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New Iraqi Leader Outlines Timeline for Possible Security Handover

May 22, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Iraq’s new government got a rousing show of support today from the two foreign leaders whose armies toppled Saddam Hussein. British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Baghdad to congratulate new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for finally putting together a government.

TONY BLAIR, Prime Minister of Britain: It’s been three years of struggle to try to get to this point, and it has been longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be. But this is a new beginning, and we want to see what you want to see, which is Iraq and the Iraqi people able to take charge of their own destiny.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush called the new government a “watershed event” during a speech in Chicago, and he called on the new Iraqi leadership to embrace a “common vision.”

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: This common vision is critical to the new government’s success. Although Iraq’s new leaders come from many different ethnic and religious communities, they made clear they will govern as Iraqis.

They know that the strategy of the terrorists and the insurgents is to divide Iraq along sectarian lines. Iraq’s new leaders know they have a great deal of work ahead to broaden the base of their government and unite the people.

They also understand that representing all Iraqis, and not just narrow sectarian interests, they’ll be able to make a decisive break with the past and make a future of progress and opportunity for all of their people a reality.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iraqi parliament approved the new cabinet on Saturday after more than five months of post-election wrangling.

Prime Minister Maliki presented cabinet of 37 members. A majority are Shiite, with eight Sunnis, eight Kurds, and one Christian. Four ministers are women.

But the televised ceremony was marked by protests and a walkout by some Sunni parliamentarians unhappy over how posts were allocated. More ominously, Maliki was unable to choose ministers for three key agencies: national security, defense — which oversees the Iraqi army — and interior, which controls the police.

On Sunday, after the first cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Maliki publicly vowed to end the violence that is consuming his country.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): We are aware of the security challenge, its dimensions and effects, so we believe that facing this challenge cannot be achieved through the use of force only, despite the fact that we are going to use the maximum force in confronting the terrorists and the killers who are shedding blood. But in addition to this military and security measure, we also need national reconciliation measures.

MARGARET WARNER: But the violence across Iraq continued unabated over the weekend. More than three dozen people were killed in car bombings and shootings.

Small step vs. insignificant event

Nir Rosen
Journalist and Author
This is actually a rather insignificant event, because events inside the Green Zone have no effect on the reality outside in Baghdad, where militias control the street, where there's a civil war raging.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more now, we turn to Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Iraq's previous government from April 2005 until January of this year.

Thabit Abdullah, an associate professor of history at York University in Toronto. He's written several books about Iraq. Both he and Laith Kubba were born in Iraq.

And joining them is Nir Rosen, a journalist and author. He has spent extended time in Iraq since the invasion and recently returned from a six-week stint there. His new book, "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq," was published this month.

And welcome to you all.

President Bush today used rather sweeping language to describe this watershed event. He said a decisive moment, a turning point. Professor Abdullah, do any of those apply?

THABIT ABDULLAH, Associate Professor, York University: I believe that President Bush did strike the important tone in his speech. He talked about the need to set aside sectarian differences. He praised the different parties for coming together and forming a national unity government, which was a major demand in Iraq.

He also mentioned -- and this was not in your piece -- the errors that the United States had committed in the past three years, including the Abu Ghraib scandal, which I think still weighs very heavily on the minds of Iraqis.

So I think, generally, his speech was good. I do not, however, believe that this is a watershed period. I believe it is a positive step, though rather limited, an incremental, small step, but it is a positive step.

MARGARET WARNER: Nir Rosen, how does it feel to you? I mean, is this a turning point? Is this a small positive step? Where would you put it on the scale?

NIR ROSEN, Journalist: Well, since the occupation began, we've heard of many turning points and many milestones: the creation of the governing council; the handover of sovereignty; the variation elections; the various battles.

We've turned the point. We've broken the back, but nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse.

I think this is actually a rather insignificant event, because events inside the Green Zone have no effect on the reality outside in Baghdad, where militias control the street, where there's a civil war raging, an open civil war between Sunni and Shia militias.

And this new government is not going to change that. If anything, Maliki is at least as ideologically committed to Shia power and to preventing any sort of national reconciliation, despite his overt statements to the contrary.

MARGARET WARNER: Laith Kubba, an insignificant event, a turning point, which?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: Well, there is no question it is a success and it's a positive step in the right direction, but we need to put it in context.

Iraq is not in a good shape. But if Iraq is to become better, then the key to it is a consolidated political process and a government of national unity. And I think the way this government has put together indicates that.

Instead of just simply having two or three main blocs forming the government, we have now four blocs forming the government, which more or less is inclusive.

So I think, in the Iraqi context, it consolidates the political process. It proves at least, although slow, although, in the eyes of many, not fast enough, but at least it is heading in the right direction. And I hope it will consolidate and succeed.

Bringing back stability

Laith Kubba
Former government spokesman, Iraq
Let us first know that the reason why things deteriorated and we have militias is because government has been absent for a while and we did not build national institutions, army and police fast enough.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Abdullah, how do you see this, in terms of how relevant what's happening in the Green Zone -- to pick up Mr. Rosen's point -- is to, really, the carnage we're seeing in the streets? Do you think this new government will make a difference on that point?

THABIT ABDULLAH: I think it will, though I think the points that Mr. Rosen mentioned are well-taken.

But the fact is that the militias that are in the streets have an allegiance to many of the parties that are now in the government. For example, the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, the various militias of the Kurdish parties, these are the primary militias in the streets that Mr. Rosen is talking about.

It is the leaders of these militias that are coming together and trying to establish some kind of a reconciliation, some kind of an agreement, some kind of a national vision. It is extremely complicated; it's very sloppy. But I do think that it will reflect in the street with time.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rosen, do you think the people in this new government and Mr. Maliki are the kinds of leaders who will set aside their sectarian and ethnic allegiances in the interest of governing with a common agenda?

NIR ROSEN: No, unfortunately, I don't; I think it's just too late.

It's true that there are parties in the government that control militias, but the most powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, which controls the police and the army, their allegiance is to Muqtada al-Sadr, who is in Najaf. The Kurdish militias, their allegiance is to their leaders in Irbil and in Solomonia (ph).

The Sunni militias have their allegiance to the Anbar province to western Baghdad. Their leaders are not inside the Green Zone; their leaders are spread out throughout the country.

And I believe sectarianism is just so entrenched at this point that we're really at the point of no return. And I came back, if anything, feeling a sense of duty to warn that the civil war is raging and is about to get much worse. And I don't think anything can be done at this point to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Laith Kubba, do you think sectarianism is just taken off now and it can't be called back?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, let us first know that the reason why things deteriorated and we have militias is because government has been absent for a while and we did not build national institutions, army and police fast enough.

The key to doing that is getting political agreements. I don't think people will change their mindsets or policies, but they need to live with each other. There is no other way. The country can break down. But maybe, after two years, they'll meet again to know that they have to live with each other.

For the country or personal agenda?

Thabit Abdullah
York University
I believe that reason will ultimately prevail and the country will pull back from the brink of civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that you think the people in this government, one, are committed to having a real unity government, as opposed to pursuing their sectarian agendas, and, two -- picking up on the point Mr. Rosen made -- where do you come down on this question about whether they really have influence over some of these militias that are operating?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I think, out of self-interest, not out of national duty, they will reach a compromise, not because they are not sectarian, but because, even if they were to take the sectarian path, their interests are served better if there is to be a government. Otherwise, there's going to be violence all over.

And on the second point, I think, if a government is in place with an agreement, with a blueprint agreement, then, yes, they can exert authority and they can put all these guns, not immediately -- it will take some time, but I think we will see a decline in violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rosen, what's your response to that? I mean, is it not possible that the leaders of these various factions will actually see it in their self-interests now to participate in the government and to turn away from trying to settle everything in the streets and try to settle it through politics?

NIR ROSEN: It's possible, and I hope so. It's paining me to see Iraq descend into this violence.

But I came back three weeks ago. And in all of my trips over the past three years, I've seen it get worse and worse. And when I left, there were dozens of dead bodies on the street everyday that had been tortured and executed just because they were Sunni and just because they were Shia.

And when Prime Minister Maliki talks about using maximum force against the terrorists and the killers, to Sunnis this means he's going to use maximum force against Sunnis. And to Shia militias, this means that they're going to use maximum force against Sunnis.

At this point, to Sunnis, all Shias are Iranians, are infidels, are apostates. And to Shias, all Sunnis are terrorists, are Baathists, are Saddamists. I believe that, at this point, they've just excluded each other from their vision, from their respective visions of Iraq's future.

And I saw no positive signs when I was in Iraq of any sort of reconciliation. Muqtada al-Sadr, the former voice of a joint Sunni-Shia front against the American occupation -- I think maybe at one point he was the only hope for Sunni-Shia unity -- has turned against the Sunnis, starting in late 2005, and his militias are openly going into Sunni neighborhoods and acting as death squads. So I just feel completely hopeless.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Abdullah?

THABIT ABDULLAH: It's not that I disagree with Mr. Rosen at all. It just that it seems to me, as a historian, also, I take a much longer view of this. This is not the first time that Iraq has plunged into such a miserable condition, and it has always pulled back from the brink of civil war.

There has never been in the history of Iraq an all-out sectarian civil war. This is not to say that this might not be the first time in its history, and it is getting very close to that. And, indeed, the country is staring at the abyss, but there are some positive signs.

The very fact that these leaders of these sectarian parties have gotten together and tried to set aside their differences in order to save themselves -- I agree completely with what Laith Kubba said. It's out of self-preservation, out of really a personal selfish interest that I believe that reason will ultimately prevail and the country will pull back from the brink of civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: And let me just follow up -- OK.

THABIT ABDULLAH: I'm sorry. If I may just, you know, just add one last point, the situation is complicated by the American presence, by the Iranian presence.
And there is also some positive signs on that front, with the positions that Ambassador Khalilzad has taken, with the overtures for American-Iranian negotiations over the status of Iraq. These are hopeful signs. These are not guaranteed success formulas, but they are hopeful, certainly.

Using maximum force

MARGARET WARNER: Laith Kubba, when Maliki talks about, as he did yesterday, using maximum force to get a handle on the terrorists, what is he talking about? What are the maximum forces he can command and know that he can command?

LAITH KUBBA: There are good numbers of trained Iraqis now. And there are foreign troops in the country under more or less his command. So it's not lack of force.

But I do agree that one needs to be careful where to direct that force and not at all -- I don't share the view that was expressed it will be against the Sunnis. Yes, there is fear and apprehension on both sides, but I think, having listened to Maliki and his tone, he realizes the need to reassert authority of government.

Iraqis are used to strong government, to an authority being in place. People will respond to it positively. And if he can push that posture with some action in the street, I think it will benefit everybody.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Nir Rosen, you said what you thought the Iraqi people were hearing when you heard him talk about maximum force, but do you think he has forces he can command that will serve him, and serve a unified government, and move against, say, these Shiite militias in the street?

NIR ROSEN: I think the most serious problem in Iraq today is that the police in Iraq are the Mahdi Army. I think that they're virtually indistinguishable.

When you see Mahdi Army processions or security events, they are off-duty policemen. They have police-issued Glock pistols; they have police-issued handcuffs. And when you see police cars, they have Muqtada al-Sadr posters or stickers, likewise with the army.

So it's not that they have taken over the army and the police. They are the army and the police.

So there are very strong Shia forces. That's true. I just don't believe that they view themselves as a pan-Iraqi force. I think that they view themselves as there to prevent any sort of Sunni dominance. They're there at this point to punish Sunnis for the Samarra shrine bombing on February 22nd, for three years of Zarqawi's daily attacks.

They finally lost their patience, and they've been taking the fight to the Sunni street. When I was there, there were many dead bodies. People killed just because they were called Omar, for example, a quintessential Sunni name. People found with their hands in the Sunni prayer position, like this, basically a statement saying, "Sunnis, we are killing you because you're a Sunni."

I hope that Iraqis will hear the call of a new government. I just feel like on the street the violence is so terrible, the hatred is so terrible, I think we might be too late.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Nir Rosen, Professor Abdullah and Laith Kubba, thank you all.