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Trump’s failure to meet with Iraqi officials during surprise visit prompts criticism

President Trump traveled secretly to Iraq late on Christmas night. But he met with no Iraqi officials during the brief trip, prompting criticism from some Iraqi politicians. Laith Kubba, advisor to the Iraqi prime minister, and special correspondent Jane Ferguson join Nick Schifrin to discuss the visit's "optics," Iraq’s delicate political situation and the challenges of reconstruction.

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  • William Brangham:

    President Trump's short visit to Iraq was not announced until shortly before he departed Washington last night.

    Now, 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion, what are Iraq's security and political realities?

    Nick Schifrin returns with that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    William, we will discuss that question with two people, Laith Kubba, an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister and a former senior director at the National Endowment for Democracy, who joins us from Tampa, and our special correspondent Jane Ferguson, who just returned from Iraq for a series we're been airing over the last week, and joins us from her base in Beirut.

    Thank you very much to you both for being here.

    Laith Kubba, let me start with you.

    President Trump went all the way to Iraq, and didn't meet any Iraqi officials. And there's a statement out from the Iraqi prime minister's office tonight that says — quote — "Differences in points of view over the arrangements prevented the two from meeting face to face."

    What differences?

  • Laith Kubba:

    Well, I expect — I'm from a distance, but I expect optics matter a lot.

    I think the president, of course, has to appeal to his power base here at home, and he needs to be seen with the American flag, American troops, et cetera. And I think, from an Iraqi point of view perspective, this is Iraq. The Iraqi troops, too, and the Iraqi forces fought ISIS. They have a share in this history.

    I assume, if he wants to come on a state visit, things would be different. He made a very short visit. It would have been impossible to arrange all this. Also, in Iraq, there is an audience who are sensitive to the American presence, and I think this must have factored into it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, let me push on that very briefly a little bit more.

    It's not only sensitivity in Iraq to the U.S. president's presence. There's real controversy over the U.S. role in Iraq. We had another statement tonight that called the president's visit a blatant violation of Iraq's sovereignty. That's from a politician who's considered close to Iran.

    I mean, there are real divisions inside the Iraqi government about U.S. presence in Iraq, is there not?

  • Laith Kubba:

    Well, in Parliament, I think, definitely.

    I think the U.S. has listed at least one of two groups as being terrorist groups. They have about 15 members of Parliament. Of course they will be vocal in their protest about the — President Trump's visit. So that is expected.

    Iraq enjoys, relatively speaking, free media. Lots of, let's say, paid voices out there. And there is real pressure. There are groups within Parliament are pushing for the U.S. to leave Iraq, although this is against Iraq's interests. But this is the reality that exists today in Iraq.

    So you should expect a lot of voices protesting that visit.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Jane Ferguson, let's talk about security. And we talked about how Air Force One had to go in, in the cover of darkness.

    President Trump says ISIS has been defeated. There's no question ISIS has less territory now, but is there a fear that ISIS could return as a kind of insurgency?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    There is, Nick.

    ISIS have been defeated in Iraq as a standing army that could basically hold — invade and hold areas as big as Mosul city and other places like Fallujah. Of course, famously, they have been pushed out of those cities, but that doesn't mean ISIS no longer exists in Iraq.

    Just on Tuesday, there was a car bombing claimed by the group in a place called Tal Afar. That's in the northwest border near Syria, but inside Iraq. So ISIS are still present there. What they have done is gone back to their insurgency roots, similar to how they were before they were officially called ISIS, or the Islamic State. They were called al-Qaida in Iraq.

    And we know that they have been attacking Iraqi security forces in and around places like Tikrit. And so security operations against them continue. It's just a very different fight.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Jane, quickly, do the Iraqi forces have the ability, have the training from U.S. forces and the wherewithal to take that fight to ISIS, regardless of the U.S. presence in the country?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Not regardless of the U.S. presence.

    The U.S. presence is important for the Iraqi military, not just for what we know, which is, of course, intelligence, reconnaissance, air cover, but also for training. It's important to remember that the Iraqi military took such heavy casualties. They have never actually released the figures, but we know that the casualty figures or the casualty rates in places like the battle for Mosul were extremely high.

    So, some of the most elite units of the Iraqi military, as well as units such as the federal police and those that were involved in taking and holding the ground there, lost a lot of people. So there is a recruitment drive on, and there's a need for the Iraqi military to recuperate after such lengthy and deadly battles.

    The United States military is an important part of that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Laith Kubba, very quickly, is the U.S. an important part of that? Does the U.S. need to stay in Iraq, as President Trump reiterated they would today?

  • Laith Kubba:

    Well, I think we have all learned the hard way that, if you leave Iraq in chaos and weak, then the return of ISIS and other forms of radical movements is very likely.

    The only way to have a stable region and to cut ISIS at its core is by helping Iraq regain its strength. And I think the U.S. support is critical, logistically, in terms of training, rebuilding the army, rebuilding the police. So I do believe it is critical.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Jane, quickly, you have been reporting this last trip that we have been airing lack of water, challenges in rebuilding Mosul especially, what to do with captured foreign ISIS fighters.

    Very quickly, what are the challenges facing Iraq? How immense are they?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Nick, the legacy of this battle against Iraq will go on for potentially another generation at least because of all of those things that you have mentioned.

    The reconstruction efforts are going to have to be enormous. Even after all this time now, in places like Mosul, you will see people trying to rebuild homes just amongst the rubble. And the rubble goes on as far as the eye can see. The destruction is quite unbelievable.

    So there are many people who not only have lost their homes. You also have people who are displaced in refugee camps, those who are perhaps minorities, like the Yazidis, who are afraid to return home. And government services to people across Iraq are not up to par yet.

    So, the challenges are endless right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for "NewsHour," Laith Kubba, adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, thank you very much to you both.

  • Laith Kubba:

    Thank you.

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