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An Iraqi official on why the country’s government needs ‘radical measures’

The United States is drawing down its military presence in Iraq, reducing troops from 5,200 to 3,500 as part of a plan developed with the Iraqi government to hand over security responsibilities to its own forces. But the country also faces economic challenges that a new prime minister backed by the U.S. is struggling to solve. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Ali Allawi, Iraq’s finance minister.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. is drawing down in Iraq from 5,200 troops to 3,500. It is part of a plan developed with the Iraqi government to hand over security responsibility to Iraqi forces.

    But the country faces larger challenges that a new, U.S.-backed prime minister is struggling to solve.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In life, Reham Yaqob led a clarion cry of Iraqi protest. She opened a women-only gym and advocated female empowerment. And she campaigned against Iranian-backed militias.

    In death, she was a symbol of those militias' strength, and of government weakness.

  • Yassen Habib (through translator):

    We are still in shock. We didn't expect this. It is really a state of horror.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Her murder last month helped spark protests in her hometown, Basra. Demonstrators torched the local parliament, furious the government couldn't keep them safe.

    (GUNFIRE)

    Iraqi security forces responded with live gunfire. In the last 10 months, they have killed more than 500 protesters. Those protests condemn not only insecurity, but also an economic calamity, a lack of jobs, basic services, and smothering government corruption.

  • Ahmed Saeed (through translator):

    Each government comes, gives us hope, and says it will honor our rights. But, until now even, our demands are still not being met. We don't have anything.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Basra, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi fired the police and intelligence chiefs and ordered an investigation.

  • Mustafa al-Kadhimi (through translator):

    This is a new government that is working to establish the prerequisites of security. Its goal is to establish security and prevent crime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But he has struggled to de-arm Shia militias likely responsible for Basra assassinations.

    The U.S. is reducing troop levels and transferring bases to Iraqi control, saying the Iraqi military is more capable. But the main challenge is governance. Kadhimi, who is U.S.-backed, has positioned himself as a reformer since becoming prime minister in May.

    But he inherited crises of security, economy, and leadership all at once.

    And I'm joined now by Ali Allawi, the finance minister of Iraq.

    Mr. Minister, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    It seems like your job is massive. One expert described it this way. You have to deregulate, de-corrupt and de-militia. What is the size of that challenge?

  • Ali Allawi:

    Well, it is actually quite a large challenge and, I think, a very serious challenge. But we have to do what one must, given the circumstances of the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We saw this horrific blast in Beirut recently, really caused by negligence and apathy of the government for many years.

    And some of the observers that I talked to about Iraq fear that there's a paralysis in some of the government, and that major changes aren't happening, just like in Lebanon.

    Do you see the Beirut explosion as some kind of cautionary tale?

  • Ali Allawi:

    It is.

    I mean, it shows you what happens when a state becomes hollowed out. We have not yet reached the same level, but we're not very far from it. We have to reassert the authority of the government, not to allow the state to become basically an instrument of extraneous parties who then use it to derive advantage and benefits from the diversion of state resources for illicit purposes.

    If we don't take remedial measures soon, the process might have gone too far. We have to take very important and very radical measures soon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's look at the region and relations with Iran. Is it possible for Iran to play a constructive security role in Iraq, when it funds and staffs militias that are loyal or sometimes controlled by Iran?

  • Ali Allawi:

    We think that Iran's involvement in the past and in certain — at certain times has been problematic.

    And inasmuch as they are responsible for sustaining some of the more out-of-control militias, I think they will — they will need to change and recalibrate their engagement to these — to these entities.

    So, I think that Iran is beginning to recognize that the way that it interacts with, engages with Iraq, through — sometimes, through these militias, needs to be changed. And I think they will move in that direction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about the U.S. role in that effort.

    As you said, the prime minister talks about trying to reform those militias. He talks often about improving government, reforming the bureaucracy. Is the U.S. helping enough with those efforts?

  • Ali Allawi:

    The United States has pulled back from many areas in which it has been active, had been active before.

    And now it appears to limit its engagement to mainly the area of providing support to the Iraqi security forces. We also would like to see the U.S. reaffirm or expand its engagement to include sectors which it's not active now as it was in the past, for example, in the economy, helping us to reform, restructure.

    We're not really looking for additional financial contributions or investments from the U.S. government, but we want to see the United States stand behind us in various international forums and to support us as we proceed along this path.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ali Allawi, the finance minister of Iraq. Thank you very much, sir.

  • Ali Allawi:

    Thank you.

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