JEFFREY BROWN: For more, we go to Ryan Crocker, a former career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq until last year. He's now the dean of the George H.W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. And Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization, he was in Iraq during the election voting.
Ambassador Crocker, I will start with you.
Is it a surprise that Prime Minister Maliki's coalition failed to win? What -- what -- what explains it?
RYAN CROCKER, former United States ambassador to Iraq: I think it's been clear for some time that this would be a -- a very close contest.
The fact that just two seats separate Maliki and Ayad Allawi is an indication of that closeness. And, in a sense, it doesn't matter that much who is two seats up or two seats down. There is going to be a long, difficult, contentious process of forming a government. And, at this point, there's no way of telling who is going to wind up in the prime minister's chair.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Hiltermann, what did -- what did -- did you see this as a surprise? And remind us a little bit about Mr. Allawi and where his support comes from.
JOOST HILTERMANN, International Crisis Group: Yes, it is a little bit of surprise, because it wasn't clear for a while whether Mr. Allawi, who is a secular Shiite, would be able to bring in the Sunni vote, in addition to his normal mainstay, which is sort of the secular Shiite, secular Sunni vote.
I think what happened was, in addition to the fact that the Shiite coalition that we have had for the last four years, that it broke up, and, therefore, Maliki was standing by himself, we also saw a swing, probably, of some voters who would have voted for a secular candidate, and hadn't decided between Maliki or Allawi, and maybe were in favor of Maliki because of the fact that he brought security over the past couple of years, those people, in the days before the elections, when a number of candidates were disqualified on the basis of de-Baathification, and Maliki embraced that decision, may have seen that Maliki, after all, was a Shiite sectarian to the core, and have thrown their support behind Allawi.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ambassador Crocker, you say it doesn't matter, in a sense, because now we have weeks of coalition-forming. But how seriously do you take the challenge by Prime Minister Maliki to the results up to this point?
RYAN CROCKER: I expected whoever didn't wind up in the top slot, whether it be Maliki or Allawi, would probably take that position. The -- the U.N. has been clear that they see this as a legitimate process. I think there will be some inquiries into irregularities. But, overall, I think these results are going to stand.
I would make one comment on Allawi and Maliki, very different personalities, but they both campaigned on a platform of Iraqi nationalism. And I think that is what has resonated with -- with voters throughout the country. And it's an important development.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, expand on that, Mr. Hiltermann, because -- so, what was the election, in the end -- from -- based on these results, what was it about? Was it -- was it about particular issues or personalities or sectarianism?
JOOST HILTERMANN: It was about how Iraqi leaders projected themselves. And that is what Ambassador Crocker is saying as well.
Both Allawi and Maliki were projecting themselves as leaders of Iraq, as a nation, as a country, and not as sectarian leaders. And I think, again, that Maliki may have stumbled in the days before the elections by showing his true self, and may have lost votes that way.
But, for a long time, Maliki has projected this image, for the last two years, to be a national leader that -- who rises above sectarian and ethic divisions, and had been quite successful in that. Allawi has a long history of being nonsectarian, but, in past elections, wasn't able to get many votes, in part because Iraq was so deeply driven by sectarian and ethnic differences, which led, in fact, to a civil war situation in Baghdad several years ago.
But we have overcome that now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Ambassador Crocker, as we -- you have the results here, you look -- you look ahead now, what does this tell you about the state of Iraqi democracy going forward? Where do you see -- do you look at this as a success, or what -- what worries you right now?
RYAN CROCKER: It very encouraging, clearly. But the elections, as important as they are, are really just the curtain-raiser for the process of government formation.
And there are a number of steps ahead. The parliament has to convene. It has to choose its own leadership. It then has to choose a president of Iraq. And we may see some changes there, because the current triad of one president and two vice presidents may not continue for the future, so, lots to be done. I don't expect to see a government in place, really, until probably midsummer.
JEFFREY BROWN: But -- but, staying with you, how hard will this process be? And what becomes the role of key other players, like Muqtada al-Sadr, in helping to either join or not join one of these groups and therefore forming a coalition, forming a government?
RYAN CROCKER: It -- it is going to be difficult. There is no combination of coalitions right now that I would rule out.
And there's also no assurance that the coalitions that came together for the elections will stay together for the process of government formation. We may see the Sadrists, for example, split with the rest of the Iraqi National Alliance, as they seek advantage in the -- in these politics of government formation.
So, just about everything and everybody is on the table. The small parties may hold the critical weight in determining who gets to be prime minister. And, again, it's helpful to remember what happened in 2006, when the man who emerged at the end of the day was on no one's lips as the process started. That man, of course, was Nouri al-Maliki.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, Joost Hiltermann, is -- is renewed sectarian violence on the table or a possibility here?
JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, I don't think it's safe to rule it out, but I hope not. And it doesn't look like it right now.
But, if Prime Minister Maliki rejects the results, and decides to act on it, we could get in a dangerous situation. Likewise, if -- if Prime Minister Allawi -- not Prime Minister -- former Prime Minister Allawi seeks to form a government, and fails to bring together a ruling coalition, and has to give over that -- that role to someone else, say Mr. Maliki, and he doesn't accept those results, you could see a reversion to violence.
But, so far, the pressure on all the actors has been considerable from both the United Nations and the United States, and, in fact, from political opponents on both, especially on Maliki right now, to play by the rules of the game.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ambassador Crocker, finally, does that possibility of violence or whatever is ahead, does any of this have an impact on the continuing drawdown of U.S. military forces, which, of course, is -- continues and is supposed to end at the end of next year?
RYAN CROCKER: The full withdrawal of U.S. forces, of course, is set out in the agreements that we negotiated at the end of the Bush administration and which have been embraced by the Obama administration. And I -- I think that that 2011 date will stand.
I think we need to be careful and we need to be flexible concerning what we do with troop levels in the intermediate period. The decision to draw down to 50,000 forces in a non-combat role by the end of August was a unilateral U.S. decision. That was not part of the agreement.
And I think we need to listen to the Iraqis. We need to look at the circumstances, and we need to be flexible, if necessary, between now and the end of 2011, because the reality is, seven years after the beginning of the war, the process of the development of the new Iraq is still in an early stage.
There are going to be challenges after challenges after challenges. And our sustained engagement, increasingly by political and economic means, as well as that of the rest of the international community, are going to be crucial for Iraq's chances of success in the months and years ahead.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Joost Hiltermann, thank you both very much.
JOOST HILTERMANN: Thank you.
RYAN CROCKER: Thank you.