularly in the north, Nineveh, in the Kirkuk area, to some extent Diyala, where the military is really just more at an initial stage of making these deals with some of the sheiks. They've just made them south of Baghdad. It's not clear if this could have the effect of intimidating or putting off some of those more nascent arrangements between the American military and the sheiks.

I think in Anbar, it's pretty well-set, and there are an awful lot of sheiks involved, and they've got the upper hand. And I think they're committed to the fight. What is more difficult is those who are kind of on the fence still. And I'm not sure if this will perhaps might not perhaps sort of scare them off and make them delay or think twice about how closely they want to ally themselves with the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Alissa, thank you. Alissa Rubin of the New York Times from Baghdad, thanks again.

ALISSA RUBIN: Thank you.