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Political Vacuum in Iraq Raises Fears of Further Sectarian Fighting

July 5, 2010 at 6:21 PM EDT

And joining us from Baghdad is Jane Arraf of The Christian Science Monitor. I talked with her a few hours ago.

Jane Arraf, hello.

It’s been almost four months since the voters went to the polls there in Iraq. Why is it taking so long to form a government?

JANE ARRAF, Baghdad correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor: Well, that is the question. I guess the simple answer, Judy, is that there are too few posts and too many players.

Now, what they are trying to do is put together a package where they would decide who would be prime minister, president, and speaker all together. The problem is, is that everybody wants those positions, obviously. And nobody is really willing to compromise.

This really is seen not just putting together a government, but actually a question of their very political survival.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are the sticking points related to the sectarian groups, the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds, or is it more than that?

JANE ARRAF: It is related to that, in a sense. But, more than that, a lot of this, so much of it, in fact, is related to personality, the personality of the prime minister, who has been prime minister for four years and wants to hang on that post, the prime minister of Ayad Allawi, another strong leader, a strong man, as Iraqis see him.

A lot of it really is about individuals. It’s not so much about issues, which is what Iraqis think it should be. This is a country where it’s the beginning of summer, 110, 120 degrees, six hours of electricity a day, no jobs, and people here really feel that politicians should put their own interests aside for a second and just get on with it and form a government and do something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jane, how is Vice President Biden’s trip seen there? What is it believed there that the difference is that this could make?

JANE ARRAF: Well, really, what they are looking for is the feeling that the U.S. is still engaged in the process here. And, by engaged, that actually means that they will step in if there is a need to step in, not so much in terms of American interference, because they don’t really want that, but they’re kind of seen as a mediator at this point, similar to the way the U.N. is seen.

So, when Vice President Biden was here, he met with all the major players, apparently did not present any concrete proposals — they weren’t looking for any — but really hammered home that he believes, as everyone does, really, that it could be a crisis, if this government isn’t formed soon.

So, the U.S., as it has done in similar circumstances, is actually trying to play that role of mediator and bring the many parties together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, by crisis, what is meant by that? What are they really worried about there?

JANE ARRAF: They are worried about a lot of things. But, essentially, what it boils down is not even so much security. I was talking to General Odierno just a few days ago, and he believes that the security part of this is pretty much on track.

What they are really worried about is that that concept of stability that relies on so much more could actually fray around the edges. If it takes longer, there won’t be a government that can make those tough decisions, and, more than that, there won’t be a government that will give people who went to the polls, under dangerous circumstances, four months ago a reason to believe that there was a point in having gone to the polls.

There is rampant corruption here. There are serious problems. There are lots of decisions that need to be made. And nothing’s really been done for not just the last four months, but well before that during the political campaign. So, the feeling really is that, unless these issues are tackled, things could begin to fragment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jane, we’re told one of the things the vice president said to both Mr. Maliki and Mr. Allawi is that the U.S. doesn’t want to see outside interference from other countries. And I guess Iran is probably at the top of that list. How much of a factor is Iran or isn’t it?

JANE ARRAF: It’s always a factor that’s kind of lurking in the background, not quite so overt right now.

According to senior military and political officials here, Iran hasn’t been doing as much as it normally has done in terms of sending weapons across, in terms of sending fighters, funding militant groups.

But what it has been doing is leaning quite heavily on some of the political players. Now, this is a country that is always going to have strong ties with Iran. They’re a neighbor. There are strong historical ties. But it is not just Iran. This is really a country that feels besieged. It feels that it is surrounded by hostile Gulf Arab countries, hostile countries in general, where the Sunni Arab majorities are afraid of the Shia majority here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, just to sum up, what are the expectations, now that the U.S. is going to be drawing down to 50,000 troops at the end of next month?

JANE ARRAF: It’s kind of a wild card, Judy. You know, one would like to believe that things are as rosy as Vice President Biden said he thought they were when he flew in here and spent time in the Green Zone, not so much in the rest of the Baghdad or Iraq.

But when you go out in the streets — and, tonight, these streets are full of pilgrims walking to one of the major Shia shrines — you get the sense that things are better, certainly better than they were a couple of years ago. But there is still a huge sense of uncertainty, a huge sense that they really do have to wait and see to see if this will work.

And you get that as well from the more than the million Iraqis still inside the country who are not coming back until they actually see if there is a competent government. Really, in the streets, the jury is out on this. The last government, the last parliament, they thought was corrupt and incompetent, to put it really bluntly. They are not holding their breath as to this one coming up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Jane Arraf, speaking to us from Baghdad, thanks very much.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you.